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Soccer’s growth in the US

Updated: May 5, 2022

Art by Anika Norton

Since its birth in 19th century England, soccer-- or football everywhere outside the US-- has had a firm grip on the hearts of supporters and players alike. According to FIFA, there are approximately 5 billion football fans around the world, making it by far the most popular sport of all time. And while the passion for football is widespread, it’s just beginning to make its mark in the US.

Major League Soccer (MLS) has been America’s premier soccer league since its foundation in 1993. Over the decades, it has expanded from the 10 teams it began with to a whopping 28, and has hosted legendary players such as Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovich, Wayne Rooney, and Landon Donovan. According to Nielsen Sports, the MLS has seen a rise in interest of 27% since 2012, and it looks like that rise won’t be plateauing anytime soon. In addition, the MLS reported that during the 2021 regular season, there were an average of 276,000 viewers for each of the 31 games played, across all ESPN channels. This rise in viewership and interest will surely bring in new players, which will enlarge the pool of talent.

Although the MLS is beginning to garner more attention, it remains as somewhat of a “retirement league” due to its evidently weaker player base. A retirement league is a league that players (oftentimes highly valuable ones) move to towards the end of their careers. While this does draw eyes, it further tarnishes the reputation of the MLS, as world-class players carry otherwise mediocre teams to victory.

Like in many other countries, soccer in the US centers around both the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) and the US Women’s National Team (USWNT). The USMNT has had a history of disappointing performances on the international stage in competitions such as the FIFA World Cup, Copa América, and Concacaf Gold Cup. I’m sure all USMNT supporters can recall the heart wrenching defeat to Trinidad and Tobago during the team’s final qualification match for the 2018 World Cup. Losses like these are a painful reminder that the USMNT still has a long way to go before it becomes a serious competitor.

But it’s not all bad news for the USMNT because with talented players such as Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, and Timothy Weah, the future looks promising. The recent influx in male soccer talent in the US is no coincidence though. In an interview with The Guardian, Gregg Berhalter, the USMNT manager, spoke about why so much young talent is emerging in the US: “It’s a direct result of two things. The first thing would be the creation of the Development Academy by US Soccer, which created a platform for the best to play against the best. That started about 14 years ago. The second thing is the investment from MLS owners in youth development. We all know development is a long-term strategy. Now we’re seeing the fruits of that labor, just about 10 years later.”

It’s true. The MLS recently invested 70 million dollars in youth development, and partnerships with US Youth Soccer (USYS) have bolstered the cultivation of professional-level players.

In stark contrast to the USMNT, the USWNT is quite possibly the most dominant national soccer team in the world. They've won the last two Women's World Cups, and have four victories in total. According to FIFA, they are currently ranked 1st out of the 178 women's national teams in the world and have maintained that ranking for the past seven years. Their lowest ever ranking is 3rd, which goes to show how consistently well they perform.

Soccer in the US has yet to reach its fullest potential, and all signs point to a promising future. It’s exciting to know that our country will soon be legitimately competing on the global stage.

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