It’s matchday. All across Europe, South America, and Mexico thousands of people pour into hundreds of football, or soccer, stadiums ready to stand and cheer on their team for ninety minutes. The home fans swarm to their seats while thousands of away fans travel dozens of miles to fill their allotted sections. After the end of the match, the home fans make their way back to their homes, while the away crowd begins the journey back to their city. This is just one day, out of nearly fifty just like it. It’s the culture; a passion, a pastime, and a way of life.

Here in America, how exactly do we differ? Sure, many people go to games and watch on TV, but here in the United States, soccer is still very undeveloped compared to other top countries. We have a soccer league, we have stadiums, and we have a populous country. So what’s the issue? To find out, let’s dive a little deeper into the current state of American soccer.


This is part one of a three part series on the State of American Soccer. The next edition will cover the state of our domestic leagues leading up to the third and final story: the USA’s youth and national team development.


History

Like much of the rest of the world, soccer has been in the United States for more than one hundred years. It’s believed that the sport was brought to the states by European immigrants to New Orleans in the 1850’s. Throughout the mid-to-late 19th century, soccer was becoming more and more popular locally and it wasn’t long until international fixtures between the United States of America and other nations began. The USA’s very first international game was held against Canada in 1885.

It took over thirty years, but finally in 1919 the American Soccer League was founded. Thus began the rotating cycle of leagues in America. 46 years later, another league, the North American Soccer League was founded. Almost another 20 years later, the United Soccer League was founded in 1984, the same year in which the American Soccer League was cancelled (for the second time). Just a year later the NASL, still trying (and failing) to recover from Pele’s retirement in 1977, and the USL ceased to exist.

Only one league, with only four teams remained. Desperately trying to find a foothold for soccer in the states, the USA put together a bid for the 1994 World Cup. FIFA liked the potential behind America’s bid and selected them as the host nation. The tournament was a huge success, drawing record crowds of nearly 70,000 people on average. Riding the wave from the World Cup, Major League Soccer put its foot in the door and began looking for investors. A year later, the league was launched.

Although the United States finally had a somewhat stable top league, many changes were still going on all over the soccer scene. Disappointing World Cup results from the US Men’s National Team, a lack of stability in the American lower “feeder” leagues, and a young top league all contributed to a very rocky turn of the century. Would MLS survive? And would soccer ever get a real chance in the United States?

Fast forward to 2017. Things look different and yet still surprisingly similar. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, MLS is still operating as the top league, while two “new” leagues have joined as co-second division leagues. The USL (United Soccer League) and NASL (North American Soccer League) were both re-founded and rebranded in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

With a sliver of stability, we now look backwards, asking, “what caused soccer’s near-death in the United States?”

Well, a major issue with many of the first leagues in the United States was a lack of quality leadership and ownership. With league after league coming in and out, one after the other, there was rarely any time to establish a competent network of educated, passionate people to run said leagues. Realistically, owners would have been foolish to invest in such an unstable product, with no sure return on investment. Therefore, with no quality leadership and unsure owners, why would players want to risk there careers to come play in America? Would you choose to play in an unstable, young, and unproven league when there are several well-established alternatives in Europe and South America?

These were just a few of the battles that America’s early leagues were fighting. As a result of these problems, soccer was almost completely eliminated from the USA. Now, with soccer in somewhat of a rejuvenation period, the sport is once again garnering popularity in the states. In contrast to its previous counterparts, MLS has a well connected network of intelligent business people in place in order to insure the long term financial success of the league. It also has committed owners who recognize the improving quality of Major League Soccer and it’s players. Under current MLS Commissioner Don Garber, Major League Soccer has been able to avoid many of its predecessors’ mistakes, helping the sport to gain a more secure hold domestically.


Stay tuned for part two of the series for more on the United States’ domestic leagues.

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Published by Joseph Lowery