At one point the words USA and soccer did not seem to belong in the same sentence. Even so, the history of soccer in the USA dates back to the 19th century; The breakthrough moment came when the team qualified for the FIFA World Cup in 1990.
Today there are more than 85 million soccer fans in the country and soccer is the fastest-growing team sport. And after a spirited performance in Qatar World Cup, the rise in popularity is expected to be higher.
Moreover, with the country due to co-host the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada, soccer is likely to gain more and more prominence.
USA Soccer – The Men
Soccer has a surprisingly long history in the USA, at least as far as the men’s game is concerned. The team played their first international soccer match 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.
The first global success came at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics where they gained silver and bronze medals. Subsequently, the United States was 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. This remains the country’s best showing to date in the World Cup.
But it was in 1950 during the Brazil World Cup when the US soccer team shocked the soccer world with a major upset. They defeated England 1 - 0.
However, rather than ushering in an era of more success, the enthusiasm for soccer in the USA faded. It took them almost 40 years to qualify for another World Cup.
One reason that soccer lost its track in the country was the absence of any league structure to nurture the soccer players. The North American Soccer League (NASL) operated from 1968 to 1984, but it failed to gain a solid financial footing.
Even the visit of soccer legends like Pele, Bobby Moore, George Best, and Franz Beckenbauer failed to promote the game.
The revival came with the decision to award the 1994 World Cup to the USA. In preparation for the tournament, the USA did qualify for the 1990 World Cup. And even though they left Italy without reaching the quarter-finals, the country was back on the footballing map.
During the 1994 World Cup, the US Soccer Federation put the team on a contract and ran it along professional lines. The USMNT (US Men’s National Team) drew with Switzerland in their opening game and beat Colombia in the next. In the second round, they lost narrowly to eventual champions Brazil.
Still, the performance had again established the USA as an international force. The legacy of the event inspired thousands of boys and men to take up the sport. It was the return of soccer as a mainstream game.
At a regional level, the USA also won the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the first time in 1991. They have participated in the South American championship, the Copa América, multiple times. The team has twice finished fourth in that competition, most recently in 2016.
As far as the FIFA World Cup history goes, their best performance since 1930 was reaching the quarter-final in 2002. The country appeared in the next three tournaments, before suffering the embarrassment of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. They lost a vital qualifier 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago.
The good news is, the USA will co-host the 2026 World Cup. Moreover, the MSL (Major League Soccer) is now established and thriving. So, the country has a financially viable and stable league structure governed by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) for the first time in its history.
That said, the US soccer team is still not in the same league as top international teams like Brazil, Portugal, France, Netherlands, or Spain. Presently, the team has some of the top midfielders and goalkeepers. But it needs more effective defenders and standout goal scorers like Brian Mcbride.
However, crossing the group stage and making regular appearances at the knockout stage of the World Cup tournaments should not 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. The team recorded three World Cup wins, four Olympic gold medals, and eight regional CONCACAF Championships to their name.
Besides, some of the players like Abby Wambach, Brandy Chastain, Hope Solo, and Carli Lloyd have become household names.
In fact, due to no sexual discrimination in federally funded education or program in the country, women were free to play soccer in the US. This made it a popular sport among young girls and allowed talent to flourish.
Current projections indicate that soccer will be the most popular sport played by women in America within the next decade.
On the other hand, women’s football was effectively banned, at least as an organized sport, in many other countries. When women’s soccer was becoming a major participatory sport in America, it was still in its infancy in many countries.
Another reason behind the popularity of women’s soccer is the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup win under head coach Anthony D. DiCicco Jr. The USA team’s progress to the final by defeating countries like Denmark, Germany, and Brazil, captured the imagination of the American public. Soccer became national news and grabbed the headlines.
The final became the highest-ever attended women’s sporting event in history. The match itself, against China, remained goalless after 90 minutes and the extra time playoff and went to penalties. Brandi Chastain scored the winning spot kick and inspired a whole generation of girls to take up the game.
That said, there are signs that other football associations are starting to catch up to the USA. Women’s soccer has become popular even in countries like Iran and Russia. The United States still tops the FIFA Women’s World Rankings, but Germany, England, and France are hard on their heels.
US Soccer History- Final Thoughts
While the term USA Soccer once seemed an oxymoron, it is now an established sport in the country. The 2022 World Cup matchup between the USA and England, recorded 15.4 million viewers. This was an all-time viewer record for a men's soccer game in the country.
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.