Fan group offers diverse mix in L.A.

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- The U.S. fans packed into the Ricardo Montalban Theater were still dancing and screaming and showering in beer when Carlos Rodriguez spoke up. This moment, he proclaimed, beckoned for something special: a real celebration.

"Let's have a march," he bellowed, and off they went, a few dozen members of American Outlaws -- an infant U.S. supporters club -- and several more caught up in the hoopla.

That's how Hollywood Boulevard got its first real taste of the World Cup: A chanting, singing, flag-waving mob on the prowl from the world's most famous intersection (Hollywood and Vine, of course) to its most revered movie theater (Grauman's Chinese) and back.

The 20-block journey drew lots of attention -- cars and trucks honking horns, high-fives from photo-snapping Japanese tourists, even a police escort (mostly to keep that drunk, shirtless fan away from traffic) -- and that, nearly as much as the United States' passage to the round of 16, was what mattered most.

"It's about being seen," said John Santos, who with Rodriguez heads the Los Angeles Chapter of American Outlaws. "You see the Lakers' parades, you see the Mexican fans going out there -- that's all in good fun. ... But people have to see there is a United States fanbase, and we care if our team wins or loses -- or draws."

The U.S. won Wednesday, beating Algeria, 1-0, on Landon Donovan's stoppage-time strike to avoid World Cup elimination and advance to a round-of-16 knockout game Saturday against Ghana in Rustenburg, South Africa. It would be difficult to find anyone happier than those with the American Outlaws' local group, which has brought together a diverse collection of fans -- different background, different races, different loyalties -- and become a driving force of U.S. support in Southern California.

American Outlaws was formed in the Midwest three years ago as a friendly rival to Sam's Army, the best-known U.S. supporters club, which, inspired by Scotland's "Tartan Army," began following the national team 15 years ago. Sam's Army has a greater presence on the East Coast and in the Midwest than it does in California, and Southern California always has been seen, at least in part, as enemy territory.

Mexican fans so greatly outnumber U.S. fans here, and when Rodriguez first discovered American Outlaws -- at a February 2009 World Cup qualifier against Mexico in Columbus, Ohio -- members weren't convinced he could get an L.A. group together.

"[One guy] says L.A. is not known as a soccer city, it's known mostly as Mexican and Salvadoran," Rodriguez says. "I said, 'You know what? We're going to change that.' He says, 'OK, good luck.' "

The L.A. chapter debuted at a viewing party six weeks later for the U.S.-El Salvador qualifier. Only a handful of U.S. fans showed up.

"Then we started posting on Big Soccer, on their [online] forums," he says. "We gathered up as many people as we could."

That's how Santos found Rodriguez, and soon they were teaming together to organize more viewing parties and trips to matches while showing their support for the U.S. team in any fashion possible.

"At first, I was, like, is this a Galaxy-only fan club," Santos says. "Because I'm a Chivas fan. And these Galaxy fans ... as a Chivas fan, I always had a bad thing about Galaxy fans, but you know what? ... The hell with the stigma. I'm gonna go there. If they ask me who I cheer for, I'm gonna proudly say Chivas USA."

Rodriguez never asked. The only thing that mattered was that Santos cheered for the U.S.

"Eventually, it came out," Santos says. "I was a Chivas fan, he was a Galaxy fan -- other people were Galaxy fans; other people were Chivas fans, too. That's the beauty of American Outlaws L.A. Chapter. You can take Chivas fans, Galaxy fans, it's about putting that stuff aside.

"We don't care who you support. We don't care if you're a Euro-snob, you only support European teams. We don't care of you're from Mars. As long as you support the U.S. national team, that's all that matters."

Santos, 29, whose parents are from Mexico, grew up in Huntington Park, the center of Mexico's massive Southern California following. He committed to the U.S. cause 11 years ago.

"How did I come out of there? I know, it's weird," he says. "[My family] wasn't necessarily Mexico supporters. We were more like Mexico sympathizers. They did something good, yeah, we clapped, we cheered, we waved a couple of flags, but honestly I didn't know the difference between [former Mexico stars] Benjamin Galindo and Luis Hernandez. I didn't know who they were. That's how much of fan I wasn't. I cared enough to sympathize, but not enough to follow.

"But with the U.S., it's different. I actually cared about little, young, up-and-coming goalkeepers named Timothy Howard and *NSYNC wannabes named Landon Donovan: 'I care about these guys. I want to see what they can do 10 years from now.' I'm seeing that now."

Rodriguez, whose father is from Mexico and mother is from Nicaragua, cheered for Mexico when he was young.

"You could say I was, especially through my aunt -- she's a huge Mexico fan," he says. "But later on I thought to myself: 'I was born here, I live here. This is my country.' I get a lot of flak constantly" from Mexico fans in the family. "They call me a bandwagon jumper. I said it's not true, I was born here.

"Me and my brother Richard, he said: 'I don't care what you say, we beat you guys so many times, so talk all you want. ... So our family has a little conflict, but it's just for the game."

Carlos and Richard have steered their parents to the U.S. cause. Their father joined them for games in Houston against Mexico, at the Home Depot Center against Denmark, and in Philadelphia for the World Cup send-off last month against Turkey.

"He had never sat in the supporters' section, and he loved it," says Rodriguez, 27, who grew up and lives in Los Angeles. "I took my mom, too. She loved it. She sat in the first row, and she was singing, she was cursing, she was having a blast. I love it. I'm converting my family into U.S. fans."

American Outlaws' L.A. chapter has grown from just seven fans last year to about 60 -- "from everywhere: Palmdale, the Inland Empire, Orange County, Pasadena," Rodriguez says -- and one-third of them show up for every get-together. An Orange County chapter was formed last week.

The makeup of the group, with Latino and Asian representation that matches their communities' presence in Southern California, sometimes takes observers aback.

"Non-soccer fans, especially, tend to be surprised," Santos says. "They're, like, 'What? American soccer fans? And they're Latinos and they're Asian?' We are a big mix of people. We're not the stereotypical blond-haired, blue-eyed fan. Not that there aren't blond-haired, blue-eyed fans in the group. We'll take anybody to be a member of this group. And we want blond-haired, blue-eyed people to see that us brown-skinned, brown-haired, brown-eyed people support the United States as well. And we're all together in this, no matter what.

"It's OK to be proud of your heritage. You can be proud to be a Mexican-American, a Salvadoran-American, but nowhere is it written that you have to support [Mexico's or El Salvador's] team to prove how proud you are to be of Mexican descent or Salvadoran descent. Or Guatemalan, whatever. I love this country, and I'll always love my Mexican roots. They've helped turn me into the great American I am today."

Jose Gallegos, a 36-year-old Galaxy fan who was born in El Salvador, moved to Los Angeles when he was 6 and now lives in Palmdale, agrees.

"Even though I was born in El Salvador, when we played in Utah [in a World Cup qualifier last September] -- United States against El Salvador -- I still supported the United States, because the United States is what's given me everything I have, and I love and appreciate what the United States has given to me," he says. "A lot of Salvadorans, also a lot of Mexicans, a lot of people are supporting the United States because we do appreciate what this country's done for us.

"American Outlaws are not just a bunch of American people -- meaning whites, Caucasians, whatever -- it's a mixed culture. It's the reality of what America is."

That mix of America was on its feet for 90 minutes at Nike's Montalban headquarters on Vine Street just south of Hollywood Boulevard, singing, chanting, banging on drums. And the buildup of emotion as the U.S. squandered chance after chance, after another good goal was taken away, as time was running out on the Americans' World Cup campaign -- it exploded into ecstasy when, Donovan hit the net.

"I was hyperventilating," Santos says. "I literally couldn't stand. I felt my knees giving out on me."

"I won't be ashamed to say I actually did tear up. I cried a little bit," Gallegos says. "That's how passionate I am about my country, especially with Donovan and all the players. It doesn't matter if they're from Chivas, wherever they're from. We're all together."

Rodriguez admits that, "for a minute," he thought it was a lost cause, that the U.S. would not get the goal it so desperately needed.

"But I had faith. We're not going to stop fighting until the last minute," Rodriguez said. "We fought to the last minute, and we made it. ... I almost felt like I was going to cry. How the hell can [Donovan] put it in after we were struggling so long? I cheered, I hugged the guys, and people started throwing beer up in the sky, and it was great."

There was only one way to celebrate. And so off they went, down Hollywood Boulevard.

Scott French writes the "Football Futbol Soccer" blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.