At 5 p.m. on the eve of a game some of them have waited a lifetime to see, grinning patrons in blue jerseys fill the wooden-walled pub, sloshing back cold pints of Newcastle and occasionally breaking into song.

They have come to celebrate their beloved Chelsea, a European soccer team with fans around the world.

"Give him another!" yells someone in a noticeable regional accent.

Though the scene in Brit's Pub feels like a page torn out of an English travel guide, it's unfolding instead in downtown Minneapolis. Next to the orange-rimmed emblem of Newcastle are the likes of Summit and Bud Light on tap. The game will be staged down the street, when English club Chelsea takes on Italy's AC Milan in the debut of the Vikings' new home, U.S. Bank Stadium, on Wednesday night.

For a burgeoning community of Minnesota soccer fans, the International Champions Cup match — a preseason friendly between two of the world's best squads — is another milestone to savor.

Once a niche attraction and something of an afterthought in a market with four pro sports franchises, the sport has seen slow but steady growth in the past 15 years. Its growing appreciation can be traced to help by a local fledgling fan group formed around a second-tier pro team, European soccer's breakthrough on American TV and now, the promise of an MLS franchise in St. Paul.

"It hasn't been an instant transformation," said Buzz Lagos, former coach of the Minnesota Thunder and for many years the face of soccer in the state. "But soccer here has got a real solid foundation with genuine interest in the game and the players and the way the game is played. There is much more substantial support now."

A crowd close to 60,000 is expected for the game, surpassing the previous attendance record for a soccer event in Minnesota. In the days leading up to the event, interest has piqued, both because of the world-renowned superbrands involved and the hype of a stadium unveiling.

"When the players have been out, people have recognized them and asked them for pictures and autographs," said Carlo Cudicini, assistant manager with Chelsea and former goalkeeper for the club. "It's so great to have a link with our supporters here.

"There seems to be a big culture of soccer here and that's why we decided to come."

Aaron James, a 37-year-old bartender at Brit's, put it this way: "I have no idea what England is like. But I have to imagine it's something like this."

A solid foundation

The International Champions Cup first came to Minneapolis two years ago, when Olympiacos and Manchester City competed at TCF Bank Stadium in front of 34,047. Relevent Sports promoter Charlie Stillitano said he looked at that event as a test.

"We said 'Let's see how the community reacts,' " he said. "And it reacted really, really well. It was well-attended, it was well-received and so we were just thinking, 'When the new stadium opens up, we've got to get in there.' "

But watching soccer wasn't always so trendy.

In 1981 a five-year, sometimes raucous flirtation with the Minnesota Kicks ended when the club, losing money, folded. Nine years later, Lagos helped found the Minnesota Thunder, Blaine's first-division team. Over time, a quiet following grew, with the key word being "quiet."

Bruce McGuire, a soccer junkie who grew up in Rochester, remembers dragging work colleagues to a Thunder match in 2001 and noticing the near silence that hung over the bleachers.

"I sat there feeling kind of embarrassed," he said. "Like, the sport that I love has no energy. I had never thought about it like that."

A new passion

The turnaround began a few years later.

Around 2004, McGuire went searching for other Thunder fans via message boards. The first pregame meeting drew about a dozen, seemingly a miracle at the time. But as more fans crawled out of anonymity, that bunch — now called the "Dark Clouds" — grew, and became louder, goofier and more infectious.

Soon the group was traveling to Thunder road games, singing, chanting and heckling opponents. At the time, such fanfare for a team of that level simply didn't exist.

"For a long time, we were a true anomaly," McGuire said. "We would show up and turn their whole stadium upside down because they didn't know what the [heck] we were doing. It was fantastic.

"The Minnesota supporters still have a reputation."

Lagos believes it's that infrastructure that provided a strong fan base in the metro area.

In 2006 the soccer scene everywhere continued to evolve when Fox began broadcasting Premier League games. Many who had only casually followed the sport — like Chris Harris, a 34-year-old from South Dakota — wandered into a new obsession.

"After watching the World Cup, I started following Chelsea because I recognized some of the players," said Harris, now a Coon Rapids resident. "It was really easy to get really passionate about it really quickly."

Harris is now co-president of the Twin Cities Blues, the local chapter of a national Chelsea supporters group, and watches every game at Brit's.

Shane Higgins, an England native and the general manager at Brit's for the past 15 years, saw those passions develop firsthand. When the pub first began showing games, he would have to pay as much as $15,000 to air it, and — charging patrons for entry — would struggle to attract 20 people, most of them English or Irish expatriates.

After games and entry became free, the groups grew. Higgins began hearing more Minnesotan accents and more intelligent banter. The movement "exploded," Higgins said, during the 2010 World Cup. Suddenly, there were crowds of more than 2,000 and lines around the block.

"It's really huge," he said. "These people are really knowledgeable now — it's not jumping on the bandwagon and haven't got a clue what's happening. They know the teams, they know the positions, they follow the transfer market of the players and everything else. A lot of people here have adopted their own English teams, and they're crazy about them."

Brit's is now one of several bars in town that have reputations of being soccer joints. The Dark Clouds — transferring their allegiance to Minnesota United FC after the Thunder dissolved in 2009 — has swelled to over 700 people. They parade to Blaine for each home game, armed with drums, horns, flags and member-written songs about different players.

United, which currently draws between 7,500 and 9,000 fans per game, has plans for a new stadium in St. Paul, tentatively set to open in 2018. Several soccer fans Tuesday pointed out that their children are getting a more sophisticated experience playing youth soccer in the state now, with better coaches and more interest.

Stillitano said Relevent plans to make Minneapolis a regular stop on the Cup tour.

"We're getting there," said Kurt Cruse, a soccer fan who lives in Edina. "It's turning. It's not [as popular as] American football yet, but people are starting to recognize the sport and get more serious about it."