Soccer fans swarm NJ NFL stronghold

Owners open doors early for hundreds of US supporters

The walls are lined with flags for Rutgers and Penn State, and a wealth of autographed photos of famous NFL stars.

Welcome to Miami Mike’s, routinely hailed as the top football bar in north Jersey. But on Friday, this local gridiron mecca underwent a bit of a makeover, drawing roughly 125 soccer fans for the Slovenia-United States match.

Zach Wehner, who made the 40-minute trip from Sparta, N.J., was one of those fans in attendance at the bar, which uncharacteristically kicked open the doors at 10 a.m. after a lifetime of opening at happy hour on weekdays.

That’s all because of owner “Miami Mike,” who spent Friday running around in an American soccer shirt clanging on a cowbell and cheering fans on.

“Honestly, Miami Mike is a great guy and he’s really gotten behind the sport,” Wehner said after the match, wiping sweat from his head with a stars and stripes bandana. “It was a great atmosphere here and it was a great time.”

Wehner was joined at the sports bar by his friend Scott Hawkins of nearby Morristown. Hawkins said that the fact that a bar best known for the NFL has become soccer friendly is no surprise.

“The American soccer fan has become more educated,” Hawkins said. “As time goes on and players become fans, you see more and more people caring. This thing will only grow.”

Hawkins and Wehner have both started to get behind the local MLS side, each catching a few Red Bulls’ games this year. They raved about Red Bull Arena and the downtown feel of Harrison, which both say lends itself to a real “gameday feel.” Neither attended a MLS match at Giants Stadium last year, but said they will be attending more games this year.

Another Red Bulls’ fan on hand was Steve Dazzo, who lives about an hour away in Clinton. Dazzo is an IT recruiter at TekSystems in nearby Parsippany who took the day off to catch the match at Miami Mike’s.

His boss, an Englishman, encouraged all the employees to wear soccer jerseys last Friday in the office.

“It was really loud in here,” said Dazzo, a Red Bulls’ season ticket holder who coaches a U-14 team and went to the 2006 World Cup. “The fans here are passionate, it’s great to see. The sport is growing and the fact that a sports bar like this was filled on a Friday morning shows how far we’ve come.”

As Miami Mike gears up for next Wednesday, when the United States plays its final group match against Algeria, he expects an even stronger turnout from the fans.

Mike said that he became a soccer fan in 2002, when the United States had that terrific run in the World Cup.

“That’s when it happened, when the United States beat Mexico and made that deep run into the tournament,” Mike said while shaking fans with hands after the game. “That’s when I realized how big this sport really is – that’s when I became a fan.”

Mike said that he plans on having similar watch parties for other national team matches, such as World Cup qualifying and tournaments.

“This has been great for business,” Mike said. “Soccer fans come out and are passionate and we have a very pro-US crowd here.”

Server Danielle Dodgen of nearby Florham Park didn’t know what to expect when the bar opened up early for soccer. She said none of her friends are soccer fans or watch the game so she didn’t think it would be a big deal.

Wrong, Dodgen says.

“I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t think there were this many soccer fans,” Dodgen says. “I was impressed with how loud they are and how exciting the place gets. It’s been great.”

Kristian Dyer is a reporter for MLSSoccer.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/kdyer1012.