The popularity of soccer—both in participation and interest—is increasing in the United States. There’s no doubting that.
According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 7% of Americans cited soccer as their favorite sport to watch, while 9% preferred America’s pastime baseball. Not only is soccer growing as a whole in the United States, but Major League Soccer (MLS), the top domestic league, has experienced a 27% rise in interest since 2012, according to Nielsen Sports Sponsorlink.
Citing this increased interest and the continued efforts to be a major driving force behind it, the MLS Board of Governors voted on April 18 to expand the league to 30 teams “in the coming years”, an increase from their previous target of 28 set in December 2015.
“I’m very happy for America because soccer is growing quickly,” former Arsenal and France midfielder Robert Pires said recently. “I think some players help the MLS grow like my friend Thierry Henry, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney who currently play in the league. There is a space in America for football. I know it’s difficult with basketball, baseball and American football, but football is for everybody.”
Major League Soccer’s average attendance of 21,358 from 2013-18 ranks No. 8 in the world, trailing Ligue 1 in France (21,556) and Italy’s Serie A (22,967), according to a study conducted by the CIES Football Observatory. Atlanta United, which debuted as an MLS expansion team in 2017, boasts the 10th-best average attendance of 51,547 between 2013-18. The 2018 MLS Cup winners and league’s most valuable club ($330 million) were featured among global giants including Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.
There are currently 24 clubs competing in the MLS with agreements in place for three more: Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC will join the league in 2020, while Austin FC comes on board a year later. The league, which debuted in 1996 with 10 clubs, anticipates selecting the 28th and 29th expansion teams (with an expansion fee of $200 million) by the 2019 MLS All-Star Game on July 31, and the commissioner’s office was authorized to advance discussions with Sacramento and St. Louis ownership groups regarding their bids.
Eight teams showed increased attendance last season, while three (New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire) had double-digit drops leading to the league’s first overall attendance dip in five years.
Cable viewership has increased each of the last six seasons and ad inventory has sold out in each of the last three.
“Professional soccer at all levels is thriving in the United States and Canada and we believe there are many markets that could support a successful MLS club,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a league statement. “Expansion during the last 15 years has been enormously successful and a key driver behind the league’s continued rise, and we are pleased that some of the top business and community leaders representing great markets in North America are aggressively pursuing MLS expansion clubs.”
Major League Soccer’s growth and expansion, unfortunately, hasn’t necessarily translated into success on the international level for the United States. The United States men’s national team failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1986, snapping a streak of seven consecutive appearances in the tournament.
The USMNT had been coming off successful tournaments, advancing to the Round of 16 in 2014 and 2010, and even going as far as the quarterfinals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Korea/Japan.
“The next step for American soccer is to be successful in the World Cup, and I don’t mean win it at this moment and time, but to get back to where the U.S. were a constant presence,” said former Manchester United and England legend Bryan Robson. “I think they need to be able to do that again to get everybody really excited, seeing as many Americans have taken to it. But you need a successful national team.”
The U.S. men’s national team is in a state of transition under recently appointed head coach Gregg Berhalter and general manager Earnie Stewart. Developing youth has been the priority with the new generation of players headlined by Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Josh Sargent guiding the country toward the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and beyond, including the 2026 World Cup, which will be jointly hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico.
“We’re in a new cycle now,” former USMNT goalkeeper Tony Meola said. “Looking at 2022 and 2026 we’re going to be a pretty successful group and it’s going to be this core group of players that certainly will be at the forefront of it. I think it’s important that we’re patient enough to give them time to grow.”
Another major contributor to soccer’s growth in the United States is the presence of foreign clubs, who are expanding their influence and brand through academies, international offices, digital content, preseason friendlies, participating in the International Champions Cup (ICC) and partnerships.
Major clubs including FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich have offices in New York City, while LaLiga (Spain) and the Bundesliga (Germany) have an on-the-ground presence in the U.S.
“I’ve seen soccer has a grown a lot in the last 10-15 years in America, and the ICC is helping it develop and grow even more,” former Liverpool and Norway defender John Arne Riise said. “I know the players and clubs enjoy coming here. We have to keep doing what we’re doing now by bringing the top teams here.
“Hopefully soccer is going to be even bigger in the States.”