What would you say if I told you that 2018 has been the most exciting year in American soccer in years? I’m sure many of you will think that’s a strange thing to write given that the USA suffered the bitter disappointment of missing the FIFA World Cup in Russia.
The truth is there’s a new found optimism in the States among lovers of the beautiful game. Not least because the U.S. will be co-hosts of the 2026 World Cup along with Mexico and Canada. Add to that the impressive rise of a young star tipped by many to become the country’s greatest homegrown soccer player, and the positive impact made by one of the most iconic footballers of the last 25 years since he crossed the Atlantic to play in the MLS.
It all adds a new spin to the 64 thousand dollar question that is still the game’s biggest talking point for fans around the world when it comes to the subject of the most popular sport on the planet: Is soccer in the U.S. getting more popular, and will interest grow in the countdown to 2026?
ARE YOU KIDDING US, @WayneRooney????? AMAZING!!!!! #DCvORL https://t.co/Iys5sJBDOs
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) August 13, 2018
FIFA World Cup 2026
Being awarded the 2026 Cup was the perfect consolation for the U.S. as fans had to sit and watch the world play soccer with no Americans present. But I’m already getting the vibe that the hype for North America’s World Cup in eight years time will generate unprecedented interest.
Firstly, America are self-proclaimed world champion when it comes to the razzmatazz of self-promotion, much to the annoyance of some around the world. So, even if football followers on the outside aren’t impressed by the hyperbole, Americans are almost certainly going to feel that the 2026 World Cup is going to be bigger and better by virtue of being in the U.S.
The other big factor in America’s favour is they will be picking up the baton after the one World Cup between now and then that many are convinced will not feel like the real thing. FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar has already had enough bad press to cripple many supporters’ enthusiasm for the event, and it’s going to take place in November and December. Rest assured we’ll all get into it when the time comes, but it’s not going to feel like your standard World Cup. For some that makes it feel like the ‘American’ World Cup is “next” and that gives the promoters the opportunity to cash in on eight years of hype rather than focusing merely on the final four.
Poster boy Christian Pulisic
One of the biggest disappointments for American soccer fans when the U.S. failed to make it to Russia 2018 was the missed opportunity to see the country’s best young star, Christian Pulisic, perform on the world stage.
It was a huge shock for Americans to be denied the chance to watch one of their own taking part in the biggest show on earth. Nonetheless, the Pennsylvania poster boy’s star appeal has continued to grow.
The super-talented teenager with sparkling skills and explosive pace – the youngest American ever to play in the UEFA Champions League, days before his 18th birthday – is making a real impact at Borussia Dortmund.
A year ago he went on to become the USA’s most successful player in Europe when he helped Dortmund win the German Cup with a Final win against Eintracht Frankfurt. His prolific form has attracted the interest of other European giants, and he has long been on the radar of Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp who has been trying to sign him for the past two years.
It seems almost incredible to say it, but the U.S. appears to be on the cusp of celebrating the arrival of a real star, and arguably its best player of all time.
The Wayne Rooney Factor
Former Manchester United hero Wayne Rooney is the really interesting twist in the conversation about what’s happened with American soccer in 2018. The record-breaking English marksman became the latest former European star to move to the MLS in the twilight of his career when he left Everton in the summer.
So far the move has produced nothing but positivity. Rooney has made an impressive impact with his new club D.C. United, and has already been handed the captain’s armband as a result.
In a short space of time he’s enjoyed some quality highlights with D.C., his exploits have gone viral on social media, and he has made a good impression with his comments off the field too. Perhaps more than anyone since David Beckham, Rooney has embraced the American league and the game itself – and is clearly not over in the States simply to cash in on his fame while he still can.
In my own dealings with Rooney I can assure you that the record goalscorer for both England and Manchester United has such a genuine love of the game that he takes enormous pleasure not only from playing, but from inspiring his team mates.
America On The Brink?
Predicting soccer’s growth in the U.S. has proven to be exceedingly difficult over the years. So often in the past it has looked like the game has been on the brink of truly becoming a major sport in America.
That tantalising prospect so often in the past has failed to happen. But there is no doubt we are currently on an upward curve. And the advent of the 2026 World Cup will certainly be a huge boost in that direction.
Whether or not this time the feel good factor can give the sport the momentum to go to the next level remains to be seen. Meantime, I’m proud of Rooney’s contribution so far, after many critics cruelly wrote him off when he left Old Trafford to return to his boyhood club on Merseyside.
I know for a fact, that for many Americans who follow our brand of football, the impact made by a superstar many grew up watching on TV is a priceless way to validate the American game.
Taking the next step and winning over the majority weaned on homegrown sports has always been the barrier across the pond. But Rooney’s authenticity is a factor not to be under estimated. He has already shown he cares about his new country and its budding soccer culture. And if he continues to play well and set a good example, he will at least help win over a lot of his old EPL fans who have previously not taken the MLS and U.S. soccer in general too seriously.