At one point the words USA and Soccer did not seem to belong in the same sentence, a contradiction in terms for a nation obsessed with its traditional sports of American football, baseball and ice hockey. However, that is to ignore the rich and varied history of the men’s game in the country, and the significant impact of the women’s game, where the USA is the most successful team in the relatively brief history of international soccer.
Long associated primarily with immigrant communities, mainly from Mexico and Latin America, soccer Is now one of the fastest growing participation sports in the country and is about to overtake ice hockey in terms of TV spectator numbers, exercising a particular appeal for the key 24 – 35 year old demographic.
And, with the country due to co-host the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada, USA Soccer is likely to gain more and more prominence.
USA Soccer – The Men
USA Soccer has a surprisingly long history, at least as far as the men’s game is concerned, playing their first international friendly against Canada in Newark, New Jersey in 1888, losing 1 – 0. It was the first match between two competing nations represented outside the United Kingdom. Their early global success came at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics where they gained silver and bronze medal, and the United States were one of the 11 teams that contested the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay. They went on to reach the semi-final before losing to Argentina and were later awarded third place, which remains their best showing to date in a World Cup.
The team again made the 1934 tournament, losing to Italy in the first round, but withdrew from the 1938 tournament as storm clouds gathered over Europe. When the World Cup resumed again in 1950 in Brazil, the USA caused one of the tremendous international shocks of all time, beating England 1 – 0 in Belo Horizonte. However, rather than that usher in an era of more success, USA Soccer then fell into the doldrums, and it would be 40 years before the country contested another World Cup.
In the intervening period, the USA and Soccer fell out of love, in part because there was no sustainable league structure to support the domestic game. Hopes were raised by the establishment of the North American Soccer League which operated from 1968 to 1984 but, despite all the surrounding hype and the arrival of big-name players like Pelé, Bobby Moore, George Best, and Franz Beckenbauer, the NASL failed to gain a solid financial footing, and soon folded. Between 1981 and 1983 the country played just two international games, and although they contributed a strong team to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, they did not make the second round (however, as a demonstration of the appetite for soccer in North America, it should be noted that the most attended event at that Olympics was the soccer gold medal match) between France and Brazil.
The revival came with the decision to award the 1994 World Cup to the USA – a controversial one at the time given the weakness of the national team, and the lack of a cohesive domestic league structure. In preparation for the tournament, the USA did qualify for the 1990 World Cup, and although they left Italy without a single point from their three group matches, the country was back on the footballing map.
The 1994 World Cup, while it did not have the same global impact on the men’s game as the 1999 event was to have for the women, it did have several galvanizing effects on how soccer was both perceived and administered in the country. First, the US Soccer Federation put the team on a contract and ran it along professional lines, as opposed to the old system of minimal per diem allowances. And then the USMNT (US Men’s National Team) enjoyed some success, drawing with Switzerland in their opening game, and then beating highly fancied Columbia in the next.
That was enough for them to qualify for the second round, and, although they then lost narrowly to eventual winners Brazil, it had again established the USA as an international force. Meanwhile, off the pitch, the legacy of the event was that it inspired thousands of boys and men to take up the sport, bringing back into the mainstream a game that had become reserved almost exclusively for immigrants.
At a regional level, the USA also won some silverware, winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup – the championship event featuring teams from North America, Mexico, and Central America – for the first time in 1991, and then going on to record five more victories, the last coming in 2017. They have also been invited to take part as a guest side in the South American championship, the Copa América, on several occasions, and have twice finished fourth in that competition, most recently in 2016.
As far as the World Cup goes, they qualified for the 1998 finals in France but exited having lost all three group games, before reaching the quarter-final in 2002, their best performance since 1930. Appearances then followed in the next three tournaments, before the country suffered the embarrassment of failing to qualify for Russia, losing a vital qualifier to Trinidad and Tobago.
Consolation though came with the news that the USA, together with Canada and Mexico, have been chosen as co-hosts for the 2026 World Cup. And with MSL (Major League Soccer) now established and thriving, the country has a financially viable and stable league structure for the first time in its history.
The development of the men’s game has also been helped by changes like the teams that make up the MLS. Previously regarded as a “retirement home” for aging stars from Europe looking for one final payday before retirement, sides are now bringing through local talent, as well a recruiting some of the best young emerging talents from South America.
This means that the “pool” from which the USMNT has to pick is becoming both wider and more profound in terms of quality, which can only be for the long term good of the national side. It is too fanciful to suggest that the United States can challenge the established teams from Europe or South America and become World Cup winners in the foreseeable future, but regular appearances at the quarter-final stage should be beyond them.
USA Soccer – The Women
The USWNT (United States Women’s National Team) has a far shorter history, but in terms of honors and achievement, it is a much more glorious one. From playing their first friendly match against Italy in 1985, they have become the most successful women’s international team of all, with three World Cup wins, four Olympic gold medals, and eight regional CONCACAF Championships to their name. And some of their players have been superstars in America, with the likes of Abby Wambach, Brandy Chastain, Hope Solo, and Carli Lloyd becoming household names, making millions of dollars from advertising tie-ins and sponsorship deals.
There are several reasons for this dominance.
Firstly, it is the popularity of the sport itself amongst women and girls in America. For some, this can be attributed in part to Title IX, a Federal Law amendment passed in the US in 1972 which made it illegal to discriminate based on sex in any education or program that is federally funded. This had particular resonance within the US athletic system, meaning that women were now free to play soccer without the barriers, which existed elsewhere being out in their way.
The result can be seen from the numbers of women playing soccer in high school – from a number in the low five figures in the late 1970s to about 20% of today (375,000). If current projections are maintained, it will be the most popular sport played by women in America within the next decade.
And while not all high school students go on to play at a higher level, the proportion that do so means that the USA has a more magnificent pool of talent from which to choose, potentially at least, than many other countries (although some might argue the failure of the country to establish a financially sound league system means that have failed to exploit this advantage as fully as they might).
Meanwhile, in many other countries, women’s football was effectively banned, at least as an organized sport – in England between 1921 and 1971, for example, and in Germany between 1955 and 1970. That meant that, at a time when women’s soccer was becoming a major participatory sport in America, it was still in its infancy in many of the countries that might be expected to compete with it.
A third reason for the massive popularity of women’s soccer in the USA is the legacy of the World Cup which the country hosted for the first time in 1999. Suddenly soccer, so long a marginal sport, at least in terms of media coverage, became national news, making headlines not just on the back but also the front pages of newspapers as well, as the USA team’s progress to the final increasing captured the imagination of the American public.
By the time the USA got to the final, the whole nation was watching, while the 90,000 who crammed into the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, including the then-President Bill Clinton, making it the highest-ever attended women’s sporting event in history.
And the match itself, against China, created its deep-lasting legacy. Goalless after 90 minutes and extra time, the game went to penalties, with Chastain scoring the winning spot kick for her side. Her ensuing celebration in which she ripped her shirt off and fell to the turf, created an image that made instant headlines. As a result, a whole new generation of girls and women were inspired to take up the game and follow in the footsteps of their heroines.
One issue that the USWNT does need to address is color. Since 1991, scarcely more than a dozen colored players have represented the national team, which remains almost exclusively the preserve of middle-class white women. While a few have attributed this to institutionalized racism, the root cause would appear to the US scouting system which, at a grassroots level, does not have a sufficient presence in inner-city areas and rural communities. Instead, the focus has been on the suburbs of major cities, where local children are encouraged to join local teams on a “pay to play” subscription basis.
Not only does this squeeze out ethnic minorities on economic grounds, but it also means that no practical efforts are being made to widen the pool of available talent. It may be the easiest way to recruit more players, but that does not mean it is the best, and it is potentially robbing the USA soccer of players who, at all levels of the game, could raise the overall standard in the country – as they have done in many other nations. Meanwhile, the US Soccer Federation, a non-profit organization, is hoarding more than US$100 million, rather than investing it back into the game.
Meanwhile, on the pitch, there are signs that other nations are starting to catch up to the USA. While they won the last World Cup in Canada, it was Germany who clinched the gold medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The United States still tops the FIFA Women’s World Rankings, but Germany, England, and France are hard on their heels, while countries like Sweden, the Netherlands, and North Korea are also powerful. They will start one of the favorites for the next Women’s World Cup, to be held in France later this year, but they are not the dominant force they once were and will find the competition even stiffer this year.
While USA Soccer once seemed an oxymoron, it is now an established sport in the country, played by millions and watched by increasing numbers. Once regarded as a game mainly for immigrants, it is challenging hockey and baseball in terms of popularity, and, in the USWNT, the country has produced a team of consistent winners. The men’s game has not been able to match their female counterparts in terms of success yet, but finally, the country can be taken seriously as a soccer nation.