The road to tonight's World Cup qualifying match between the U.S. men's national soccer team and Antigua and Barbuda was not an easy one. It required passion, commitment and endless miles on the road.
No, it's not easy being a fan.
The 7 p.m. game at Raymond James Stadium is the first time Tampa has hosted the national team in a qualifying match. That means it's the first time local audiences will see the contingent of die-hard fans that have rallied around the U.S. soccer team.
These aren't the sort of fans that just follow the team online and on the tube. They take their passion on the road, often traveling across the country – and sometimes across the globe - to celebrate and root for their squad.
"The team doesn't know us individually, but they know we're there,'' said Michael Fera, 27, of Tampa. "I know it gets them fired up."
Tonight, there will be plenty to get fired up for. The 7 p.m. game is the first qualification match for both teams for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. The U.S. will play a number of qualifying matches both in the states and abroad in a conference that includes teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean.
Soccer in the U.S. has yet to rival football, baseball or basketball for the size of its fan base, but it's hard to beat the pure passion of those with soccer fever.
Four years ago, Fera, a bank underwriter, founded the Tampa chapter of the American Outlaws, a national organization with more than 70 chapters made up of gung-ho fans of the U.S. national soccer team. He is the current president.
The organization has a website and member chapters host events in their city when the national team comes to town.
"It's almost like a badge of honor," Fera said. "It's almost a competition of who came the furthest to represent America."
Members of the American Outlaws – many of whom travel long distances to attend a match -- buy tickets through the organization and stand in a section behind the goal, wearing U.S. colors and jerseys and chanting and singing. The idea is to create an atmosphere similar to European and South American soccer matches.
Last month, Fera attended the U.S. men's soccer game against Scotland in Jacksonville. It was a friendly match – meaning it didn't apply for World Cup qualifying or a tournament. He's seen the national team play in Kansas City and in Miami. He's going to tonight's game and in September flying to Jamaica to watch the U.S. in a World Cup qualifying match there.
"It's going to be crazy going to Kingston, Jamaica, as the enemy," Fera said.
Even a rainy training session at the University of South Florida on the eve of today's match attracted about 100 fans.
USF senior Bobby Killen brought a soccer ball to get autographs. Killen, 24, of Tampa, said he's been watching the U.S. team since he was a child.
"These are people who you look up to,'' said Killen, who played youth and high school soccer. "As a soccer player if all my dreams came true, I'd be out there. Sadly, that didn't happen."
Brad Guzan, a goalkeeper on the U.S. national team, said players love the fan support.
"It gives us a boost," said Guzan, after Thursday night's practice. "It shows how the sport of soccer has grown in this country."
The exposure of the game in the United States in recent years has helped increase the fan base and piqued the interest of casual fans, said fan Garrett Tozier, 24, of Tampa.
There's a stable professional league in Major League Soccer. Cable channels constantly show European soccer games. The Internet and social media gives people access to information on the sport and teams and helps fans connect with other fans, Tozier said.
It doesn't hurt that the U.S. national team's reputation has been growing over the years.
In 2002, the team reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup. There also have been stellar players who have become household names since the early 1990s. The current lineup also has its share of stars, including Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard, who have helped the national team and excelled in their respective clubs.
Tozier has attended U.S. matches in Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Jacksonville and Miami. He got into soccer while watching the World Cup in 1998 and 2002. He began following the U.S. national team since 2005.
"The atmosphere in a soccer match is unparalleled – the chanting and supporting your team for 90 minutes straight," said Tozier, a member of the American Outlaws Tampa chapter.
Mattey Casey will be driving from Fort Myers in a van with 14 friends to tonight's game.
This is a short trip for him. He's seen the team in Washington, D.C. and New Jersey in the past. His big trip came in 2006 when he saw the United States play a World Cup match in Germany.
He likes the work ethic and gritty determination of the U.S. squad.
"The Americans never say die," said Casey, 36, of Fort Myers. "That American trait is snagging the casual fan."
The atmosphere at a major soccer game – particularly in World cup competition - is unparalleled, he said.
"It's about being around several thousand people who share your passion," said Casey, president of the American Outlaws Fort Myers chapter. "There is no sport like that to me."
IF YOU GO
WHAT: U.S. Men's National Soccer Team plays Antigua and Barbuda
WHEN: 7 p.m. tonight (Friday, June 8) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
TICKETS: Start at $22.
The American Outlaws, an organization for fans of the U.S. national team, will host a tailgate party at 4 p.m. today (Friday, June 8) on the south parking lot of Raymond James Stadium.