The sport of soccer has grown, stabilized, and improved significantly in the United States over the past few decades. But despite gains in many areas, the fact remains that US soccer lags behind other nations in substantial ways.
It’s not for lack of history with the sport. The United States has had organized, professional, amateur and collegiate soccer for well over a century. The sport has been around in the USA just as long as it has for countries who are dominant in the game. The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, for example, is currently playing its 108th edition.
For a time in the early 20th century, soccer was behind only baseball as the second most popular team sport in the nation. The US has no shortage of elite-caliber athletes or quality facilities. There isn’t any good reason why American clubs and national teams should not be higher up on the global ladder.
Performance on the global stage
Firstly, let’s recognize the outstanding accomplishments of the women’s national team, which has won four World Cups (and have never finished worse than third). They are also owners of four Olympic gold medals. In addition, NWSL is one of the strongest women’s pro leagues in the world, with some of the best-supported clubs. But the wild success of the USWNT is, at least in part, due to the general lack of investment in the women’s game historically around the world. But with increased interest and investment in women’s pro leagues and national programs in other countries, the US’s dominance in the women’s game is being challenged more and more.
On the men’s side, things are much more bleak. The men’s senior team’s best ever achievement is finishing third in the inaugural World Cup in 1930. However, that tournament featured only 13 teams, required no qualification, and only four teams from Europe competed. The high watermark since was the quarterfinal run in 2002. Infamously, they failed to qualify in 2018. The men routinely compete for the Concacaf Gold Cup and Nations League titles with Mexico. But this is not terribly impressive in what frankly could be ranked as the fifth best of the six continental confederations. At the youth level, the under-23 team failed to qualify for four of the five Olympics from 2004-2020, though they will return in 2024.
When it comes to the club game, an American side has only managed to win the Concacaf Champions Cup / Champions League on three occasions in the competitions’ nearly 60 year history. Just last year, Seattle Sounders became the first American team since the year 2000 to win the tournament.
So why is the USA stuck in the, at best, second tier of soccer nations? The game has been played continuously in this country for a century. We’ve got a massive and diverse population to pluck players from.
At the end of the day, it comes down to how the game is managed. And at least for the past three decades, the primary focus of the leadership at US Soccer seems to have been 1) the men’s national team and 2) our first division league.
This is like building a house by starting with the roof. A World Cup trophy does not get lifted simply by throwing all your efforts at that one program. High franchise values for Major League Soccer teams look nice in Forbes, but don’t equate to results on the field. Our nation is looking for a shortcut to the top. At the same time, our country is focusing all of its effort on generating as much money from the sport as possible — i.e. capitalism.
The focus on the end game – trying to win a World Cup and having a “big deal” top professional division – has been to the detriment of the rest of the soccer infrastructure. The foundation of the game – the grassroots amateur scene of thousands of clubs across the country – has largely been ignored while trying to construct a flashy facade. The 29 MLS teams, in just 27 cities, mean nothing to the vast majority of the country. The US national teams will never visit most corners of the the nation. Building, supporting, and strengthening the local foundation of the sport should be priority number one.
Mismanagement of the leagues
While organized soccer has been played in the US continuously for over 100 years, what we do not have are clubs or leagues that have been around that long. There are a very small handful of amateur clubs that have been around since nearly the beginning. For example, Bavarian United SC of Milwaukee was founded in 1929.
But in the professional game, the oldest operating clubs are only as old as the early 1990s. Some claim heritage and use names that date back further – NASL legacy clubs mostly – but that only stretches back to the 1970s.
American soccer history is littered with dozens of failed leagues, and hundreds of defunct clubs. A lot of this failure can be attributed to a lack of structure and organization by our federation.
Disconnected system and a false pyramid
Since the earliest beginnings of the game, we’ve had different league entities competing with each other for players, owners, and clubs. This infighting can and has caused the loss of entire leagues, and clubs along with them. The “Soccer Wars” of the late 1920s eventually scuttled what had been a relatively successful pro soccer scene. Nationally-relevant pro soccer wouldn’t be seen again until the NASL in the 1970s. The Soccer Warz of the 2010s saw a rebellion from the United Soccer Leagues, the creation of the 2nd NASL, shuffling of divisional labels, team defections (from USL to NASL, NASL to USL, and from both to MLS), and the eventual failure of the NASL.
At present, the United States has three completely independent and unrelated division 3 pro leagues. One is exclusively a reserve league for MLS, allowing the richest teams to hoard talent within their system. USL League One and NISA are the other two, splintering a relatively small number of teams across two separate leagues, involving expensive cross-continental travel.
In modern times at the amateur level, what you could call “Division 4” in this country, it’s a mess. There are multiple “national” leagues, even more regional and local ones, all falling under the ambiguous “amateur,” “pre-professional” or “semi-pro” labels. Teams shift and move all the time. Teams come and go. Leagues pop up and disappear. Large markets such as Los Angeles, Chicago, or southern Florida can have dozens of teams split into different leagues that never play each other.
This lack of organization and wild west, cutthroat competition between leagues has held the game back for a century.
Soccer is one of the simplest sports to play and enjoy. You just need a ball and a field. But in the US, it can be very expensive to play. Even for kids wanting to play pickup with friends, just finding somewhere to play can be hard, with few public fields available. When it comes to organized youth soccer, an ethos has been built that the endgame needs to be getting a college scholarship or pro contract. And that, of course, can cost a lot money.
Many US youth clubs do not field senior teams. They don’t have matches to sell tickets to, or supporters to purchase merchandise/concessions. Since they don’t have senior players under contract, they also don’t get transfer fees from selling players, nor do they receive training solidarity compensation payments – unlike other countries. Of course, even if they did field a senior side, clubs have no ability to win their way up the ladder (and to higher revenues) as in most of the world.
Naturally, MLS clubs who run academies now want their share of compensation fees for their players. But where do MLS academy players come from? Plucked from other youth clubs in their territories, who generally get nothing when one of their players goes on to sign with a MLS team or foreign club.
And now, with the shuttering of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, or DA, MLS and its “MLS NEXT” league have been left in control of the premier tier of youth soccer.
So where does the money come from? Largely, this falls on parents who have to fork over thousands of dollars each year to put their kids into a competitive program, including travel expenses. This cost barrier has no doubt kept countless players, who might have changed the trajectory of soccer in this country, out of the sport.
The expansion game
The “pay-to-play” scheme doesn’t stop at youth clubs, either. The entire structure of the game is based on the principle. To secure a spot in one of the professional leagues, you have to check off a few boxes. Market size and location, stadium capacity, and owner net worth. But most importantly, you have to cut a check. To get into MLS, the expansion fee is currently running between $200-$325 million dollars. It gets much less expensive as you go down the pyramid levels. But even at the amateur levels, high league fees can severely hamper a club right from the start.
This is money that could be used to build stadiums, training facilities, or covering costs of youth development. For amateur clubs, it could go to buying kits and equipment, paying coaches and trainers, or reserving field time. But instead it fills league coffers, putting teams in a financial hole before they ever kick a ball.
Style over substance
If franchise values were trophies, than the USA would be among the soccerkings. MLS’ two Los Angeles outfits are apparently both valued at around $1 billion dollars. That’s higher than all but six Premier League teams. To anyone who follows the sport closely, that market value doesn’t make any sense.
Perhaps it’s why someone like Ronaldo balked at the cost of elevating his NASL club to MLS. Instead, he ended up spending a relatively paltry $36 million to buy LaLiga’s Real Valladolid. The NASL club he owned, of course, not only did not move to a higher league, they folded after 2016.
Soccer in the USA, as it currently stands, is built on things such as market metrics. Expansion fees. Franchise values. Things that inflate the ego, and inflate the image of the game to be bigger than it actually is.
As long as the focus is on these things, and not ensuring *all* clubs and players have a stable, organized system to take part in, the US will always be looking up at the rest of the world.
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