Deja Vu All Over Again? What Is The Immediate Future Of Soccer in the U.S.

We can now sit back and take a breath after the 2014 World Cup gave us over a month of breathtaking goals, rabid Uruguayans, draws that felt like losses, losses that felt like wins, and record-breaking television ratings in the United States. While certain of those memories will stay with us for weeks and even years to come, the question now has to be asked: where does soccer go from here in the United States? Is this truly the time when soccer will “break through” and join its place in the upper-echelon of major sports in the United States?

This is not the first time that it has seemed like soccer was going to make the leap and become as popular in this country as it is around the world. As the Men in Blazers often say, soccer has been America’s Sport of the Future since 1972. The first noticeable wave in recent history took place back in 1975 when Brazilian legend Pelé joined the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League. Pelé’s arrival set the precedent for American soccer leagues serving as place for international stars to go later in their careers. Pelé was later combined with Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia and German superstar Franz Beckenbauer, which led to record attendance numbers for the Cosmos. Their matches were social events in New York City and the club typically averaged over 40,000 fans per match throughout the late 1970s (including celebrity fans Robert Redford and Steven Spielberg) and their matches were televised on ABC. Unfortunately, after Pelé’s retirement, the league could not keep up the momentum and with its growing costs the league ultimately folded at the end of 1984.

Ten years later, similar questions about the future of soccer in the United States were asked when the United States hosted World Cup '94. The World Cup was heavily attended, as an average of over 68,000 packed the stadiums. The television ratings were also impressive, as both the Round of 16 match between the U.S. and eventual champion Brazil and the Final between Brazil and Italy are still the two most-watched soccer matches ever broadcasted in the United States based on the overnight ratings (though there is some debate as to how accurate these television ratings are, as they can’t measure the number of people watching in bars, in public gatherings, or through streaming services as was so prominent this summer).

The awarding of that World Cup directly led to the establishment of Major League Soccer in 1993, with the first season kicking off in 1996. The formation of the league was a requirement in order for the U.S. to get awarded the World Cup and incredibly, at the time the vast majority of the United States Men’s National Team’s roster had NO regular club that they played for. Their “job” was to play for the United States Men’s National Team.

Ultimately, the league could not capitalize on all of the attention from the 1994 World Cup, at least in the beginning. Attendance was spotty and the clubs and the leagues were losing millions of dollars. Two franchises, the Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny folded and there was great concern that just like the NASL, MLS would not survive. Although the league would eventually weather the storm and survive, by the time the United States crashed out of the 1998 World Cup, losing an embarrassing match to Iran, most of the momentum gained from 1994 was extinguished.

There were similar uprisings following the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, as once again, portions of America rallied around the flag and followed the United States team, though they did not garner nearly the attention that the team did in 1994. Which is understandable, as the 1994 team’s denim-washed uniforms were destined to render them an all-time classic (side note: throw back 1994 uniforms go for at least $500 right now on eBay. $500! I mean, not that I’ve looked).


USA's 1994 World Cup jerseys – 20 years later, still amazing. Come on U.S. Soccer, give us a re-release (Photo:

I started following soccer in earnest following the 2006 World Cup. I had thoroughly enjoyed that World Cup and along with my friend Ryan, decided that we needed to start following the English Premier League and pick a team (we picked Chelsea because they were known as the “pretty boys” of the EPL. Not sure what that says about them...or us). Back then, following the world's most-popular league from the States was, frankly, a pain. English Premier League matches were on a few times a weekend on Fox Soccer Channel, a channel which was only available through the premium “sports package” offered by most cable companies. As one of the more prominent clubs, Chelsea’s matches would be on about every other weekend. On the weekends when their matches were not on, we were forced to watch the weekly recap show on Sunday evening to get even a glimpse of the previous weekend’s action.

At that time, it was also pleasantly easy to avoid learning the results of matches that had already taken place. Given the time difference between the East Coast and Europe, often times it would be difficult to watch the matches live (the whole “work” thing got in the way). This was true even of the Champions League, which was covered on ESPN2 at the time. There was no threat of learning the score by tuning in to Pardon the Interruption or even SportsCenter, as the scores didn’t make the ticker at the bottom of the page and there was NO chance of highlights being shown.

That all began to change following the 2010 World Cup. Landon Donovan’s last-minute goal against Algeria to win the group for the United States was played almost on repeat in the weeks that followed and there was a great deal of excitement for the knockout round match against Ghana. Back then, an estimated 19.4 million viewers tuned in on a Saturday to watch the United States lose in heart-breaking fashion. The World Cup Final between Spain and the Netherlands also drew an estimated 24.3 million viewers in the States. While we had seen large numbers back in 1994, this would prove to be something different altogether.

Almost immediately after the 2010 World Cup, it became a lot more difficult to avoid the results of both English Premier League and Champions League matches because (gasp!) ESPN actually started to cover the results. There would be highlights shown on SportsCenter only on occasion, but the results became a fixture of the ticker that scrolls across the bottom of the screen. 

Since then, the coverage of international soccer on mainstream American television has steadily increased. It started with Fox occasionally putting top matches on its main network throughout the season, including the Champions League Final, and culminated in NBC paying a premium to televise the English Premier League starting this past season. NBC provided coverage of every single match, through its main network, NBC Sports Network, MSNBC, and online. Going into this World Cup, the attention given to soccer by U.S. media outlets has never been better.

What's most important about that fact is that these guys are no dummies. In 2011 Fox Sports won the rights to broadcast the 2018 and 2022 tournaments for an estimated $425 million, a significant increase over the estimated $100 million ESPN paid for the 2010 and 2014 Cups. With reams of data on viewer behavior, broadcasters don't make these kind of bets without a strong business case - so clearly Fox believed back then that engagement in the sport would be skyrocketing.

The performance of the United States in this World Cup galvanized the nation, starting with Clint Dempsey’s goal a mere 30 seconds into the first match. Even though it was on at a time when many people were still at work, the reaction shots across the nation following John Brooks’s goal show that something about the way Americans were watching this World Cup was different this time around.

 Look at the crowds in that clip, the number of people gathered in Chicago, and most notably, look at the locations where these reactions were recorded: Omaha, Tuscaloosa, Louisville, College Station. These are not exactly what you consider the “hotbed” for international soccer (or in some cases, international ANYTHING). But seeing the number of U.S. jerseys and genuine joy on display when that goal went in demonstrates that this is not merely a nation rallying around the flag, but something far more substantial. Sure, everyone loves drinking beers and busting out “U-S-A” chants in bars (even when there isn’t a match on), but to see thousands of people gathered together to watch the match in a park in the middle of the day, coupled with those reaction shots, you come away with an inescapable conclusion: people CARE.

An estimated 24.7 million viewers (again that seems low given how the ratings are calculated and what they take into account) watched the U.S.-Portugal draw. By way of comparison, that is more than any game of this year’s NBA Finals that featured LeBron James and the Miami Heat. In a less attractive timeslot, the U.S.-Belgium elimination match drew around 18 million viewers. Even with the U.S. eliminated, the ratings for the tournament remained strong, as over 26 million viewers in the United States watched the World Cup Final between Germany and Argentina, an estimated 13 percent increase from the 2010 Final.

Obviously, NBC and FOX (who owns the rights to the Champions League for this season) cannot expect that type of viewership on a weekly basis and there will not be viewing parties in public places to watch Liverpool and Manchester United on a Sunday morning. The best hope that these networks have is that the fans that were exposed to the beautiful game during this World Cup will want to keep that interest going by doing what I did back in 2006: picking a team and beginning to follow the league regularly. During this World Cup, I have already had a few friends seek my counsel as to which English Premier League club they should start following. Though obviously I would prefer they support Chelsea as I do, the very fact that they are asking gives me confidence that the love of soccer shown during the World Cup is more than just a passing fad. It has a ways to go before it takes its place with baseball, basketball, and of course, American football, but based on what we at The18 have seen, it is on its way.  

In Part II, we will look at what the MLS, U.S. Soccer, and European Leagues can and should do in order to capitalize on the attention that the World Cup received in this country.

Follow Mike Smith on Twitter @thefootiegent.

Please contact him with any information about how to procure a 1994 Alexi Lalas U.S. jersey.

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