American Outlaws Inspire Fans on the Cusp of USMNT Success
One hour before the 2006 World Cup kicks off, Korey Donahoo is standing in the half-empty town square of Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
He’s traveled over 4,500 miles from Lincoln, Nebraska to support the United States Men’s National Team.
Sam’s Army, the largest organization of U.S. supporters at the time, was supposed to organize a pre-game rally, but nothing came to fruition.
“That’s unacceptable,” he said to himself. “That’s terrible.”
Donahoo thought that there had to be a better way to unite like-minded fans. Two weeks later after returning home to the Midwest, he and two close friends, Justin Brunken and Ben Cohoon, who had traveled to Germany with Donahoo, conceived the idea that eventually became the American Outlaws. The group, which at one point had grown to over 32,000 paying members, now recognizes over 200 chapters worldwide.
It began with “Chapter 001,” in Donahoo’s hometown of Lincoln.
“Justin, Ben and I went to a lot of U.S. soccer games, and we would organize viewing parties here in Lincoln,” he said. “Then we'd also travel to a lot of games and decided that there wasn't enough consistency in the organization for fans like us.”
The trio immediately got to work devising a business plan that outlined a successful, long-term blueprint for their newly founded group.
The first order of business was picking an all-important name.
“We had a few names that were kicking around, and at the time, and we would wear the bandanas over our faces, like old west outlaws,” he said. “So, we kind of just went with it.”
The next task was finding other likeminded fans. Lincoln is not regarded as one of a few “soccer Meccas” in the United States. They needed to dig deep to find their community of local fans that shared their passion and dedication.
“It (Lincoln’s soccer community) was kind of untapped,” said Michael Ziola, an American Outlaws member in Lincoln since 2011. “It's one of those things that you kind of had to search out to find, but once you did, it was a really passionate group.”
During Men’s National Team games, the founders would organize pregame functions, and watch parties at various bars around town. They would also travel to regional games in places such as Kansas City and Chicago.
“The first big milestone was our first game where we announced ourselves, which was September 28, 2007,” he said. “We got a bus of people from Lincoln to Chicago, for the U.S.-Brazil game, and we made shirts for it.”
The shirts, alongside home-made purple business cards, effectively spread the word about the new group which was actively looking to expand.
Although early members felt right at home in the terraces of Midwest stadiums, the group needed a place to call their permanent home.
For matches the group didn’t travel to, finding a local bar that could accommodate for each game was difficult.
“Different games are on different channels,” he said. “Sometimes one bar owner would have one channel, sometimes they'd be friendly, and sometimes they didn't. So, we bounced around a little bit.”
One day, Cohoon reported back to camp that he met a new bar owner in town who was looking to bring in more customers.
At the time, the bar Kevin Reynolds owned in downtown Lincoln was known as “Chaser’s,” but eventually rebranded to the current iconic name “Captain Jack’s” which is well-known to local fans today.
“We have this group of 20 guys who come on random days, like twice a month,” Donahoo told Reynolds. “If you put up another TV, we would come here every game if you wanted us.”
Reynolds invested in a 55-inch plasma TV to accommodate the crowds that quickly followed, but more importantly, he promised the American Outlaws a viewing spot they could rely on.
Soon, they no longer needed to announce where the local watch parties were, and bar employees knew which channel to turn each TV to. The group became regulars.
“They're young, they're into it and they had their crowd,” Reynolds said. “They just slowly got bigger and bigger.”
At the time, he didn’t care much about soccer, he cared about bar traffic. But after a few years of seeing the group grow, and being a part of the excitement, he eventually caught the bug.
“I own the bar. So, it’s in my best interest to learn some things and start hanging out, but I started coming down for all the games,” he said. “Then I started going to a couple of away games with these guys.”
In the years that followed, Reynolds has traveled with the American Outlaws to U.S. games across the country, seeing matches in Columbus, Kansas City, Sacramento, and more.
Today, he continues to frequent his own bar for big matches. If he’s not in the terraces, or in front of Captain Jacks now several plasma TV’s, he finds out how to follow along on his phone.
Fifteen years later, the bar continues to thrive in downtown Lincoln and fosters special atmospheres with each crucial national team game.
“Everybody is glued to the TV,” said Mark Purkoski, an American Outlaws member in Lincoln since 2008. “It's indescribable, the best feeling next to being in the stadium.”
One of the original goals of the American Outlaws was to create a sense of community, wherever watch parties take place. Chapter 001 members take tremendous pride in being the first to achieve that inside Captain Jack’s.
“It's the home base,” Ziola said. “It's on people's bucket lists, to make a stop in Lincoln and watch a game.”
Reynolds said that when he’s traveling and wearing his “Chapter 001” shirt, he occasionally crosses a star struck USMNT fan who realizes that he owns the original bar.
Cross-country travelers frequently make a pilgrimage out to Lincoln to catch a game or simply walk around the historic venue.
“It's pretty cool,” he said. “It’s one reason why I don't think I'll ever get rid of it.”
For major games, the American Outlaws will pack up to around 150 people inside the quaint downtown bar. The group constantly draws in new residents looking to see what all the buzz is about.
“They sit down with us and go, ‘Wow, there's a lot going on. Man is this is exciting,’” Ziola said. “There's always more room to jump on the bandwagon. There's plenty of room to come cheer.”
More recently created chapters of the American Outlaws often look at Lincoln’s successful blueprint for building passion and loyalty in their own communities.
“Lincoln is so successful because of its size,” Purkoski said. “You have a bar like Captain Jack's, which is in the middle of a fairly small, medium-sized town, so it's easy to get to from anywhere in the city.”
Of course, sustained growth and passion come alongside on-field success. A metric the USMNT has struggled with in recent years.
Membership and engagement took a dive after the United States failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
“Missing out in 2018 was a good reminder of just how big a deal it is,” Donahoo said.
But things are looking up with the recent influx of young American talent into top levels of the game. United States fans are extremely optimistic heading into the next major competition, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
“We need success. And you really saw how much you need it when we missed the last World Cup,” Purkoski said. “You get to grow the fan base and get those fringe sports fans that maybe think they like soccer to want to get into it.”
Just one calendar year away from Qatar, Donahoo expects an upcoming boost in worldwide members for the American Outlaws. That’s a pattern he’s gotten used to over the two earlier world cup cycles that the Americans did qualify for.
“Being generally prepared for a World Cup, especially a World Cup year that could experience explosive growth for American outlaws, is a huge goal,” Donahoo said. “That will lay the foundation for 2026.”
Donahoo believes that 2026 has potential to be the biggest moment in the history of the American Outlaws.
That’s the year circled on the calendar of all USMNT fans when the United States will joint host the World Cup alongside neighboring nations Canada and Mexico.
“I'm already stressed about it. So, I don't know what the hell we're going to do,” he said. “We have massive expectations, and the demand for tickets for that tournament is going to be crazy.”
Another focus of the founders is to further improve in the leadership in some of the other 200+ chapters worldwide, so that the group is prepared regardless of which city gets to host.
“Some of it has fallen off through life or whatever for a variety of reasons,” he said. “We're investing heavily to get leaders in our chapters strung up, giving them the resources and the abilities to kick ass in their communities.”
The founders all have families and day jobs, but their thriving organization continues to be a prominent aspect of their working lives.
“They sacrifice a lot,” Reynolds said of the founders. “It's a nonprofit thing, these guys do a lot of work, they care about it, and they want to see it keep going.”
While the group hopes to continue to new heights, the original pillars remain the same. To create and maintain a community of like-minded fans, cheering together for the same thing.
“America loves winners, and it loves underdogs,” Donahoo said. “And if you can do both, it's going to inspire a whole generation of people.”