Soccer is gaining huge popularity in the United States, thanks to increased exposure to international tournaments and players.
The question has been asked many times—has soccer finally made it as a mainstream sport in America? Ever since the United States hosted the FIFA World Cup in 1994, there has been a gradual rise in the game’s visibility and popularity. Following that, in 1996, Major League Soccer (MLS) was launched as a professional American soccer league. It has now expanded to 22 professional teams across the nation. Meanwhile, the U.S. women’s national team has won three FIFA Women’s World Cups—the latest one being in 2015, where it beat Japan in the finals match. It drew 25.4 million viewers on Fox, making it the most-watched soccer match in U.S. television history.
Excerpts from an interview with Arielle Castillo, senior editor at MLSsoccer.com, the digital content arm of Major League Soccer, about the growing popularity of the sport in the United States and the road ahead.
How has the game of soccer evolved since the 1994 FIFA World Cup and the creation of the Major League Soccer?
There are several developments going on at once. For one thing, more of the global game is available to watch in the U.S. than ever before. We can get Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and all kinds of international tournaments on network and cable TV here in America.
The U.S. men’s national team has strengthened and become more competitive in international tournaments. At the same time, of course, MLS continues to thrive, along with other lower-division professional leagues, which means more people than ever can connect with a hometown team and enjoy the game in real life.
Then, for kids, soccer is more popular than ever to play. Women, especially, are playing it more than ever before. And, they can look up to our World Cup-winning U.S. women’s national team.
In your opinion, what or who were the greatest moments or individuals key to soccer’s visibility in the United States?
Big question. I think, the 1994 World Cup was a pivotal moment for a lot of people. National team legends like Alexi Lalas, Tony Meola, Cobi Jones, Brian McBride and Tab Ramos [Tabaré Ramos Ricciardi] were the earliest rock stars of the game in the U.S. The fact that they continue to be involved in the sport strengthens it.
David Beckham coming to the LA Galaxy [soccer franchise] was obviously a huge moment in drawing international attention to the domestic league in the U.S.
Please tell us about the younger fans of Major League Soccer.
The crazy thing is our youngest fans—anyone younger than 21 years old—only know a world in which MLS has existed! We now have kids who are literal lifelong fans of some teams; which is pretty wild if you were alive before the 1994 World Cup. Another beautiful thing is how local teams provide a unifying point for immigrant communities and new arrivals in cities.
Who are some of the brightest U.S. soccer players who, you think, can take the game to the next level in the United States?
Of the current crop of players in the national team picture, all of the hype right now is around Christian Pulisic, a 19-year-old American who currently plays for Borussia Dortmund in Germany. This is a teenager who is starting in [Union of European Football Associations] Champions League matches. He’s definitely on target to be the next household name like Landon Donovan. Jordan Morris is also a talented forward, from the Seattle Sounders FC, who is one to watch.
Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.