The Myth That Holds Back American Soccer

It is time to shatter the notion that soccer is a small sport in America. A deeper examination of the nation’s landscape proves that soccer is indeed a big sport, and may even be its chief sport. Soccer only appears to be a small sport in the USA because of U.S. soccer federation (USSF) governing policy which dooms the U.S. domestic club soccer competition to unpopularity and mediocrity. The “soccer is a small sport” myth is sabotaging USA soccer ambition and expectations.

The evidence suggests that USA has all of the ingredients of a big soccer nation. 

Today’s USA soccer landscape:

  • 24 million soccer players (FIFA census as of 2006). Even if this number is off by multiple millions, the figure is still astounding. 24 million out of USA’s 330 million population means that 1 out of 14 people you meet in America is a soccer player.
  • The total number of soccer fans (anyone at least moderately interested in soccer) would have to at least match this 24 million player count. A reasonable estimate would be somewhere between 30-60 million soccer fans, or 1 in every 9 people you meet.
  • Each year, Americans pack stadiums for dozens of foreign soccer club and national team matches. Many of these crowds exceed 50,000 people.
  • TV ratings for foreign club soccer competitions and the World Cup are high despite the fact that many matches take place during U.S. weekday afternoons or weekend mornings.
  • The 1994 World Cup holds in USA the all-time attendance record for the tournament and the 2026 World Cup in USA looks likely to break that record while raking in immense profits.
  • 30 different ethnic groups have populations of over one million people in America.
  • USA is world #1 in wealth and infrastructure.

With USA’s population of 330 million people, there is plenty of room for soccer to be a big sport alongside multiple big U.S. sports.

America is unique in that it hosts multiple other popular “U.S. sports” such as American football, baseball, and basketball. This uniqueness is sometimes misconstrued as a barrier to soccer’s ability to be a big sport in USA. The flawed logic goes that since soccer is not the king sport in the USA by far, as is the norm in most soccer nations around the world, it is therefore not possible for soccer to be a big sport in the country.

“USA soccer will never thrive until it becomes more popular than NFL or NBA.”  Sure, it would be great if soccer attracted most of the national sport attention in USA, but this unique landscape does not disqualify USA from being a big soccer nation. A 330 million population leaves plenty of room for huge followings of baseball, basketball, American football, and soccer.

USA’s estimated soccer player and fan population alone matches the entire populations of many great soccer nations around the world.

  • Uruguay has a population of 3.4 million. USA’s 24 million soccer player population dwarfs that total by an 8 to 1 ratio.
  • Holland has a total population of 17 million. USA has 7 million more soccer players than that.
  • Spain and Argentina each have total populations of 45 million. America’s total population is seven times larger.

The “soccer is a small sport” myth is self-sabotaging American soccer.

What sustains this myth is the fact that the USA domestic club soccer competition is extremely unpopular. As of the start of 2018, Major League Soccer (MLS) captures just 6% of USA’s total soccer TV viewership. Since the USA domestic club soccer competition is so unpopular, it fails to gain traction with USA’s mainstream sport, news, and pop-culture media outlets. When people do not see much USA domestic club soccer presence on TV and online, they naturally conclude that soccer itself is just not that big in America.

Satellite TV, mobile and online connectivity has clearly illustrated America’s love for the normal version of soccer seen around the world. The USA domestic soccer competition uses an MLS-based closed system with no promotion and relegation (a closed market). This MLS-exclusive ecosystem drives away fan interest and investment from the majority of USA’s soccer population. USA does not have a soccer popularity problem, it has an MLS problem. The 6% MLS share of the total USA soccer TV market is shrinking (it’s down from 7% in 2016).

If Americans think that soccer is a small sport in their country, their default output will inevitably match with small dreams, ambitions, expectations, and pressure on those in charge of the federation.

USA misses the World Cup out of a cakewalk qualifying region?

“No big deal. USA is a small soccer nation anyways. Try again in four years.”

Nobody cares about U.S. domestic club soccer?

“No big deal. Soccer is so young here in America. Give it another 20 years to grow.” 

The “small sport” myth keeps American soccer mired in mediocrity. USA is a soccer-crazy nation that has all of the tools required to conquer the world. It must unleash itself by aligning with the global standard of soccer: independent and unlimited clubs in a promotion/relegation (open market) system. No more training wheels. No more “baby sport” excuses. Those in charge of American soccer must be held accountable for a lack of progress by the domestic club competition and national team.

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Why Did USA Miss the World Cup?

USA could have very easily made the 2018 World Cup (it was just one goal or a few bounces away from doing so). The problems highlighted here would exist whether the USA made or missed this World Cup. The the full context surrounding this USA soccer disaster must be examined. A somewhat one-off event of failing in a few CONCACAF World Cup qualifying matches means as much in the grand scheme of things as an improbable run to the quarterfinals of a single World Cup.

However, one-off events can serve as wake up calls for those unaware of big-picture American soccer issues. This is why many people were just fine with USA missing this latest World Cup. While USA soccer’s failure to qualify is a painful experience in the short term, it can serve as a great long-term learning and re-thinking opportunity for the long-term future of American soccer.

A disaster of this magnitude shook USA soccer to the core, so it is only right for the program to examine its very foundations in order eradicate the root cause of failure. There are surface-level observations which predictably catch the attention of the masses first:

  • USA soccer is a “rich” sport – The best training and playing opportunities for youngsters cost a lot of money (pay-to-play).
  • There is not a big enough soccer culture in USA – Other U.S. sports are overshadowing soccer, not enough kids are playing pick-up soccer, and not enough are following MLS (D1).

One must understand the “whys” behind what is seen on the surface.

These perceived “problems” are just symptoms or byproducts of one root U.S. Soccer governing federation policy: a closed system which excludes and kills incentive for most constituents in the USA soccer ecosystem (more on this topic here).

There’s always a chance of failure even if a system is set up correctly. Global soccer powerhouses like Holland or Italy also missed the 2018 World Cup. But remember, in the larger context, these nations will be contenders to win the entire tournament most World Cup cycles. While systems do not directly determine results, they do have a massive influence. Look at USA soccer’s big-picture record on the international stage:

USA’s World Cup record since 1930: six wins (one every 14 years).

Yikes!

The 2018 U.S. national team is very similar to the team in the 1990s: good enough to qualify for a World Cup but not a serious contender. At the turn of the century, many people believed that USA would grow into a World Cup contender by around 2010. Where is the progress? The competition USA is trying to catch is only increasing the gap, and nations behind are catching up. It is clear that the current system is not a sustainable trajectory.

A national team player pool relies on the production and development success of its domestic clubs. National team programs are not responsible for developing players. Observe how heavily the U.S. national team has relied on exclusively or partially foreign-developed players. Despite its 330 million population, USA resorts to scouring the globe to recruit dual-citizens such as Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones. Key players such as Christian Pulisic leave U.S. programs in their teen years and spend their most important development years in foreign, open ecosystems. The quality produced from USA’s main, domestic player development pipeline is quite lacking.

The USA has 24 million soccer players (FIFA census in 2006). There are so many players in the hat yet so few top-level talents are produced in the end. What if America’s 9,000+ soccer clubs had the opportunity to win promotion to USA soccer division 1? Currently, one single club, Major League Soccer (MLS), has a protected monopoly on the USA first division. An anti-competitive market is awful for investment and innovation. Opening the USA soccer market means that these 9,000+ clubs have incentive to pour money into their infrastructure, sign players and coaches, form scouting networks, and build and sustain free-to-play training academies. The hope of winning promotion is critical to the existence of any lower division soccer club.

With its massive population, the USA by default ends up with a few handfuls of players that are good enough to cut it in top first-division clubs around the world. The mild success of the U.S. national team pool today happens despite a toxic domestic club soccer system. Without many clubs producing top-level talent, the U.S. talent pool will continue to be mired in mediocrity. Adopting an open-market soccer ecosystem is not a wild conspiracy theory. All you have to do is observe the other 99% of the soccer world today. It is time for USA to run its soccer the normal way.


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American Soccer Has an MLS Problem

It is time to STOP blaming USA soccer struggles and failure on USA soccer fans or the sport of soccer itself.

The typical, tired lines are spouted and recycled over and over:

  • “USA doesn’t have enough soccer fans”
  • “USA doesn’t have a strong soccer culture”
  • “Soccer is new in America”

Understand that soccer is already HUGE in the USA. Why?

  • 24 million total soccer players (2006 FIFA census)
  • #1 wealth and infrastructure among world nations
  • Packed stadiums for foreign club and national team matches
  • High U.S. TV ratings for foreign club and international matches
  • Soccer (amateur and pro) has existed for over a century

USA has all of the ingredients of a world-class soccer nation, but it is simply not utilizing them correctly. USA’s domestic club competition is very unpopular, and its club and national team player pool is mediocre at best.

Chief blame for USA soccer mediocrity must rest on the occupant and key holder of USA’s club soccer ecosystem: Major League Soccer (MLS). 

We must understand that MLS is structured as one single club (or company), and the U.S. Soccer governing federation has given it exclusive and unassailable control of the USA soccer division 1 sanction. This is the equivalent to the English Football Association handing exclusive control of its division 1 sanction to one single club like Manchester United. Sounds ludicrous, right? This is the reality in the current U.S. Soccer ecosystem.

One single club sits in USA soccer division 1 while millions of people and thousands of clubs outside of division 1 are starved of opportunity. MLS might absorb a few groups if they fit its business model and pay a $200+ million franchise fee.

The best measuring stick for MLS success or failure are its TV ratings. How does MLS stack up?

That’s right: MLS is grabbing a tiny slice of the total USA soccer market, and that slice is shrinking!

MLS did capture a larger USA soccer market share in its early (Mid-1990s) years, but ever since America has been exposed to authentic, global soccer on a wide scale thanks to the proliferation of mobile and TV technology, MLS market-share has consistently decreased.

Closed-system soccer is NOT authentic soccer and the smart American soccer public knows this (see TV ratings above). Real club soccer is about inclusion and opportunity. All communities and clubs deserve a fair chance to earn a place in the pinnacle of USA soccer based on sporting merit. The current MLS-centric model attempts to shove global soccer into a U.S. franchise sport box.

Why does America continue to give the failing MLS model a monopoly over American soccer?


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How Sir Alex Ferguson Would Fix USA Soccer

Rumors of ending promotion/relegation or the creation continent-wide super leagues tend to pop up on periphery of the soccer world every now and then – particularly in these modern days of globalized, high-revenue soccer industry.

In 2011, speculation about closing the Premier League (England’s division 1) prompted a strong rebuttal from the legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson in this Telegraph article. When viewing from the American soccer closed system perspective, Ferguson’s words provide an accurate diagnosis for USA soccer’s unpopularity and instability problems:

“If you look at the Championship (division 2) at the moment, we have at least eight teams with tradition and history,” Ferguson said. “What do you say to those eight teams? That they can never play in the premier division? I think that would be absolute suicide for the rest of league and particularly the teams in the Championship.

You might as well lock the doors. The only place you can make money and realise your ambitions is in the Premier League (division 1) and you can’t take that away from clubs.”

American soccer is a real-life example of the “suicidal” closed-system conditions that Ferguson warns against. Hundreds of USA soccer clubs have little hope beyond merely staying afloat in their current minor league state. Where is the motivation to innovate and build as a club with no chance of increased revenue and status? Where is the motivation for fans to rally behind a lower division club that is not allowed to aspire to higher levels? Where is the motivation for sponsors or television networks to invest in a product that is not allowed to grow itself in to relevancy?

Today, there are still hundreds of lower-division USA soccer clubs – backed by great fans, coaches, players, and administrators – that do a great job of staying afloat despite America’s toxic, closed-system conditions. It is important to understand that this current lower division landscape is a testimony of what could be under free and open conditions. The struggles that come with captivity must be blamed on the captors (The U.S. Soccer governing federation and its exclusionary, closed-system policy), and not the captives (lower division clubs).

American soccer has long hoped for a stable and popular domestic soccer product like the rest of the free soccer world. It is a nation that has all of the tools, determination, and effort to become a massive soccer nation, but it is simply shooting itself in the foot with its own poisonous governing policy.

American soccer would be well advised to start listening to the global soccer experts when it comes to its decision on an open system. Most agree with Sir Alex Ferguson on this one: inclusion and opportunity are part of the essence of global soccer. USA soccer has ambled in the dark ages of the global game for far too long. Aligning with the open system format that has seen wild success throughout 99% of the free soccer world would be a massive step forward.


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