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Once A Parking Lot, Now A World Cup Destination

Soccer fans enjoy a match under the newly erected tents that shield patrons from the rainy weather.

Soccer fans enjoy a match under the newly erected tents that shield patrons from the rainy weather.

Ifanyi Bell/OPB

What was just an empty lot a few months ago has now become a hot spot for World Cup soccer.

Earlier this year, after 20 years in business, the Gypsy Bar and Lounge on Northwest 21st Avenue closed its doors. The popular watering hole directly across from the art-house movie theater Cinema 21 had been a landmark on this slightly edgier street two blocks east of the trendier 23rd Avenue. 

But where the neighborhood may see a loss, entrepreneur Alex Mackay saw an opportunity.

Alex Mackay, standing in the World Cup Beer garden he brought to life last week.

Alex Mackay, standing in the World Cup Beer garden he brought to life last week.

Ifanyi Bell/OPB

“I had been looking at a few other places to set up, but they all kind of fell through at the last minute,” said Mackay on Saturday, after a capacity crowd of soccer fans were forced to evacuate the beer garden that he’d set up in the former Gypsy Bar’s vacant parking lot. 

Mackay wasn’t being forced to shut down for violating any kind of law. He was making improvements to his business model.

“There was a lot of glare on the screens — it was just too hard for people to see.”

Mackay was referring to the five 50-inch televisions set up in the parking lot. Covering the Gypsy’s marquee is a white vinyl sign reading “World Cup Beer Garden.” 

Scattered showers and glare forced Mackay to cancel the viewing of the last match of the day in order to erect a large tent to shield fans from the rain and eliminate the glare when the sun did make an appearance.

His plan paid off.

The next day, the lot was once again filled to capacity as Spain endured the most lopsided loss of the World Cup so far, 5-1 to the Netherlands. About a hundred people showed up sporting the various colors of the teams’ national flags, ready to explode with excitement or shrivel with despair. Between corner kicks and goals, injuries real and rehearsed, patrons of the small space had their choice of craft German and local beers on a mobile tap and a menu of food options.  

Several beverage options are on-hand in the space.

Several beverage options are on-hand in the space.

Ifanyi Bell/OPB

“This is an American mock-up of a European institution,” explained Mackay.

“It is a little bit of a pop-up, which is exactly what we are,” he added. “It’s not a super dialed-in sports bar; it’s kind of a bunch of things you need to make people happy at an event like this — it feels like people are really digging that a little bit,” said Mackay before the USA/Ghana match.

Mackay seems to have succeeded in making soccer fans happy, especially during Team USA’s opening match against Ghana when Team USA won a first-round victory against a team they have struggled to defeat. The celebration of the second goal caught Mackay by surprise while he was giving an interview to KGW. The video of the crowd’s celebration and subsequent antics by the reporter have since gone viral.

Mackay understands that Portland is already a “soccer town” with the Timbers and the Thorns playing regular matches here in the city. But he explained that the spirit of the game and its cultural presence here remains in its infancy.

“When you see the highlights of other fans celebrating at places like the piazza in Rome, or the square in Buenos Aires, or wherever, it’s what we’re doing here, but [there] it’s on a much grander scale. It’s amazing to me, because that’s sort of what I want to emulate,” he said.

“Soccer globally is so intrinsic to people’s culture all over the world that in other countries, cities will put up screens and everyone will come and just sit on picnic blankets with bottles of wine, or whatever, and want to be with their countrymen, together in a space,” said Mackay. “For American soccer fans, they have to be ‘pushed along’ a little bit more.”