The expectations for the United States Men’s National Team heading into the 2022 FIFA World Cup varied from finishing runners up—at least according to Landon Donovan’s bracket—to failing to advance from the group stage.
The mixed bag was rightfully just given numerous question marks for the Americans heading to soccer’s grandest stage for the first time in eight years after failing to qualify in 2018.
The USMNT boasts the second-youngest squad in Qatar with only one player, DeAndre Yedlin, having prior World Cup experience. The United States also looked far from impressive in two tournament warm-up matches—a 2-0 loss to Japan and a 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia.
But with a nation headlined by young players playing at top clubs around the world, some expected the World Cup to be a coming out party of sorts for players like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah and Tim Weah.
As expected by many, the USMNT advanced from Group B as runners up behind England, following a 1-0 victory over IR Iran in a must-win scenario. The USMNT faces Group A winners Netherlands at 10 a.m. ET on December 3 (Fox, Telemundo).
“Obviously I’m very happy for them,” says Philadelphia Union captain Alejandro Bedoya, who has 66 caps with USMNT, including four at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. “I think it’s very well deserved the way they’ve been playing the whole group stage. I thought they’ve been playing some good soccer.
“It was expected of them to get out of the group, but by no means is it an easy feat. This will give them more confidence going into their next game which I think is a winnable game for sure.”
Soccer players, pundits and diehard fans aside, the USMNT’s success is winning over fans across the country, despite the quadrennial tournament being played in the winter—and up against the NFL and NBA—due to extreme conditions in the Middle East during summer.
Fox reports an average of 11.71 million viewers on Fox and Fox Sports streaming services per group stage match, making this year the most-watched USMNT World Cup group stage ever on U.S. English-language television. The USMNT’s highly anticipated match against England on November 25, which ended in a scoreless draw, was watched by 4.6 million on Telemundo Deportes to become the second-most-watched USA World Cup group stage match in Spanish-language history.
“The World Cup provides a platform for the sport in general here in the U.S. we don’t always get and that we missed in the last one,” says former Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo forward Calen Carr. “To have one of the youngest teams in the tournament and an exciting team—a team we can be proud of, a team that plays on the front foot—I really think that that can do a lot to grow the sport.
“I’ve gotten to see a lot of these players come through MLS like Tyler Adams or through academies like Weston McKennie or (Tim) Weah. A lot of these guys you’d know them already, but for the broader group of sports fans here, you’re getting exposed to a Tyler Adams for the first time—who he is as a player, who he is as a person—and what the team’s personality is. That’s something people have already gotten behind.”
The increased viewership comes as no surprise to those in and around the industry, who have witnessed soccer’s growth since the United States hosted the 1994 FIFA World Cup and Major League Soccer was born a year later.
MLS posted a record attendance of more than 10 million this past season, breaking its previous high of 8.6 million set in 2019 as 10 clubs recorded attendance growth. The league also reported increases in viewership, social and digital media engagement, and merchandise sales.
Soccer’s growth in the United States isn’t limited to men’s leagues. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) celebrated its 10th anniversary by welcoming more than 1 million fans to matches for the first time, almost doubling figures from the 2021 campaign.
The 2022 championship match between the Portland Thorns and Kansas City Current was the most-watched game in NWSL history, averaging 915,000 viewers on CBS (a 71% increase from the 2021 title game).
Internationally, the USWNT is the cream of the crop with a record four World Cup titles; the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup is next summer in Australia/New Zealand.
Regardless of how much further the USMNT progresses at the 2022 World Cup, the groundswell of momentum behind the sport both domestically and abroad is expected to come to a crescendo as the 2026 FIFA World Cup comes to North America.
“I was part of the bid committee there (Philadelphia) and those folks are super excited about the World Cup—2026 is going to be something very special,” Bedoya says. “I think we’ve reached an inflection point now with soccer in this country. We’ve seen viewership numbers and audience numbers keep going up and improving; records are being set every year it seems like. By that time in 2026, it’s just going to be incredible.”