IN the US in the 1970s and 1980s, if you told someone you were going to play football they would more than likely think you were talking about American football with touchdowns and quarterbacks. Soccer, as it is called in the US, was not a popular sport 50 years ago like basketball and baseball.
Soccer has grown by leaps and bounds. The professional soccer league in the US called Major League Soccer (MLS), formed more than 25 years ago, has boosted the sport.
The US are now a powerhouse in Concacaf, but that was not always the case. When the US won the bid to host the FIFA 1994 World Cup it created a new fan base and suddenly soccer became a sport of choice. US only competed at three World Cups before 1990, participating in the first two editions in 1930 and 1934, which was followed by an appearance at the 1950 World Cup.
1994 World Cup changed US soccer
Since the 1990 World Cup, US have only failed to qualify once.
At the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva in 2017, a brilliant 30-yard strike by Alvin Jones gave the Soca Warriors a win over the US in a World Cup qualifier. TT won the match 2-1, eliminating the Americans’ chances of advancing to the 2018 Russia World Cup.
Qualifying for the 1990 World Cup was not as significant for the growth of soccer as hosting the 1994 World Cup for the US, but the 1990 tournament allowed many Americans to see their soccer team play at the highest level for the first time. Many Americans would have been too young or not even born yet to see the US play at the 1950 tournament.
US travelled to Port of Spain in November 1989 and defeated TT 1-0 courtesy of Paul Caligiuri’s goal to seal a spot at the 1990 Italy World Cup. The 1990 US World Cup squad only had four overseas-based players, including Caligiuri. Most of the players in the US team now feature in top leagues throughout Europe.
At the 1994 World Cup, the US public did not only get to see their players in action but seeing the best players in the world would have elevated soccer and increased its fan base. Brazil had Romario, Italy had Roberto Baggio, Argentina had Gabriel Batistuta, Germany had Jurgen Klinsmann, The Netherlands had Dennis Bergkamp and Romania had Gheorghe Hagi.
The world’s best soccer players were on US soil.
Fans came out in their numbers as the average attendance was 69,000 during the 52-match tournament.
The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California was the largest venue with a capacity of over 94,000.
In a 2019 interview with the Planet Futbol Podcast, 1994 World Cup US player Claudio Reyna spoke about what hosting the World Cup meant. Reyna, who was only 20 during the tournament, said, “These guys prior to me joined the national team and they were just fighting for respect in this country for soccer players and for the sport. And 1994 was the first chapter of the world waking up to us and taking us seriously.” Reyna was the youngest member of the team.
Since 1994, US have advanced to the knock-out phase multiple times with their most impressive showing coming at the 2002 South Korea/Japan World Cup when they made it to the quarter-finals.
In 2026, the US will host the World Cup for the second time, this time alongside Mexico and Canada.
MLS no overnight success
The MLS is a lucrative league which has attracted many marquee international players. It did not reach there overnight after the league kicked off in 1996. Starting with just ten teams, the success was not immediate as the first few years were challenging.
Millions of dollars were lost in revenue and two teams pulled out of the league – Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion.
Mutiny were in the MLS from 1996–2001 and the Fusion were there for just three years from 1998–2001.
The league has grown significantly with 29 teams now competing – 26 in the US and three based in Canada.
English soccer star David Beckham brought more fans to matches when he played for the LA Galaxy from 2007-2012.
His skill at taking free kicks was worth the ticket prices for many. Beckham has seen the value of investing in the MLS as he is the president and co-owner of Inter Miami, a club playing in the league since 2020.
Beckham created more news when he signed Argentine superstar Lionel Messi in 2023 to play for Inter Miami.
Messi has made the league sore. Celebrities like NBA legend Lebron James, actor Leonardo Di Caprio, tennis legend Serena Williams and reality TV star Kim Kardashian have attended MLS matches to watch Messi.
English player Wayne Rooney, Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Welshman Gareth Bale have also brought their talent to the MLS over the years.
Before Messi’s arrival, the cheapest ticket for an Inter Miami match was $25. Now fans have to fork up close to $300. Not only Beckham has invested in the MLS. US actor Will Ferrell, a massive sports fan, has been a part-owner of billion dollar franchise Los Angeles FC since 2016.
MLS signed a major ten-year deal with technology brand Apple in February worth US $250 million per year, allowing fans to watch MLS matches on Apple devices.
The growth does not end there as the league will expand to 30 teams in 2025 as San Diego FC will make their debut.