Three years ago the American Outlaws put together a travel package in preparation for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil that included a charter flight from Houston to Natal and back, a 12-night hotel stay in Natal, gameday transportation, a charter flight to/from Manaus and a bus trip to Recife.
The founders of the U.S. soccer supporter group figured they'd be able to fill a plane by the time the global soccer tournament rolled around. What they actually got was an overwhelming flood of interest – so much so that they had to book another charter flight to accommodate the 540 people eager to root on the Americans in Brazil.
"We didn't really expect to get it this big," said Justin Brunken, co-founder and vice president of the American Outlaws.
And that pretty well sums up the exponential and unexpected growth of the Outlaws. Planning the trip to Brazil got so hectic that the American Outlaws hired travel agents to help with logistics.
"We thought it was going to take awhile to fill one plane and that was back in the day when one plane was actually less than what we have now. One plane was like 172 or something like that, now each plane is 200 and some. That's what we thought we were going to be able to do. We filled that one plane in less than 24 hours. At that point, we knew there was a lot of demand, a lot of people wanting to go with us. So, we started opening it up and we thought that 500 was probably still doable. We even had more people wanting to get in on our package and we had to cut it off at that point because that was the number that we thought could be manageable."
They were communicating with various people in Brazil and even brought on sponsors such as Degree, which will sponsor a daily video blog chronicling the group's travels, and Continental Tire, which will sponsor a pickup soccer game with Natal's club team, Club Americas de Natal. But even with the help there were perils of organizing travel for that many people. One of the flights had a time change, affecting the incoming travel of more than 200 people. Members of The American Outlaws executive board were forced to all fly in on Friday and fill in open seats on the Friday flight so that those who couldn't make Friday would still have a seat on Saturday.
It was the only time when the founders, Brunken and the president of the group, Korey Donahoo, started to question whether The American Outlaws had gotten too big for them to control.
"The thing that has been overwhelming, especially for Korey and Justin, who do more than any of us, for this travel package that we have, we have about 500 people going down to Brazil and those 500 people are relying on us to keep stuff under control and organized. We're chartering flights, which we've never done before," said Chris Donahoo, brother of founder Korey and event coordinator for the American Outlaws.
"They're getting stretched to where they're not sleeping and they're not eating well and it's taking a toll on their personal lives. Up until this point, that really hasn't been the case. And so I think that after the World Cup we can all take a deep breath and realize this thing has gotten a lot bigger than we thought it would be and we probably need to re-evaluate what we're going to do and how we're going to go about things going forward because it's just been too much."
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The idea behind the American Outlaws was born in Lincoln, Neb.
The Donahoo brothers, Brunken and several others had gone to the 2006 World Cup in Germany and were frustrated that they couldn't find other fans to party with. When they came home, Korey Donahoo reached out to the leader of Sam's Army via email to see if he could help expand the supporter base.
At the time, Sam's Army had become linked with U.S. Soccer. The supporter group was based in the Northeast and was a staple at games in that region, but when games were played in the Midwest and on the West Coast, the support was noticeably absent.
Korey Donahoo's email went unanswered.
So, he sent another saying he and his friends were going to start a new support group called The American Outlaws.
It was small; basically a group of folks in Lincoln that loved American soccer and enjoyed travelling around the country supporting it. They made T-shirts, built a mediocre website to let others know which games they were attending and where they planned to tailgate and made business cards and flyers to make sure people knew who they were.
"We weren't very good at graphic design back then," Brunken said.
In an age where social media was in its infancy, it was the best the group could do.
But word caught on quickly. Other American fans would see the group of Nebraskans with their rebel T-Shirts chanting and drinking and having a good time and the entire scene was magnetic. Each event brought a bigger tailgate and more shirts and more business cards and eventually a devout following.
"A lot of people started asking questions and we said, 'Yeah, we're going to do this no matter the significance of the game,'" Brunken recalls. "'We'll find someone to be there and create a place for people to come together from all over the country and meet each other and learn chants and all this other stuff.'"
Every member of the American Outlaws staff has a day job. Korey Donahoo is a civil engineer and Brunken is a marketing director. But all of their spare time is spent on trying to make The American Outlaws the best support group in the world.
Even though the group has grown since its birth in 2007, the founders stay true to their roots. Korey and Chris' mother, who just retired, is working 35 hours a week with the American Outlaws, and their sister, who is in college, considers the American Outlaws a part-time job.
They still make all of their membership packets in Korey Donahoo's basement.
"We had no idea when we first started this that it would be this big," Korey Donahoo said. "We've had people ask us, 'What's your five-year plan?' We didn't know. We just tried to prepare for each game as they came along. It's been absolutely insane. Even right now, it's been a completely awesomely overwhelming experience."
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The moment the American Outlaws knew their support group was no longer a niche club was pretty obvious.
The American Outlaws, led by founders Donahoo and Brunken, had organized a trip for 50 people to go to South Africa to support the United States in the 2010 World Cup.
They met at a bar near the stadium in Pretoria to tailgate and soon they were joined by other U.S. fans who had traveled to cheer on the U.S. Word had quickly spread that the American Outlaws were the new support club for U.S. Soccer and fans in this foreign country wanted to be with like-minded Americans who wanted to see the Yanks beat the Brits.
What started as a decent-sized gathering to get amped for the upcoming game quickly turned into a mass of 1,500 people and soon the horde spilled into the streets as they celebrated U.S. Soccer, themselves and, most importantly, beer.
But all of the jubilation was quickly halted when a bus tried to make its way through the crowded street and to the stadium.
In it was the U.S. national team, trying to focus for their game, but stunned and overwhelmed by the mass of people that were chanting "USA! USA!" and banging on the bus. The players inside scooted to the windows to see the commotion and started smiling and waving and giving thumbs up.
"It was quite the moment," Chris Donahoo said. "Before that, it was all kind of a pipe dream."
Following the 1-1 draw with England, coach Bob Bradley took a moment to comment on the scene in the street earlier in the day and said the support, something that had been erratic for the teams over the years, had moved him to tears.
"That South Africa moment was pretty big for us because we didn't know how big we were until the gathering of people at our events and those games and the excitement there was around it and when Bob Bradley said it moved him to tears," Brunken said. "We do this for the team and that recognition that what we're doing is mattering was great."
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As The American Outlaws make their trek to Natal, Brazil, their membership stands at more 20,000 people in 132 official chapters around the country. Every major city has a chapter and there are several more chapters waiting to be confirmed as official.
To become official, a chapter needs 25 paying members. Dues are $25 a year and includes a T-shirt, bandana and a variety of discounts including car rentals, hotels and flights as well as discounted tickets to games.
"If we're always trying to bring U.S. fans together and we're always trying to be unified U.S. Soccer fans then we've got something here," Chris Donahoo said.
"I think that that's kinda been the story of A.O.: We've had ups and downs, we've had things that didn't go our way and I think at the end of the day we always ask ourselves with these decisions that we make, are we doing all we can do to our end goal, which is bringing U.S. fans together and creating an atmosphere that the players are proud of and that the players, when they step on the field, they can hear us and they know they have guys that have their back today and we have a home field advantage no matter where we are."
With just a few days before the trip to Natal, stress and emotions are high. Phone calls and requests are bombarding the entire leadership as they try to do their day jobs and make sure the entire trip goes smoothly.
There's tension, for sure, but there's also perspective as they embark on taking the largest single fan base to Brazil.
"I don't think anyone knows how much those people work to make American Outlaws work," said Dan Wiersema, who heads the group's communications and will be responsible for maintaining its Brazilian website AOinBrazil.com. "With 131 chapters and 18,000-plus members and it is run by a group of people – a dozen crazy kids – who take every single moment of their lives to make this happen. And when I look back on that, I'm going to remember the blood, sweat and tears – literally – that they put into this."