By Ryan Buck
The disappointment for many Americans over their national soccer team’s 2-1 overtime defeat at the hands of Belgium Tuesday night stings.
The Americans’ run to the knockout stage of the FIFA World Cup for the second consecutive occasion, however, was filled with excitement.
Record television ratings and an unprecedented amount of American fans in host country Brazil for the tournament indicate soccer’s obvious growth in the past two decades in a country traditionally beholden to football, basketball and baseball.
This time, it was not only curiosity and patriotism to thank. Soccer has taken hold in America. One Youngstown-area group is determined to ensure their hometown stays along for the ride.
Friends and coworkers Chris DePaola and Kevin Meek had played soccer their entire lives and once their playing days were over maintained that love of the game. Both joined American Outlaws, the official fan movement of United States Soccer.
Conversations at their Boardman financial services firm turned to ways they could enhance interest for the people around them, capitalizing on people their age who have fallen for soccer.
“We met at work and you have to talk about something and we talked about soccer and the  World Cup that had just ended,” said Meek, 26, a Poland native. “We thought it should be more popular so we decided we should make a chapter here.”
So they did, earning official sanctioning earlier this year. The American Outlaws Youngstown is one of 125 official chapters of a national organization with more than 18,000 members.
The Outlaws’ national chapter was founded in 2007 in Lincoln, Neb., to unify a dedicated, yet formerly unorganized support community for the U.S. National Soccer Teams.
The Youngstown chapter is burgeoning and growing successfully in the same fashion as the national membership thanks to contemporary communication tools.
“Right now we have over 50 members,” said DePaola, 28, the chapter president. “We had 23 members when World Cup started so we’ve more than doubled.
“Social media’s been the biggest thing. We’re able to organize central meeting places and spread the word quickly. It’s solidified our membership.”
The momentum began last year as dozens of members and other supporters played the game together at the Niles Wellness Center leagues and gathered to watch national team qualifying matches at local sites.
What was once a few friends trekking to Columbus or Cleveland for Major League Soccer or national team matches became dozens.
When the World Cup began in June, more than 200 friends showed up to watch alongside them at scheduled “game watch” locations. Members of all demographics ranged in age from 15 to 55 with a common passion for soccer.
“We got the wheels turning and this is what happened,” DePaola said. “It’s absolutely positive. We didn’t expect any kind of turnout that we received. In qualifiers we had 20 people on good day. We tried to embrace that as much as we can. Moving forward, it’s only getting better and the quality product the U.S. puts on field it will get better.
“It’s something to share with the community.”