By HENRY HSIA
The World Cup is one of the biggest sporting events in the world, with majority of the world’s eyes on globally recognizable players. Yet the wealthiest country in the world, the United States, was nowhere to be seen in the 2018 World Cup. When the U.S. dominates the Olympics and other major league sports like basketball, why do we fall so short when it comes to soccer?
The answer is a complex amalgam of different factors. Soccer is not as popular as other sports in the U.S, which often draws talent away from it. Additionally, Major League Soccer (MLS) is a closed league, which causes stagnation in soccer talent. These and many other factors contributed to the U.S’s shocking 2-1 loss against Trinidad and Tobago in the World Cup qualifier in 2018, and subsequently why the most affluent country on Earth isn’t even in the top 32 of the world’s most popular sport.
Firstly, soccer is just not as popular as other sports in the United States. In other major countries like England, Germany, France, and Brazil, all the best athletes gravitate toward soccer. Soccer is the main and most popular sport in their country, with it also being a cornerstone in their culture. It is common in these countries to see children, adults, and entire communities playing soccer in the streets. With this greater cultural impact comes greater investment into the game.
Iceland, a country of 340 thousand, managed to qualify for the World Cup over the United States, a country of 300 million. Iceland experiences intense snowfall for a large portion of the year. Yet they manage to overcome this problem by investing heavily in year-round, full-size soccer stadiums, which are accessible to grade school children and professional players alike. Iceland’s willingness to dedicate valuable time in their state of the art stadium to children highlights their focus on youth participation in soccer.
This is in stark contrast to the United States. Soccer is popular as a casual past time, but rarely do children in the U.S. aspire to become professional soccer players. According to the Stars and Stripes FC, there is a shortage of scouts in the U.S, especially in states west of the Mississippi river. This absence leaves an alarming amount of talent in the U.S. undiscovered and undeveloped, particularly from players that come from lower income or underrepresented backgrounds. Meanwhile, some of the world’s best soccer players, like Messi, Neymar, and Ibrahimović came from poverty. This difference is because of the greater emphasis placed on youth soccer in many Latin American countries, so talent rarely goes unnoticed.
In addition, other major league sports like American football, basketball, or baseball are more lucrative for up-and-coming athletes than soccer. The median salary of an MLS player is $117,000 per year, with 40 players in the league making $51,500 a year instead. Compare this to the average salary of a National Football League (NFL) athlete, who makes an average of $2.1 million a year, or to a National Basketball Association (NBA) player, who makes an average of $6.3 million a year, and it becomes clear why soccer is less appealing to many young athletes.
Another major problem of U.S. men’s soccer is how the major organizations are structured. MLS is a closed league, meaning teams within the league are not relegated and high performing teams from lower leagues are not promoted. This disincentivizes good performance from the teams within the league, as once they join the league, they stay in the league. The team might gain more fans from becoming better, but can always fall back on its home to support it. Why invest the time and resources to develop talent when folks at home buy your jerseys all the same?
Compare this to England’s Premier League, which has an intense relegation and promotion system. The bottom three clubs from the league are relegated to the English Football League (EFL) Championship, and the top three clubs from the EFL Championship are promoted to the Premier League. This incentivizes clubs to maintain their spot in the league by developing their talent and scouting young players.
While the United States Men’s Soccer team hasn’t seen much success, the Women’s Soccer team has, seeing three World Champion finishes. Unfortunately, this is likely due to a negligence of women’s sports in other countries.
In conclusion, the United States men’s soccer team underperforms globally. Young athletes are more incentivized to play sports with greater popularity than soccer, such as basketball, baseball, and American football. Furthermore, the lack of a relegation system in Major League Soccer disincentivizes teams to improve. While solutions to these problems seem daunting and time consuming, the consequences of inaction will result in a stagnant and frankly, embarrassing U.S. soccer scene.