Soccer in the United States

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Soccer in the United States
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Country United States
Governing body U.S. Soccer
National team Men's national team;
Women's national team
First played 1862[1][2]
Registered players 4,186,778 [3]
Clubs 9,000 [3]
National competitions
Club competitions
International competitions
Audience records
Single match 109,318
(Man. Utd. 3–1 Real Madrid at Michigan Stadium, 2014)[4]
Season 77,691
(Cosmos 8-3 Fort Lauderdale Strikers) at Giants Stadium, 1977)[5][6]

Soccer in the United States is governed by the United States Soccer Federation, commonly known as U.S. Soccer. The organization governs most levels of soccer in the country, including the national teams, professional leagues, and the amateur game with the exception of college and high school soccer. With over 13 million Americans playing soccer in the United States, soccer is the third most played team sport in the U.S., behind only basketball and baseball/softball.[7] The popularity of soccer in the U.S. has been growing since the 1960s and 1970s, and received a significant boost when the United States hosted the 1994 World Cup. In the United States, the sport of association football is mainly referred to as "soccer", as the term "football" is primarily used to refer to the sport of American football.[8]

The highest professional soccer league in the U.S. is Major League Soccer. MLS began play in 1996 with 10 teams, and has grown to 20 teams (17 in the United States and 3 in Canada), with further expansion planned. The MLS season runs from March to December, with the regular-season winner awarded the Supporters' Shield and the post-season winner awarded the MLS Cup. With an average attendance of over 20,000 per game, MLS has the third highest average attendance of any sports league in the U.S.,[9] and is the seventh highest attended professional soccer league worldwide.[10]

Soccer fans also follow the U.S. national teams in international competition. The 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup Final drew a record 26.7 million viewers, greater than final games of the 2014 World Series or the 2015 NBA Finals, and the 2010 Men's World Cup final drew 26.5 million viewers[11] The men's national team has played in every World Cup since 1990, and the women's national team has won three Women's World Cup titles and four gold medals at the Summer Olympics.


Beginnings and decline: 1850s – 1930s

There has been some debate about the origins of modern soccer in America. It has long been held that the modern game entered the States through Ellis Island in the 1860s. However, 2013 research has shown that soccer entered America through the port of New Orleans, as Irish, English, Scottish, and German immigrants brought the game with them. It was in New Orleans that many of the first games of soccer in America were held.[12]

Oneida Football Club has been named as the first association football club in the United States but there is still discussion on what rules the club used, and it broke up within the space of a few years.[13] According to Encyclopædia Britannica, the club is often credited with inventing the "Boston Game", which allowed players to both kick a round ball along the ground, and to pick it up and run with it.

The first U.S. match known to have been inspired by FA rules was a game between Princeton University and Rutgers University on November 6, 1869, which was won by Rutgers, 6–4. The FA rules were followed in the Princeton–Rutgers contest: participants were only allowed to kick the ball and each side had 25 players. Other colleges emulated this development, but all of these were converted to rugby by the mid-1870s and would soon become famous as early bastions of American football.[14]

The Fall River Rovers were among the few clubs to win both the National Challenge Cup and the American Cup.

The earliest examples of governance in the sport started in 1884, when the American Football Association (AFA) was incarnated. The AFA sought to standardize rules for the local soccer teams based in the Northeastern United States, particularly in northern New Jersey and southern New York state. By 1886, the AFA had spread in influence into Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.[15]

Within a year of its founding, the AFA organized the first non-league cup in American soccer history, known as the American Cup. For the first dozen years, clubs from New Jersey and Massachusetts dominated the competition. It would not be until 1897 that a club from outside those two states won the American Cup. Philadelphia Manz brought the title to Pennsylvania for the first time. Due to conflicts within the AFA, the cup was suspended in 1899, and it was not resumed until 1906.

Early soccer leagues in the U.S. mostly used the name "football", for example: the AFA (founded in 1884), the American Amateur Football Association (1893), the American League of Professional Football (1894), the National Association Foot Ball League (1895), and the Southern New England Football League (1914). Common confusion between the terms American football and association football eventually led to a more domestic widespread use of the term soccer to regard association football. Originally seen as a British slang term for "association", the use of soccer began appearing in the late 1910s and early 1920s. A noticeable example was the American Soccer League (ASL), which formed in 1919. The governing body of the sport in the U.S. did not have the word soccer in its name until 1945, when it became the United States Soccer Football Association. It did not drop the word football from its name until 1974, when it became the United States Soccer Federation, often going simply as U.S. Soccer.

In October 1911, a competing body, the American Amateur Football Association (AAFA) was created. The association quickly spread outside of the Northeast and created its own cup in 1912, the American Amateur Football Association Cup.

The conflicts within the AFA led to a movement to create a truly national body to oversee American soccer. In 1913, both the AAFA and AFA applied for membership in FIFA, the international governing body for soccer. Drawing on both its position as the oldest soccer organization and the status of the American Cup, the AFA argued that it should be the nationally recognized body. Later that year, the AAFA gained an edge over the AFA when several AFA organizations moved to the AAFA.

On April 5, 1913, the AAFA reorganized as the United States Football Association (USFA), presently known as the United States Soccer Federation. FIFA quickly granted a provisional membership and USFA began exerting its influence on the sport. This led to the establishment of the National Challenge Cup, which still exists as the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, that fall. The National Challenge Cup quickly grew to overshadow the American Cup. However, both cups were played simultaneously for the next ten years. Declining respect for the AFA led to the withdrawal of several associations from its cup in 1917. Further competition came in 1924 when USFA created the National Amateur Cup. That spelled the death knell for the American Cup. It played its last season in 1924.

During the days of the American Soccer League, the league was seen as widely popular, and considered to be the second-most popular sports league in the United States, only behind Major League Baseball.[citation needed] However, the "soccer war" between the USFA and ASL, combined with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, led to the demise of the ASL in 1933, and the demise of the sport in the United States, entering a prolonged time of obscurity.

Re-emergence and growth: 1960s – 2000s

The prominence of college soccer increased with the NCAA sanctioning an annual men's soccer championship, beginning in 1959 with the inaugural championship won by Saint Louis University.

Two professional soccer leagues were started in 1967, the United Soccer Association and the National Professional Soccer League, which merged to form the North American Soccer League in 1968. The NASL enjoyed a significant boost in popularity when the New York Cosmos signed Pele to play for three seasons in 1975–77. The Cosmos drew large publicity throughout the late 1970s. Between 1977 and 1980, the N.Y. Cosmos drew crowds of more than 60,000 on ten occasions, and over 70,000 on seven occasions (see Record attendances in United States club soccer). The NASL declined during the early 1980s and disbanded in 1984. The popularity of indoor soccer peaked in the 1980s, with both the NASL[16] and the Major Indoor Soccer League (1978–1992) operating indoor soccer leagues.

The 1970s and 1980s saw increased popularity of the college game. Women's college soccer received a significant boost in 1972 with the passage of Title IX, which mandated equal funding for women's athletic programs,[citation needed] leading to colleges forming NCAA-sanctioned women's varsity teams. A men's match between Saint Louis University and local rival SIU Edwardsville drew a college record 22,512 fans to Busch Stadium on October 30, 1980.[17] By 1984, more colleges played soccer (532) than American football (505).[18]

In 1967 there were 100,000 people playing soccer in the US; by 1984, that number had grown to over 4 million.[18] Girls high school soccer experienced tremendous growth in playing numbers throughout the 1970s and 1980s—from 10,000 in 1976, to 41,000 in 1980, to 122,000 in 1990.[19]

The soccer matches for the 1984 Summer Olympics were well attended. Five matches drew over 75,000 fans, and two soccer matches at the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, California, drew over 100,000 fans.[20] These high attendance figures were one factor that FIFA took into consideration in 1988 when deciding to award the 1994 World Cup to the United States.[21]

Interest in soccer within the United States continued to grow during the 1990s. This growth has been attributed in significant part to the FIFA World Cup being held in the United States for the first time in 1994. This won the sport more attention from both the media and casual sports fans. The tournament was successful, drawing an average attendance of 68,991, a World Cup record that still stands today. The 1994 World Cup drew record TV audiences in the U.S.[22]

As part of the United States' bid to host the 1994 World Cup, U.S. Soccer pledged to create a professional outdoor league. Major League Soccer launched in 1996, which helped develop American players in a way that was not possible without a domestic league. Many of these players competed in the 2002 FIFA World Cup, where the United States reached the quarterfinals, its best result in the modern era.

The growth of the women's game during the 1990s helped increase overall interest in soccer in the United States. The number of women's college soccer teams increased from 318 in 1991 to 959 in 2009.[23] Both the 1999 and 2003 FIFA Women's World Cups were held in the United States. The crowd of over 90,000 at the Rose Bowl for the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup Final remains the largest crowd in the world to witness any women's sporting event.[24]


Over 24 million Americans play soccer as of 2006. There are 4.2 million players (2.5 million men and 1.7 million women) registered with U.S. Soccer.[25] Thirty percent of American households contain someone playing soccer, a figure second only to baseball.[26]

Increasing numbers of Americans, having played the game in their youth, are now avid spectators. The annual ESPN sports poll has shown soccer as the fourth most popular team sport in the United States every year since overtaking hockey in 2006;[27] as of 2011, 8.2% of Americans rank soccer as their favorite sport (compared to 3.8% for hockey).[28] A 2012 Harris Interactive poll showed soccer to be the fifth favorite team sport, with 2% of Americans ranking soccer as their favorite (compared to 5% for hockey).[29] A 2011 ESPN sports poll ranked soccer as the second most popular sport in the country for 12- to 24-year-olds.[30] In 2013, Lionel Messi became the first soccer player ever to rank among the Top 10 most popular athletes in the U.S in an ESPN poll,[31] although he was not listed in the Top 10 in a Harris poll.[32]

Competitions and attendance

Record soccer attendances in the U.S.
Attendance Event Teams Stadium Ref
109,318 2014 ICC Man. Utd. 3–1 R. Madrid Michigan Stadium [33]
101,799 1984 Olympics France 2–0 Brazil Rose Bowl [33]
100,374 1984 Olympics Yugoslavia 2–1 Italy Rose Bowl [33]
97,451 1984 Olympics France 4–2 Yugoslavia Rose Bowl [33]
94,194 1994 World Cup Brazil 0–0 Italy Rose Bowl [33]

Many soccer matches in the United States draw large crowds, particularly international matches. A 2014 International Champions Cup match between Real Madrid and Manchester United at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan had an attendance of 109,318, a record crowd for a U.S. soccer match.[34]

The 2009 Gold Cup quarterfinal matches drew over 82,000 to Cowboys Stadium. Between 2008—2011, the U.S. played three times in East Rutherford, NJ, drawing over 78,000 fans each game.[20] The United States and Mexico national teams have been playing in front of crowds in excess of 60,000 in the U.S. in recent years.

Also in recent years, many top-division European clubs—such as English clubs Manchester United and Chelsea, and Spanish clubs Real Madrid and Barcelona—have spent portions of their pre-season summer schedule playing matches in the United States. These matches have been highly attended events for U.S. stadiums. The 2009 World Football Challenge drew large crowds around the country, and Chelsea's four-game stint in the United States drew record crowds for a visiting foreign team.[35]

Nations from other regions have decided to organize tournaments in the U.S., given the growing soccer market in the country. For example, the 2014 Copa Centroamericana, a soccer competition for countries from Central America, was held in the U.S., due to the commercial appeal of the U.S. soccer market.[36] Similarly, the 2016 Copa América will also be held in the U.S., marking the first time that tournament is held outside of South America. The U.S. was selected to host for financial reasons, because "the market is in the United States, the stadiums are in the United States . . . everything is in the United States."[37]

Furthermore, several nations schedule friendly matches to be held in the U.S. against opponents other than the U.S. national team. For example, the Mexico national team usually schedules several friendlies in the U.S. each year against various opponents. The El Salvador national team also regularly plays friendlies in the U.S., often in the Washington DC area. The Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia national teams also play matches in the U.S.

Soccer on TV

TV contracts and exposure

U.S. television coverage and viewership of club and international soccer is at an all-time high. Mainstream sports networks ESPN, Fox Sports, and NBC Sports Network regularly provide coverage of soccer, as do several popular Spanish-language channels such as Telemundo, UniMas, and Galavisión. Additionally, the U.S. has several networks devoted mostly or completely to the sport, including Gol TV and beIN Sport USA.

The size of the annual TV market in the U.S. for annual club soccer competitions was $126 million as of 2009. The club soccer competitions that generated the most annual revenue from TV audiences in the United States are Major League Soccer ($90m), England's Premier League ($83m), the Mexican league ($50m), Spain's La Liga ($16m), and the UEFA Champions League ($10m).[38] The most widely accessed televised soccer league in the United States is Mexico's Liga MX, which has most of its games televised live and free on television channels Azteca America, Telemundo, UniMas and Univision. Fox began showing English Premier League matches on network TV in 2011, the first time that Premier League matches aired on U.S. broadcast TV.[39] U.S. TV rights for the English Premier League were sold to NBC Sports in 2012 for $250 million for three years beginning with the 2013-14 season.[40] Viewership for the Premier League's 2013-14 season on NBC Sports was 32 million, more than double the previous season.[41] The Premier League earns higher ratings on NBCSN than the National Hockey League, despite the fact that the Premier League is shown in the morning while NHL games are in primetime.[42] Major League Soccer has received broadcast fees from ESPN since 2008, and MLS signed a three-year deal in 2011 with NBC Sports to nationally televise 40 matches per year from 2012-2014. MLS has since then signed new television agreements with ESPN, FOX Sports, and Univision worth in total $90 million per year from 2015-2022. In addition, the 2010 UEFA Champions League final was broadcast live on the Fox Network, marking the first time in history that a soccer match between two European club teams was televised in the U.S. on English-language broadcast television.[citation needed]

Major U.S. TV Contracts (International Competitions)
Competition Annual revenue English language
Spanish language
Average viewership
FIFA World Cup $134 mil Fox Sports
$475 mil (2015–2026)
$600 mil (2015–2026)
4.6m (ESPN/ABC)
3.5m (Univision)
FIFA Women's World Cup *1 Fox Sports
1.5m (ESPN)
FIFA Confederations Cup *1 Fox Sports
1.6m (Univision)
CONCACAF Gold Cup2  ?? Fox Sports
2012/13 – 2015/16
Univision 1.5m (Univision)
European Championship  ?? ESPN
1.3m (ESPN)
325,000 (ESPN Dep.)
Major U.S. TV Contracts (Club Competitions)
Major League Soccer $90 mil ESPN & Fox Sports
$600 mil (2015–2022)
$120 mil (2015–2022)
310,000 (ESPN)
125,000 (NBCSN)
230,000 (Unimas)
Premier League
$83 mil NBC Sports
$250 mil (2013/14–2015/16)
Telemundo 438,000 (NBCSN)
Liga MX
$50 mil ESPN
(many) 847,000 (Univision)
801,000 (UniMás)
La Liga
$16 mil beIN beIN 115,000 (ESPN Dep.)
29,000 (GolTV)[50]
UEFA Champions League
$10 mil Fox Sports
2015/16 – 2017/18
282,000 (FS1)[51]
 ?? Fox Sports
2015/16 – 2019/20
Total > $380 mil


  1. The rights to the two FIFA World Cups during the 2015–2022 timeframe also include rights to the two Women's World Cups and the two Confederations Cups during those years.
  2. The rights to the CONCACAF Gold Cup also include the rights to the CONCACAF Champions League.

In addition, these TV networks also provide coverage of international soccer competitions, including the FIFA World Cup, the FIFA Women's World Cup, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the UEFA European Championship, the FIFA Confederations Cup, and the U.S. men's national team, and women's national team matches. The Mexico national football team is also a popular team featured on Spanish language television and on ESPN.

In addition to the World Cup, other international soccer competitions involving the U.S. team have become more popular among TV viewers. The 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup attracted record television viewership, with the Univision telecast of the final between the United States and Mexico ranking as the third-most watched Spanish-language program of all-time in the United States, beaten only by two FIFA World Cup finals matches. The 2009 Confederations Cup Final featuring the United States attracted 6.9 million viewers (including both the English and Spanish broadcasts).[52] The 2013 World Cup qualifier between the U.S. and Mexico drew 7 million viewers, higher than the 5.8 million average viewers of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup finals.[53] Three 2013 Gold Cup matches were broadcast on the main Fox network channel, the first time since 2002 that a U.S. national team match outside of the World Cup was broadcast on network TV.[54]

TV networks in the U.S. have also begun showing international soccer tournaments that do not include the United States. Euro 2008 was shown on ESPN and ABC. Viewership for the Euro 2012 was 51% higher than 2008, with the 2012 final watched by over 4 million viewers.[55] The viewership on ESPN of the group-stage matches of the 2013 Confederations Cup was 26% higher than the 2009 tournament, even though the U.S. did not play in the 2013 tournament.[56]

FIFA World Cup on TV

The most popular soccer event on TV in the U.S. is the FIFA World Cup. In 2005, the U.S. TV rights for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups were sold to ABC/ESPN and Univision for $425 million in "the biggest TV deal in a single country in FIFA's history."[57][58][59] The telecasts of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Final attracted an estimated 17 million American viewers, higher than the 15.8 million average viewership of the 2006 World Series.[60][61]

The total TV viewership in the U.S. for all the matches including the final for the 2010 World Cup was 112 million viewers, a 22% increase over viewing numbers for the 2006 World Cup.[62] The 2010 World Cup final game drew 24.3 million viewers in the United States,[63] higher than the 14.3 million average viewership of the 2010 World Series.[61][64] Landon Donovan's dramatic game-winning goal against Algeria that advanced the US team to the knockout stage of the 2010 World Cup resulted in jubilant celebrations across the United States. In 2011, the U.S. TV rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were sold to Fox and Telemundo for a record $1.1 billion, more than any other country in the world, and 147 percent higher than the 2010 and 2014 TV rights.[57]

By 2014, the World Cup was considered an elite sports property on U.S. television.[65] The USA-Portugal match during the 2014 World Cup registered 18.2 million viewers on ESPN, making it the most viewed program on ESPN, other than NFL or college football games, and eclipsing viewership numbers of other high-profile sports events such as MLB's World Series, the NBA Finals, and the NHL's Stanley Cup Finals.[65][66] The 2014 FIFA World Cup also generated strong internet traffic, with the tournament generating more viewers via websites and apps than the 2012 Summer Olympics.[67]

World Cup Total Tournament Cumulative Viewership - U.S. Viewership by Year

Here are the complete tournament cumulative viewership totals for every World Cup tournament since 1994. These totals account for all matches played throughout the tournament. Since matches take place at different times individual viewers will be counted multiple times. Only ESPN totals have been accounted for. Please find Spanish viewership as well. For context, the average number of viewers of that year's NFL Super Bowl are also provided.

FIFA World Cup Total Cumulative Viewership - U.S. Viewership by Year
Year Location Matches Viewers
Ref NFL Super Bowl
1994  United States 52 145.6 m [69] 90 m
1998  France 64 78.2 m [70] 90 m
2002  Japan /  South Korea 64 66.8 m [70] 86.8 m
2006  Germany 64 148.5 m [71] 90.7 m
2010  South Africa 64 209.5 m [72] 106.5 m
2014  Brazil 64 291.6 m [73] 111.5 m

World Cup Final Match — U.S. Viewership by Year

The total number of viewers in the United States who watched the World Cup final match are as follows. English and Spanish channel viewership along with internet viewership are accounted for in these statistics. For context, the average number of viewers of that year's MLB best-of-seven World Series are also provided.

FIFA World Cup Final – viewers and ratings
Year Location Kickoff
Rating Teams Ref World Series
1994  United States 3:30 pm 18.1 m 9.5 Brazil vs Italy [69] --*
1998  France 3:00 pm 12.9 m 6.9 Brazil vs France [70] 20.3 m
2002  Japan 6:00 am 11.1 m 4.1 Germany vs Brazil [70] 19.3 m
2006  Germany 2:00 pm 17.0 m 8.6 Italy vs France [71] 15.8 m
2010  South Africa 3:30 pm 24.3 m 8.1 Netherlands vs Spain [72] 14.3 m
2014  Brazil 3:00 pm 29.2 m 9.7 Germany vs Argentina [74] 13.5 m
  • The 1994 World Series was cancelled due to a player's strike.

Other World Cup Matches With Most U.S. Viewers

The following table shows the matches (other than a final match, which are shown in the table above) at the FIFA World Cup that scored the highest TV viewership. English and Spanish channel viewership (and internet viewership, where indicated) are accounted for in these statistics. All of the most-watched matches have taken place since 2010. The highest-rated U.S. World Cup matches have generally involved the U.S. national team.

Year Viewers[22]
Teams Stage Channel Ref Day
2014 25.2m 9.1  United States v.  Portugal GS ESPN [66] Sunday
2014 24.9m 9.8  United States v.  Belgium R16 ESPN [76] Tuesday
2010 19.4m 8.2  United States v.  Ghana R16 ABC Saturday
2014 19.0m 7.0  United States v.  Ghana GS ESPN [77][78] Monday
2010 17.1m 7.5  United States v.  England GS ABC [79] Saturday
2014 17.0m 3.2  Mexico v.  Netherlands R16 ESPN [80] Sunday
2014 16.5m 6.7  United States v.  Germany GS ESPN [81][82] Thursday
2014 15.8m 4.3  Argentina v.  Netherlands SF ESPN [83][84][85] Wednesday

Non World Cup matches on TV

The following table shows the most-viewed international men's team matches other than World Cup matches. Both English and Spanish channel viewership are accounted for in these statistics.

Year Viewers
Teams Event Channels
2013 9.7m USA v. Mexico World Cup qualifier ESPN (1.9) [86][87]
2011 8.9m USA v. Mexico Gold Cup final FSC (1.4), Univision [88]
2013 7.7m Brazil v. Spain Confederations Cup final ESPN (1.2), Univision [89][90]
2013 7.3m USA v. Panama Gold Cup final FOX (1.7), Univision [91]
2014 7.2m USA v. Mexico Friendly ESPN, Univision
2013 7.2m USA v. Mexico World Cup qualifier ESPN (1.6) [92]
2011 7.1m Mexico v. Honduras Gold Cup semifinal Univision [93]
2015 6.8m Mexico v. Jamaica Gold Cup Final Univision & UDN & FS1
2015 6.7m USA v. Mexico CONCACAF Cup Univision & UDN & FS1
2009 5.9m USA v. Mexico Gold Cup final FSC, Univision
2009 5.9m USA v. Mexico World Cup qualifier Univision [94]
2012 5.3m USA v. Mexico Friendly ESPN2, Univision

FIFA Women's World Cup on TV

FIFA Women's World Cup matches with highest U.S. viewership:[95] Top ten, ranked by millions of viewers

Year Viewers
Rating Teams Stage Channel
2015 26.7m 12.9  United States v.  Japan Final FOX & Telemundo[96]
1999 18.0m 11.4  United States v.  China PR Final ABC
2011 13.5m 7.4  United States v.  Japan Final ESPN
2015 8.4m 3.0  United States v.  Germany SF FOX[97]
2015 5.7m 2.0  United States v.  China PR QF FOX[98]
2015 5.0m 2.0  United States v.  Nigeria GS FOX[99]
1999 4.9m 2.9  United States v.  Brazil SF ESPN
2015 4.7m 1.8  United States v.  Colombia R16 FS1[100]
2015 4.2m 1.5  United States v.  Sweden GS FOX[101]
2011 3.9m 2.3  United States v.  Brazil QF ESPN

Youth soccer

The largest category of soccer in the United States in terms of participation is boys' and girls' youth soccer. Soccer is one of the most played sports by children in the United States. In 2012, soccer was the #4 most played team sport by high school boys, and soccer overtook softball to become the #3 most played team sport by high school girls.[102] As of 2006, the U.S. was the #1 country in the world for participation in youth soccer, with 3.9 million American youths (2.3 million boys and 1.6 million girls) registered with U.S. Soccer.[103] Among girls, the U.S. has more registered players than all other countries combined.[104] The number of high school soccer players more than doubled from 1990 to 2010, giving soccer the fastest growth rate among all major U.S. sports.[105] In recent decades, more youth sports organizations have turned to soccer as a supplement to American football,[citation needed] and most American high schools offer both boys and girls soccer. Due to the rising number of youths playing, the term soccer mom is used in American social and political discourse to describe middle- or upper-middle class suburban women with school-age children.[citation needed] Americans between the ages of 12 and 24 rank professional soccer as their second favorite sport behind only American football.[106] And in 2011, the FIFA video game ranked as the #2 most popular video game in the country, behind only Madden.[107] Though organized locally by organizations all over the United States, there are three main youth soccer organizations working nationwide through affiliated local associations. The United States Youth Soccer Association boasts over three million players between the ages of five and 19, while American Youth Soccer Organization has more than 600,000[108] players between the ages of four and 19. Finally, the USL offers a number of youth leagues, including the Super-20 League and the Super Y-League, which have almost 1,000 teams and tens of thousands of players from the ages of 13 to 20.

Men's professional soccer

The professional soccer clubs of the United States and Canada, year 2013.

Major League Soccer

The professional first-division league in the United States is Major League Soccer (MLS), which currently has 17 teams in the U.S. and 3 in Canada. With careful cost controls and the construction of soccer-specific stadiums, some MLS clubs became profitable for the first time in the mid-2000s, and Forbes magazine found that three clubs were already valued at $40 million or more, with the Los Angeles Galaxy worth $100 million.[109] The establishment of the Designated Player Rule in 2007 has led to the signings of international superstars such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry, and Cuauhtémoc Blanco.

Major League Soccer has been in an expansion phase, going from 10 teams in 2005 to 20 teams today, with plans to add a new Atlanta team and a second Los Angeles team (replacing another team in that city folded by the league) in 2017, and to expand to 24 teams by 2020. The league's 2007 and 2009 expansion to Toronto and Seattle, respectively, have proven highly successful, with league-leading ticket and merchandise sales, capped by a sold-out attendances for friendlies against Real Madrid of Spain and Chelsea of England.[110] In 2013, New York City FC agreed to pay a record $100 million expansion fee for the right to join MLS in 2015.[111]

Pro Soccer Teams
Year Teams MLS (D1) NASL (D2) USL (D3)
2011 38 18 8 12
2012 38 19 8 11
2013 40 19 8 13
2014 43 19 10 14
2015 55 20 11 24
2016 61 20 13 28

MLS average attendance has been steadily growing, from 13,756 in 2000 to 18,807 in 2012. MLS has drawn a higher per-game attendance than NBA basketball and NHL hockey every year since 2011.[112][113] Professional soccer has been less popular in the United States than most other parts of the world.[citation needed] Although MLS is also much younger than most other countries' first divisions, it is already the 12th most-attended premier division in the world.[114] MLS has announced its goal of developing into one of the top soccer leagues in the world by 2022.[115]

Lower divisions

The second-tier league is a new incarnation of the North American Soccer League. This league was formed in late 2009, with plans to launch in the 2010 season, by disgruntled team owners from the former second-level league, the USL First Division, after Nike sold its stake in the latter league's parent corporation, the United Soccer Leagues (USL). U.S. Soccer refused to sanction either the First Division or the new NASL for 2010, and the two groups eventually agreed to unite for 2010 only under the banner of USSF Division 2, run directly by U.S. Soccer and including teams from both leagues. U.S. Soccer initially sanctioned the new NASL in November 2010, revoked its sanctioning in January 2011 due to financial issues surrounding the ownership of several teams, and re-sanctioned it in February 2011. The NASL launched in 2011 with eight teams—five on the U.S. mainland, one in Puerto Rico (a U.S. commonwealth that has its own national federation), and two in Canada. One of the Canadian teams left the NASL after the 2011 season to enter MLS; the league remained at eight teams for 2012 as San Antonio Scorpions FC joined NASL. In 2013, a new version of the New York Cosmos joined the NASL. Ottawa Fury FC and Indy Eleven joined in 2014. Three teams were set to join the league in 2015—Jacksonville Armada FC, Virginia Cavalry FC, and Oklahoma City FC—but only the Jacksonville team actually began play. Virginia Cavalry is no longer listed as a future team on the NASL website; Oklahoma City FC was bought by the owner of La Liga club Rayo Vallecano and rebranded as Rayo OKC, which is now set to begin play in 2016. Two other teams, Miami FC and Puerto Rico FC, have been officially announced as 2016 entries.

Following the USL–NASL feud and a subsequent tightening of U.S. Soccer standards for owners of second-division teams, the USL folded its First and Second Divisions into a new third-level league originally known as USL Pro and now as the United Soccer League, which launched in 2011. It began with 15 teams—11 on the U.S. mainland, three in Puerto Rico, and one in the Caribbean country of Antigua and Barbuda—but due to issues with the health and finances of two of the Puerto Rican owners, the Puerto Rican teams were dropped from the league shortly after the beginning of its first season. One of the U.S.-based teams folded following the 2011 season; two new U.S.-based teams joined the league in 2013. In that same year, MLS and USL Pro entered into a formal agreement that eventually merged the MLS Reserve League into the USL Pro structure. Each MLS team is now required to field a reserve team in the United Soccer League, either by operating a standalone team or affiliating with an independently owned team. After the 2013 season, the Antigua and Barbuda team folded, as well as one U.S.-based team. In addition, one U.S.-based team left the league but was replaced by a new team in the same area; and three completely new teams entered the league for 2014. One of the new teams was an MLS reserve side.

Attendance leaders: Minor leagues
Attendance Team League
11,323 Sacramento USL
9,652 Indy Eleven NASL
8,954 Minnesota NASL
7,844 Jacksonville NASL
6,765 Louisville City USL

The 2015 season, which coincided with the rebranding of the competition as the United Soccer League, saw a major expansion. Three teams left the league, but 13 new teams entered, bringing its membership to 24. Orlando City moved to MLS, and two other teams, the Charlotte Eagles and Dayton Dutch Lions, relegated themselves to the PDL. Two of the three departing teams were replaced by new franchises; the Eagles' franchise rights were acquired by a local group that launched the Charlotte Independence, and Louisville interests bought Orlando City's USL franchise rights and launched Louisville City FC. Both of these clubs became affiliates of MLS teams, respectively the Colorado Rapids and Orlando City. Seven MLS teams—the Montreal Impact, New York Red Bulls, Portland Timbers, Real Salt Lake, Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC, and Vancouver Whitecaps—began fielding team-operated reserve sides in the USL. The Orlando City–Louisville affiliation was only for the 2015 season, as Orlando City is launching Orlando City B, its own USL reserve side, in 2016.

The USL will expand to 28 teams in 2016. While Austin Aztex will go on hiatus for that season while the team seeks to build a new stadium, five new teams have been officially announced. Three will be operated by MLS teams—Orlando City B, Bethlehem Steel FC (Philadelphia Union), and Swope Park Rangers (Sporting Kansas City). The other two are FC Cincinnati, with no MLS affiliation, and the Rio Grande Valley FC Toros. The Toros will be the first USL team with a so-called "hybrid affiliation" with an MLS team; the Houston Dynamo will be responsible for selecting players and coaches, while the Toros ownership will run all business affairs.

The United Soccer Leagues operate five leagues in all, spanning the lower divisions of men's professional soccer, as well as women's soccer and youth soccer. Below the United Soccer League is the country's semi-professional fourth-division league, the Premier Development League, which has (as of the 2015 season) 58 teams in the U.S. and six in Canada (the league has also previously had a team in Bermuda). Though the PDL does have some paid players, it also has many teams that are made up entirely or almost entirely of college soccer players who use the league as an opportunity to play competitive soccer in front of professional scouts during the summer, while retaining amateur status and NCAA eligibility.

The United States Adult Soccer Association governs amateur soccer competition for adults throughout the United States, which is effectively the amateur fifth division of soccer in the United States.

Cup competitions

The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is a knockout tournament in American soccer. The tournament is the oldest ongoing national soccer competition in the U.S. and is currently open to all United States Soccer Federation affiliated teams, from amateur adult club teams to the professional clubs of Major League Soccer. The Open Cup was first held in 1913–14, when it was called the National Challenge Cup.

American leagues vs. European leagues

The overall league structure in the United States is significantly different from that used in almost all the rest of the world, but similar to that used by other American team sports leagues, in that there is no system of promotion and relegation between lower and higher leagues, but rather a minor league system, generally the same as almost all other top-level pro sports leagues in North America. In addition, teams playing in American soccer leagues are not private clubs founded independently of the league that join a league in order to ensure regular fixtures, but are instead usually franchises of the league itself. Finally, the soccer leagues in the United States also incorporate features common to other American sports leagues, most notably the determination of champions by playoffs between the top teams after the conclusion of a league season. MLS formerly had a balanced schedule and prior to then used an unbalanced schedule. However, due to MLS's recent expansion, the league has returned to an unbalanced schedule.

However, in several ways, American soccer leagues have become more similar to leagues in the rest of the world in recent years. MLS and USL now allow games to end in ties, which were initially avoided via a penalty shootout if scores were level at the end of play. This was done to avoid alienating mainstream American sports fans, who are not accustomed to tie games, but actually had the unintended consequence of alienating soccer purists who saw the change as an "Americanization" of the sport. MLS began allowing ties in the 2000 season. Additionally, MLS and USL now use upward-counting clocks that do not stop for stoppages in play, and instead add on time before half time and full-time. A downward-counting clock that stops for dead balls and ends the game when it reaches zero is still in use in American high school and college soccer, as well as most other American sports, but was and is completely foreign to soccer played outside the United States. MLS adopted the international clock in 2000. Finally, until recently,[when?] the front of teams' shirts in MLS and the USL did not bear advertisements, as commercial uniform sponsorship is uncommon in American sports. However, starting in the mid-2000s, clubs were allowed to accept corporate sponsorship on the front of their shirts.

Women's professional soccer

Women's soccer in the United States has been played at the professional level, but two attempts at professional leagues have failed.

Amateur Soccer: W-League and WPSL

Originally called the United States Interregional Women’s League, the W-League was formed in 1995 to provide a professional outlet for many of the top female soccer players in the country. Starting as the Western Division of the W-League, the Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) broke away and formed its own league in 1997 and had its inaugural season in 1998. Both the W-League and the WPSL were considered the premier women’s soccer leagues in the United States at the time, but eventually fell to a “second-tier” level upon the formation of the Women’s United Soccer Association.

The First Professional League: WUSA (2000-2003)

As a result of the US women's national team's (USWNT) first-place showing in the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup, a seemingly viable market for the sport germinated. Feeding on the momentum of their victory, the eight-team league formed in February 2000, the US Soccer Federation approved membership of the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA) as a sanctioned Division 1 women's professional soccer league on August 18, 2000, and the league began playing its first season in April 2001. It would be the world’s first women’s soccer league in which all the players were paid as professionals.[citation needed] The WUSA had previously announced plans to begin play in 2001 in eight cities across the country, including: Atlanta, the Bay Area, Boston, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia, San Diego and Washington, D.C. The WUSA forged ahead on a cooperation agreement that would see the new league work side-by-side with Major League Soccer to help maximize the market presence and success of both Division I leagues.[116] The eight teams included the Atlanta Beat, Boston Breakers, Carolina Courage, New York Power, Philadelphia Charge, San Diego Spirit, San Jose CyberRays (called Bay Area CyberRays for 2001 season), and the Washington Freedom.

The WUSA played for three full seasons. The WUSA suspended operations, however, on September 15, 2003, shortly after the conclusion of the third season, due to financial problems and lack of public interest in the sport.[117]

Post-WUSA (2004-2009)

With the WUSA on hiatus, the Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL) and the W-League regained their status as the premier women's soccer leagues in the United States, and many former WUSA players joined those teams.

The Washington Freedom was the only WUSA team to continue operations after the league dissolved (although new versions of the Atlanta Beat and Boston Breakers formed in 2009) and eventually became a part of the W-League in 2006.

After the folding of WUSA, WUSA Reorganization Committee was formed in September 2003 that led to the founding of Women's Soccer Initiative, Inc. (WSII), whose stated goal was "promoting and supporting all aspects of women's soccer in the United States", including the founding of a new professional league.[118] Initial plans were to play a scaled down version of WUSA in 2004. However, these plans fell through and instead, in June 2004, the WUSA held two "WUSA Festivals" in Los Angeles and Blaine, Minnesota, featuring matches between reconstituted WUSA teams in order to maintain the league in the public eye and sustain interest in women's professional soccer.[119] A planned full relaunch in 2005 also fell through. In June 2006, WSII announced the relaunch of the league for the 2008 season.[120]

In December 2006, WSII announced that it reached an agreement with six owner-operators for teams based in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Washington DC, and a then-unnamed city.[121] In September 2007, the launch was pushed back from Spring of 2008 to 2009 to avoid clashing with 2007 Women's World Cup and the 2008 Olympic Games and to ensure that all of the teams were fully prepared for long-term operations.[122]

The Second Professional League: WPS (2009-2012)

The name for the new professional league, along with its logo, was announced on January 17, 2008. The league was to have its inaugural season in 2009, with seven teams, including the Washington Freedom, a former WUSA team. Twenty-one US nation team players were allocated to each of the seven teams in September 2008. Also in September, the league held the 2008 WPS International Draft.

Unlike WUSA, the WPS took "a local, grass roots approach", and "a slow and steady growth type of approach,” In addition, the WPS attempted to have a closer relationship with Major League Soccer in order to cut costs.

Most teams considered the first season a moderate success, despite many losing more money than planned. However, most teams began to see problems in 2010. Overall attendance for 2010 was noticeably down from 2009, teams were struggling with financial problems, and the WPS changed leadership by the end of the season.

The success of the United States women's national soccer team at the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup resulted in an upsurge in attendance league-wide as well as interest in new teams for the 2012 season. However, several internal organization struggles, including an ongoing legal battle with magicJack-owner Dan Borislow, and lack of resources invested in the league lead to the suspension of the 2012, announced in January, 2012.

On May 18, 2012 the WPS announced that the league had officially ceased operations, having played for only three seasons.

WPSL Elite (2012)

By this time, the WPSL and W-League were the two semi-pro leagues in the United States and had sat under WUSA and the WPS until 2012. Upon the disbandment of the WPS, they once again regained their status as the premier women's soccer leagues in the United States.

In response to the suspension, and eventual end, of the WPS, the Women’s Premier Soccer League created the Women’s Premier Soccer League Elite (WPSL Elite) to support the sport in the United States. For the 2012 season, the league featured former WPS teams, Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, and Western New York Flash, in addition to many WPSL teams. Six of the eight teams were considered fully professional.

Many members of the USWNT remained unattached for the 2012 season while others chose to play in the W-League instead of the WPSL Elite.

The Third Professional League: NWSL (2013-)

After the WPS folded in 2012, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) announced a roundtable for discussion of the future of women’s professional soccer in the United States. The meeting resulted in the planning of a new league set to launch in 2013 with 12-16 teams, taking from the WPS, the W-League, and the WPSL.

The league was officially announced by U.S. Soccer on November 21, 2012, with the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) and Mexican Football Federation (FMF) also participating in the announcement.[123] The league will be called the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL).[124] Teams in the NWSL are privately owned, but national federations are heavily involved in league financing and operations.[125] All three federations are paying salaries for many of their respective national team members. U.S. Soccer committed to funding up to 24 national team members, with the CSA committing to paying 16 players and FMF pledging support for 12 to 16 (ultimately 16).[125] This freed each of the eight charter teams from having to pay salaries for up to seven players.[126] In addition, U.S. Soccer hosts the new league's front office, and is scheduling matches to avoid conflicts with international tournaments.[125]

Four of the league's charter teams have WPS ties—the Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars, a revival of the New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC, and the Western New York Flash. The other four are in Kansas City, Portland, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., with the Portland team being run by the Portland Timbers.[125] The league added its second MLS-linked team in 2014 with the entry of the Houston Dash, run by the Houston Dynamo and playing in the Dynamo's stadium.[127] A third NWSL team, FC Kansas City, announced a partnership with Sporting Kansas City in 2015; although the two clubs continue to be separately owned, FC Kansas City now uses Sporting's facilities for practices and home games.[128] Another MLS-linked team will join the league in 2016 with the arrival of the Orlando Pride, operated by Orlando City SC.[129]

The NWSL in the first professional women’s league to reach nine teams with the addition of the Houston Dash and is the first to last past its third season.

United States national teams

The United States men's and women's national soccer teams represent the United States in international competition.

Men's national team

The men's national team competes in the FIFA World Cup and the FIFA Confederations Cup, in addition to the CONCACAF Gold Cup and other competitions by invitation.

The U.S. national team had some success in early FIFA World Cup tournaments. The U.S. finished third in the World Cup in 1930, and played in the 1934 World Cup. The next World Cup participation came in the 1950 World Cup, where they upset England 1-0 in group play. After 1950, the USA did not return to the World Cup for another 40 years. The fortunes of the U.S. national team changed in the 1990s, with the team participating in every World Cup since 1990. The USA hosted the 1994 World Cup, beating Colombia to reach the knockout rounds, before losing to Brazil in the round of sixteen. The team reached the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup by defeating its rival Mexico. The U.S. team also accomplished another first by winning its group at the 2010 World Cup.

The U.S. national team participated in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. The U.S. defeated #1 ranked Spain in the semifinals, before losing to Brazil 3-2 in the final. On the regional stage, the national team has also improved, with a record up to 2013 of reaching the final of the biannual CONCACAF Gold Cup nine times since 1989, winning it five times: 1991, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2013.

Women's national team

The Women's National Soccer Team of the 19 hundreds, were the first ever Women's National Team in the United States. They competed in the FIFA Women's World Cup, the Summer Olympics, and the Algarve Cup, in addition to the CONCACAF Women's Gold Cup and other competitions by invitation. The United States women's team has been one of the best national teams in the history of women's soccer, having won three World Cups (in 1991, 1999, and 2015). They also won four Olympic gold medals (in 1996, 2004, 2008, and 2012), and 10 Algarve Cups (in 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013, and 2015). Following their 2015 World Cup victory, the USWNT regained the top spot in the FIFA Women's World Rankings from Germany;[130] they have held the top spot for the majority of the time since the rankings began in 2003, and have never been lower than second.

There are several factors that may have contributed to the early dominance of the United States women's national soccer team. First is the relative lack of attention afforded the women's game in some traditional soccer-playing countries. According to a 2015 story in the ESPN-owned Web outlet FiveThirtyEight,

For as much as the rest of the world loves soccer, it has been much slower to embrace the women’s game than the U.S. In England, women playing soccer was effectively banned (at least at venues that hosted men’s teams) from 1921 to 1971, and in Germany it was banned from 1955 to 1970. At around the time Title IX was heating up in the United States, women’s international soccer basically didn’t exist. According to FIFA, there were only three national teams and two international matches played in 1971.[104]

Additionally, in the years following Title IX, American high schools and colleges have been steadily embracing girls' and women's soccer. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the U.S. had little more than 10,000 girls playing high school soccer in the late 1970s. This number had increased to 120,000 by 1991, when the USWNT claimed its first World Cup title, and 250,000 by 1999, the year of the second World Cup title. In 2015, there were about 375,000 girls playing high school soccer, making up 47% of all high school soccer players, and soccer has recently surpassed softball as the third-most-played girls' team sport.[104] At the college level, 53% of all NCAA soccer players are women, and this percentage rises to 61% at the highest level, Division I.[104]

Another contributing factor is the role of women within American society, which includes relative equality (especially rejecting hardened gender roles) for women in the United States relative to many other countries. This is also reflected in official government policy regarding women in athletics, specifically the landmark Title IX legislation, which broadly requires any educational institution that receives federal government funds to support men's and women's educational programs equally, thus including athletics. America's approach to growing the game among women has served as a model for other countries' development programs for women at all levels.[citation needed]

However, the FiveThirtyEight piece suggested that the U.S. does not take adult women's soccer as seriously as some other countries, notably Germany. On a per capita basis, the U.S. and Germany have essentially identical participation among girls. However, the two countries differ wildly in the age profile of their registered female players. Nearly 95% of registered female players in the U.S. are youths, as opposed to 31% in Germany. In turn, this leads to Germany having more than six times the number of serious adult female players as the U.S. (about 650,000 to 100,000).[104]

College soccer

In the United States, college soccer is featured in many collegiate athletic associations including the NCAA, the NAIA, the NCCAA, and the USCAA. Many top American college soccer players play for separate teams in the Premier Development League (PDL) during the summer.

The NCAA Division I Men's Soccer Championship, the semifinals and finals of which are known as the College Cup, is an American intercollegiate college soccer tournament conducted by the NCAA, and determines the Division I men's national champion. The tournament has been formally held since 1959, when it crowned Saint Louis University as the inaugural champion. The tournament's current format involves 48 teams, in which every Division I conference tournament champion is allocated a berth. Since its inception, Saint Louis (10 titles), Indiana (8 titles), and Virginia (6 titles) have historically been the most successful Division I schools. Indiana has appeared in more College Cups (18) and has a higher winning percentage in post-season play (.768) than any other school in Division I soccer.

American soccer leagues and associations

Americans playing in foreign leagues

Since the early 1990s, several Americans have found opportunities playing soccer at the highest levels of foreign leagues. Among the first Americans to become regulars in foreign leagues were John Harkes at Sheffield Wednesday and Derby County in England, Eric Wynalda at Saarbrücken in Germany, Kasey Keller at Millwall F.C. in England.

The following is a list of Americans playing in top division of the "Big Four" leagues in Europe (England, Germany, Spain, Italy). For a comprehensive listing of Americans abroad, see the list of American professional soccer players abroad.

In Italy's Serie A
  • (None)
In Spain's La Liga

National teams of U.S. unincorporated territories

The following national teams of U.S. unincorporated territories compete in their corresponding regions. Their governing bodies are either member or associate in the corresponding regional federations. For all but American Samoa, players for these territories are, like most local residents, U.S. citizens. Natives of American Samoa are U.S. nationals, but not U.S. citizens.

See also


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