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HomeSportsHere's to overnight Women's World Cup watch parties in D.C.

Here’s to overnight Women’s World Cup watch parties in D.C.

A high school teammate of Jamaican captain Allyson Swaby. Childhood friends whose bond was forged on the soccer field while competing over the goalkeeper slot in their team. And, a software consultant in a USWNT jersey, laptop open and almost at work.

These are just a few of the people you will encounter over the course of this story. It’s a story about women’s soccer, fandom and late nights in the nation’s capital and how those spectacularly collide during this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup. In late June, Washington, D.C., passed the “2023 Women’s World Cup Emergency Amendment Act of 2023” to enable bars in the area to stay open for extended hours. It was an attempt to help bridge the 15 hours or so time difference between the District and the tournament’s host countries, Australia and New Zealand. The USWNT’s first two group stage games were at 9 p.m. ET, but the third, a brutal 3 a.m. ET — Yikes.

So, when bars in the area — colloquially known as the DMV for District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia — took to social media to announce watch parties for the USWNT’s early-morning clashes, I was curious. What could possibly make you leave home at midnight to watch a game with strangers? Would anyone even turn up? Well … I would. But growing up in India and being a fan of European soccer meant a childhood of watching games at odd hours, FC Barcelona jerseys on and nestled into a quilt. And now, in D.C, I intended to find out.

My researched game plan for the night was scrawled arrows between bar names on a partly scrunched tissue.

Four games. Four stops. On maybe four hours of sleep?

The night, balmy. The mood, awake but not quite. But the mission, simple: Who’s at the bars, and why?

Location: Toro Bar. Time: 1:42 a.m. ET

Nestled in the Columbia Heights neighborhood — a primarily Hispanic and Black community — the bar, from the outside, isn’t much of a contrast to the quiet, empty early-morning streets. But the closer you walk to the establishment, the faint croon of Marc Anthony and La India gets louder. And louder. Until you have your thumb on the latch and fling open the door, and the room immediately jars you awake.

The space, bathed in blue and red lighting, has patrons everywhere. Some shooting pool, some gathered around the scattered tables between multiple televisions, and a few huddled over a chess game at the bar counter. Yes, chess. A makeshift breakfast burrito counter is getting prepped in a corner over a covered pool table. With more than an hour left for the 3 a.m. kickoff between the USWNT and Portugal, every so often, a jersey-clad fan saunters in, gets a drink and takes a seat near any one of the five screens in the room.

“A lot of my clients are soccer fans,” says Aldo Cruz, the owner. “Or young people that just love a reason to stay up late, honestly. So, it’s been good.”

Andrew Williams, 32, is one of Cruz’s regulars. He is so regular that he has his designated seat at the bar, directly in line with a television to watch his favorite club, Newcastle United. It’s an allegiance he picked up from … wait for it … watching the movie “Goal” in 2009. But tonight, he’s here for Rose Lavelle, whom he met at a soccer event a couple of years ago. “I’ll be there for the (game at) 3,” Williams says. “The (game at) 7, I’m hoping. If I can manage to stay awake, I’ll be there for it.”

More people file in, and a man in American-flag-themed shorts and socks walks past as I head out the door, planning to return for the 7 a.m. clashes. He clutches another American Flag for good measure.

Location: Astro Beer Hall. Time: 2:39 a.m. ET

It starts slow.

U

*two drumbeats*

S

*two drumbeats*

A!

And then the pace picks up. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Jake Didinsky, president of the American Outlaws D.C. chapter, leads the chants as he stands center stage on the ground floor of the Astro Beer Hall, megaphone in hand. A steady drumbeat accompanies the crowd’s loud, throaty cries as the game officially kicks off on the screen. Some of those here tonight are a part of the American Outlaws, like Justin Feltman, who has been a member on and off for over a decade. Unable to convince any of his friends to stay up or wake up for a weekday game, Feltman sat solitary with his beer, exuding what he called a “nervous confidence.”

And nervousness is the theme of the room. Mateo Samper, a 35-year-old middle school teacher on summer break, is going through the motions. Donning his favorite Ashley Sanchez jersey, Samper paces. Back and forth. Back and forth. Occasionally, he claps, even when there’s nothing to cheer about. More pacing. Back and forth. Back and forth. He groans at every lost ball and cheers his team on loudly despite it all.

“I’m a big women’s soccer fan,” he says. “I got into women’s soccer through the U.S. women’s national team, and now I have a season ticket with the Washington Spirit.”

His eyes are still glued to the game, even as we hop from topic to topic.

“I think it’s very important to invest into … Oh my God, she’s hurt. Jesus Christ, don’t be hurt. OK. She’s fine. She’s fine. She’s fine. She’s fine. She’s fine.”

“People think baseball’s boring and it’s not … Come on. Here we go, Sully, here we go, Sully! Ohhhhhhhhh! Put it in! Put it in! Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”

Still 0-0. Samper’s pacing resumes. Back and forth. Back and forth.

At 3:37 a.m., it’s the last call for alcoholic beverages. In about 15 minutes, Ryan Hoehne, manager of the beer hall, will begin his rounds with a trashcan in tow. Despite the extended hours, bars cannot serve or even have alcohol on tables from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. The choice is yours: Chug your drink, or throw it out.

Cindy Caballero chooses the former. Caballero grew up a soccer fan and an ardent supporter of local sports in the DMV area, so when she came across the watch party post on Instagram, driving out from Virginia for the game with her friends was a no-brainer. “It’s all about coming together,” she says.

And her strategy for staying up? “We all took Melatonin, Benadryl,” she says, laughing at her own joke. “I barely slept.” The prep for gameday doesn’t stop there. Two blocks away, her job doesn’t start for the next few hours, but Caballero and her friends have come ready. “We all have our work laptops and work clothes in the car.”

Almost 140 people pack the hall now, but the gameplay and scoreline have given little to cheer about. Somewhere on the floor, it’s someone’s birthday. Chants still ring out, and when Megan Rapinoe is finally substituted into the game, it’s the loudest cheer of the night. Alexandra Martinez, 29, from Philadelphia and in her Rapinoe jersey, is among those voices. She stands chatting with her childhood friend, Lauren Gustafson, 29, a teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia. The duo’s friendship has been defined by the sport they’re watching tonight when a meeting on a soccer field at age 11 left them with one goalie spot to compete over and a friend for life.

“Sore subject,” says Martinez, as Gustafson laughs and adds, “She got goalie. My coach wouldn’t let me play because I’m only 5-4.”

They’ve played the game, and now, as they watch it, they hope for more. “I hope we don’t have to win a third World Cup in a row to make people actually care about women’s soccer and women’s sports in general,” Martinez says. “It’s honestly just really happy to see everyone coming out and enjoying women’s sports and supporting the women in their countries.”

The other people in their group return with reinforcements — some coffee and doughnuts. And here, we briefly interlude for those little pillowy, sugar-wrapped bundles of baking joy. In a highlight of my night, Hoehne gives me access to the kitchen where I stand in a fog of sugary, floury goodness for a few minutes and watch as his chefs torch a crème brulee doughnut. At that moment, if you ask me if staying up all night was worth it? Oh yes.

It’s almost disorienting as the malty smell of pints of beer is replaced by crisp caffeine and fried dough, an allusion to the time that had already gone. It’s almost sunrise, something you would hardly notice in the crowded basement.

THWACK

Portugal’s shot off the post in the game’s dying moments leaves the room teetering on despair. A collective groan, but the feeling at the final whistle isn’t much better. Samper shakes his head. He has probably covered as much ground with his pacing as the USWNT players have on the field. Feltman, aghast and hands on face. Martinez and Gustafson are still. Then, they all file out.

Location: as you are. Time: 5:20 a.m. ET

Unlike the other midnight game revelers, owners Rach “Coach” Pike and Jo McDaniel are awake and energized after the USWNT clash. Their secret? “Jo and I are fully on Australian time. Literally. We slept till 9:00 p.m. tonight,” Coach says.

Their bar, as you are., is nearly empty but for a few patrons.

Kelly Paton, 33, sits in her USWNT jersey with a laptop open. Having stayed up for the 3 a.m. fixture at Toro bar, Paton figured, “If I’m awake, I might as well be watching.”

Paton’s laptop is open in front of her. If she’s up, she might as well be checked in to work too.

The crowd from the earlier fixture has dissipated, with promises to get some food and be back in time for the 7 a.m. games. In the quiet, Coach and McDaniel munch on pretzel rolls with turkey and cheese, a “dinner” in their adopted time zone for the tournament. The watch parties in their space have been a hit. They have had a capacity crowd and lines outside the door for the USWNT’s 9 p.m. fixtures and a smaller, intimate few for the late-night fixtures of different countries.

“The greatest feedback we get at ‘as you are.’ is that people feel safe here, which is the whole point,” Coach says. “So, they want to go watch a game where they feel comfortable and safe in the middle of the early morning hours, and they’re with their people and their community, and they can see themselves and see themselves on TV.”

The bar, created to foster a safe space for the queer community, has had a mix of visitors during the cup games — some regulars and others looking for a little slice of home. During the Philippines’ fixtures, the bar was a beacon for the Filipino community in the area. Making the space their own with Jollibee and Lumpia, Coach said it was their “largest representation of a single nation that’s come through.”

Closer to game time, a few others trickle in. One of them is Alannah Boyle, 26, a season-ticket holder of the Washington Mystics and the Washington Spirit. It’s a love for women’s sports passed down by her parents, both coaches of girls’ sports at the high school and youth levels. And if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to play sports with a professional? Boyle knows.

“I grew up playing sports with Allyson (Swaby),” she says. “I think we started playing sports together when we were 10 in West Hartford, Connecticut.”

Boyle watched her childhood friend, the Jamaican team captain, score the game winner for her country against Panama in the bar. Against all odds, Swaby’s goal was Jamaica’s first of the tournament and set the tone for knocking out Brazil in their next game; pitting the “Reggae Girlz” against Columbia in the Round of 16. Watching Boyle “freak out” was the best part, Coach says. “We were all in tears.” Reflecting on the hours past, Coach is right — there’s something so magical about watching people watching the game. Something quite pure in their thrown hands, crossed fingers and clutched hats, with all hope pinned on 11 strangers successfully chasing a ball into a net. It’s a reminder of my own soccer origins as a kid in Southern India, watching my elder sister watch the game while we sat on our designated spots on the couch as night bled into day.

The two fixtures kick off on televisions hung at either end of the room, with goals aplenty on one end — a tiny British contingent cheers on their team. Yael Shafritz and Evie Smith from London met in the District while watching games during the men’s UEFA European Championship. Although it has been years since either moved to America, watching an English game in a pub, “It just feels like a little slice of England, doesn’t it?” Smith says.

On the screens, China scores to shorten England’s three-goal lead. “It’s game on,” the commentator says.

I hear a faint, “Oh f— off” directed at him, as I head out the door.

Location: Toro Bar. Time: 9:07 a.m. ET

The games are over and the chairs stacked. The empty room is flooded by sunlight as the last few stand around the bar. The final call is at 10 a.m.

“For the U.S. game, it was super packed,” Leo Contreras says behind the bar. “They filtered in and out.”

I spot a few familiar faces from the night before, fans standing outside the bar and having a smoke. After bar hopping for the four games, they were ready to go home. As was I. A group of friends stumbles out. It’s the birthday group from Astro Beer Hall. Originally from England, Robert Bullock is celebrating his 45th birthday, and his only wish was to come out to watch the women’s soccer games. His friends have come along in solidarity.

Over the night, we’ve all traced the same route to the same bars and met people who love and celebrate the same game. But the hours of exhaustion have finally caught up, and I feel a headache develop.

I wave goodbye to the group — an Englishman and his friends, a bartender, and a pizzeria worker — bonding over their one commonality: women’s soccer.

SUNDAY EPILOGUE

Location: Astro Beer Hall. Time: 7:48 a.m. ET

Sweden’s Lina Hurtig takes the kick, and U.S. keeper Alyssa Naeher scrambles to clear it off the line. For a few seconds, it looks like it’s saved and a 5 a.m. wake-up call, extra time and penalties seem totally worth it on a Sunday. At the beer hall, there are cheers, claps and jumping.

And then, silence.

There are no replays, just a confused whisper wave of “What?” hits the room as Sweden celebrates on screen. Just minutes ago, the space was packed and there was a lively cacophony of chants, groans, boos and calls for fouls. Now, it’s fast emptying of its USWNT-jersey-clad occupants.

“Crestfallen,” says Samper, back in the hall after the Portugal game. “Heartbroken.” Others just shrug at one another in a shared expression of grief. A few millimeters; the game can be so cruel sometimes.

On my way out, “You win some, and you lose some,” I hear someone say behind me. It’s Joe Baker, a bartender I met at the 3 a.m. games. With Baker’s two teams, Philippines and the USWNT, out of the tournament, he has a new favorite: “JAMAICA!”

The U.S. women’s national team’s journey in the World Cup might have ended Sunday, but the games in the midnight hours at bars in the District haven’t. And sometimes, that’s the beauty of international football. When your team falters, you get to pick a new team and players to wake up for and cheer on. So, Japan vs. Sweden at 3:30 a.m. ET on Friday?

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