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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W3Schools

5 thoughts on “The Myth That Holds Back American Soccer”

  1. Have you ever been to Uruguay? Stroll down to a park or a beach in that country. You will see virtually every single male human being, especially little boys, with a soccer ball at their feet. When do you see Americans playing soccer informally like that? Almost never. That’s how you grow up to be Suarez, Forlan, Cavani.

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    1. It really depends where you look in the US; I see it very often where I live. I have seen talent go unnoticed because of the Pay to play system that US Soccer uses. I have said this before and I’ll say it again: we are not too far off as a country from winning major tournaments, even the World Cup. We have the talent, but until we get everything right with the infrastructure, we won’t win anything big at all.

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  2. You present a lot of numbers and data to show that lots of people in the US play/like soccer. It would be interesting to know how many people that play soccer are over the age of 12 or 13 or so, about the age that many youth turn to the other “big” sports and leave soccer in the dust. It would also be intersting to know how many that PLAY soccer also WATCH soccer, and to what extent they watch.

    Moving on… Unfortunately, when you attribute the low interest in MLS to the lack of a pro/rel system, you have zero numbers that would back up that assertion. No statistics. No survey results. No data. No study. Nothing. Not even common sense would lead to this conclusion. It’s totally OK that you have this opinion, but you don’t make a single argument to support your opinion.

    My opinion is that it is much more logical that the reason MLS is so unpopular is that the more popular leagues are the ones with the best of the best playing there: La Liga and the Premiere League primarily. The team and individual talent in those leagues is far superior to the MLS. Common sense tells us that people generally prefer to watch the elite play, and since that option is available to us, we go to those instead of to what is a relatively minor league in comparison: the MLS. This is similar to how the NBA and NFL are hugely popular, and the NBA G league and AAF not so much.

    Perhaps if the MLS had grown in a different era when we were more closed off to the outside world, without so many cable/satellite/streaming options, we as Americans would have flocked to MLS, as it would have been our only readily available option. I grew up watching soccer on fuzzy UHF Spanish channels — Serie A, Copa America, Euro 92, and sometimes Mexican League — because that was all I had available to me. Sometimes I’d stay the night at my grandpa’s house because he had cable and there would be an ASL game on at 2AM my brothers and I could watch. If there was an MLS is those days, on a regular network, we would have been hooked.

    I think pro/rel would be cool, but the sport’s current levels has little to nothing to do with that, in my data-free opinion.

    Cheers!

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  3. Promotion/relegation is not the problem or the solution. It would kill the pro game here( for now) To suggest that fans don’t watch because of it is ridiculous. Fans don’t watch because it sucks..the problem is talent.. scouts for big European clubs can find a kid in the Brazilian rain forest but not L.A., Chicago, Denver etc.? We are not close to doing anything. None of this will change until us soccer begins to invest and grow the game on lower levels among several other glaring problems.

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