BOOM AFTER BUST

WHAT HOSTING THE 2026 WORLD CUP COULD MEAN FOR U.S. SOCCER
July 02, 2018

LAST MONTH, FIFA awarded the 2026 World Cup to the United States, Mexico and Canada, and already the news has re-ignited hope of a great American soccer boom. Of course, after the U.S. men's national team failed to make the tournament this quadrennial for the first time since 1986, merely participating—hosts traditionally earn an automatic bid—would count for major progress. As proposed, 60 of the 80 games, including every match from the quarterfinals on, would be held in one of 10 American cities. And with essentially all the infrastructure already in place, FIFA's grand return to U.S. soil—apart from federal courtrooms, at least—is almost guaranteed to be a logistical (and financial) success. But what about the Cup's ability to take soccer to new heights?

Twenty-five years ago, SI writer Alexander Wolff considered the potential legacy of hosting a World Cup. Writing a year before the U.S. staged the 1994 tournament, Wolff pointed to the event's potential influence on 1) building soccer's popularity as a spectator sport; 2) growing the U.S. Soccer Federation's finances; and 3) creating a top-flight Stateside pro league. As Wolff wrote, "If a soccer boom is ever to take place in the U.S., there will never be a better detonator than the World Cup."

What of the boom, then? It's complicated. As a spectator sport, soccer has surged. While only 2% of adults identified the beautiful game as their favorite sport to watch in 1994, a 2017 Gallup poll saw that number grow to 7%, just behind baseball at 9%. And among adults under the age of 55, soccer actually approaches basketball in popularity. (Unsurprisingly, American football remains king at 37%.)

As for the financial health of U.S. Soccer, the governing body's coffers are overflowing, with the federation's surplus reportedly approaching $150 million, thanks in part to the wild success of the women's team, winners of three World Cup titles since 1991. And America's top-division pro league, Major League Soccer, is likewise proving lucrative. MLS plans to expand to 26 teams by 2020, up from 10 in '04. It's also starting to shed its reputation as the Shady Oaks Retirement Home league for European stars (Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic notwithstanding): Clubs are investing in development academies and acquiring promising players like highly touted Argentine teenager Ezequiel Barco of Atlanta United.

So by those criteria, soccer's growth is undeniable. Which brings us to the next big question: Will that maturation, however incremental, lead to success on the field? We can dream about a 27-year-old Christian Pulisic (below) lifting the World Cup trophy come July 2026, but only eight countries have ever won the men's World Cup for a reason: There's no simple formula for building an elite national soccer program. Becoming a genuine contender will require a full reckoning of the U.S.'s failure to reach Russia, not to mention a complete systemic overhaul of U.S. Soccer's scouting and player development. Sounds easy!

In the meantime, there's no point in agonizing over a soccer boom—slowly, it's already happening. But winning, unfortunately, isn't a popularity contest.