The huge, influential US Soccer fan group — that started in Nebraska
By Mike Tobias , Senior Producer, Nebraska Public Media
Nov. 18, 2022, 4 a.m. ·
When the men’s soccer World Cup begins this weekend, thousands of U.S. fans will gather to watch matches thanks to a huge fan organization that started in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebraska Public Media producer Mike Tobias shares the story of the American Outlaws, as part of our “What If…” series on innovation and creativity in Nebraska.
Korey Donahoo and Justin Brunken have been friends since birth, and U.S. soccer super fans for almost as long.
“We've both been to over 100 US National Team games,” Brunken says.
In 2006, the Lincoln natives went to Germany for a men’s World Cup match and were disappointed there wasn’t much of a supporter group. So, just out of college, they started one.
“I did not expect it to take off,” Donahoo recalls. “I never thought we'd get our first chapter, quite honestly.”
The thing they created and still manage took off. The American Outlaws is the unofficial fan organization for men’s and women’s U.S. national soccer. It currently has more than 20,000 members and more than 200 chapters in the U.S. and abroad.
This June members of the Outlaws packed a parking lot before a U.S. men’s match against Uruguay in Kansas City. They dressed in red, white and blue jerseys, t-shirts, scarves and bandanas, even American eagle and Uncle Sam costumes. They spent a couple hours before the match were eating, drinking, and playing and talking soccer. Pre-match tailgates, rowdy fan sections at games, and watch parties at bars are all part of the Outlaws experience.
In Kansas City, Brunken saw fans from more than 30 states. “We're going to look at close to 1,500 in the stadium. We usually get close to that here at our tailgate,” he said.
American Outlaws is a Lincoln-based non-profit. Donahoo and Brunken have held other full-time jobs for most of the Outlaws history. Donahoo is highway design engineer. Brunken has a marketing background.
“This was a side hustle passion project that just kind of grew, which has been really cool and exciting to see,” Brunken says.
“It's been very exhausting,” adds Donahoo.
From the start, they knew a organizational model with chapters in different cities was vital. Especially considering U.S. National Soccer is a traveling road show without regular home stadiums. Part of the yearly Outlaws membership fee goes back to the member’s chapter to help local leadership create their own activities.
“We come from Nebraska. How do we know what is the right thing to do in Seattle, or Kansas City, or Miami, or LA?” Brunken says. “How do we give them some sort of guidelines, but let them do their own thing? That was always a struggle, still is, but probably one of the best things to do.”
At first, there were just chapters in Lincoln and a couple other places. Interest in 2010 men’s World Cup doubled membership in three weeks. The 2014 men’s World Cup more than doubled membership in just two weeks.
“That was the real ‘oh my gosh’ moment. We’ve got to change big time how we're doing this,” Donahoo remembers. “‘We’ve got to get this out of my basement’ basically was the number one thing.”
They got a small office space and hired some part-time help, a group that includes family and family friends, like Mary Anne Wells. “Today we have 410 orders to fill. So they get a shirt and then a swag packet, and then we ship them out twice a week,” she told us, while assembling merchandise for new or renewing members.
With success comes wanted and unwanted attention. Donahoo and Brunken never expected national attention for their opinions on things like coaching changes and pay discrepancies between male and female players. They never expected to deal with negative posts and articles about problems at events, like racist or sexist comments attributed to members.
“Stuff like that happens, and we obviously somewhat naive that, ‘Oh, no. We can build all this, and that's not going to happen,’” Brunken says. “But then we realized with scale, that's not necessarily true. So we took some of that. We have to look inward to like, what can we do to make sure we mitigate any of that stuff in the future? How do we solve that right in the moment?”
That led the American Outlaws to create a code of conduct, tools for members to report issues (called AO Watch), and consequences for those responsible. They created a philanthropy (AO Impact) providing opportunities for more youth to play soccer, and they created a focus on bigger picture issues like racism.
“I think part of being a fan anymore, especially in the soccer world, is bettering your community,” Brunken says. “It goes beyond just what's in the stadium and the section”
The group’s name is also kind of an attitude. The outlaws of the sports world, who 20-years-ago were exceptions compared to huge fan bases for sports like football and baseball, especially in Nebraska. Soccer’s popularity has grown in the U.S. and the American Outlaws helped make that happen. For this year’s World Cup there will be hundreds of American Outlaws watch parties, including gatherings in Omaha, Lincoln and Kearney.
Greg Berhalter was a national team player and now coaches the U.S. team. “You come out here and you see the AO sign,” Berhalter said after the June match in Kansas City, “and they're just everywhere, and it's a great feeling. They're invested in what we're doing. They're invested in US soccer. They support the men's team, the women's team.”
“They're extremely important to us and we've appreciated everything that they've done for us and given us,” added Sean Johnson, a veteran U.S. player who was goalkeeper during the Kansas City match. “The energy they give us is second to none, so yeah, we're happy with that.”
It’s been two decades of hard work but good memories for Brunken and Donahoo.
“We've had a few of those ‘oh my gosh’ moments,” Donahoo says. “They're usually in the march to the stadium, from our pre-game party to the stadium. You take over the whole street, and people are coming out of their balconies. All the cars are honking, and everybody's behind you. Those are the moments that keep you going in a lot of ways, but also remind you that it's a cool thing, for the most part, that we do.”
“I think that's what we pride ourselves on and what we strive to do, is bring an energy to every game,” Brunken says. “We were lucky that we saw something that we wanted to do and fix, and we just went at it, without much of a thought of what failure would look like.”
Interested in American Outlaws watch parties in Nebraska? Here's where they're happening:
Kearney: Fanatics Sports Bar
Lincoln: Captain Jack's, Rosie's downtown and the Railyard
Omaha: Barrett's Barleycorn Pub and Grill
VIDEO: Get ready for the World Cup by learning a U.S. soccer cheer. Members of the American Outlaws give "What If..." host Mike Tobias a lesson!