The United States is a special country, but it is not without its quirks. Why, for example, does it stubbornly stick with the imperial system of measurement over metric? Why are pennies still in circulation? And why, oh why, do Americans insist on calling football “soccer”!? Well, that last habit may prove hard to break, but Americans are certainly warming to the sport – especially if the popularity of Rakuten partner FC Barcelona’s current U.S. tour is any indication. All three of their U.S. matches, against other European heavyweights Juventus, Manchester United and Real Madrid, have already sold out. Could it be that the U.S. is ready to tell the world that this is their game, too? We think so.
Pop Quiz: What is the best finish the U.S. has recorded at the World Cup? You’d be forgiven if you said its quarterfinals showing in 2002. In fact, the U.S. finished 3rd overall at the 1930 tournament. But then, apart from a victory over England in the group stages in 1950, it would seem that America simply abandoned the beautiful game as it embraced the gridiron, which benefited greatly from the emergence of TV.
Enter the dark age for soccer in America. From 1950 through 1990, the sport didn’t factor much in the American consciousness. But then a strange thing happened, right around the time the U.S. was chosen to host the 1994 World Cup: people started watching. As the event approached – and possessing not a single major purpose-built soccer venue – the US had to repurpose football and major league baseball stadiums for the event. But could they possibly fill them? Easily, it turned out. In fact, the 1994 World Cup smashed attendance records and, over 20 years and five tournaments later, it remains the best-attended World Cup in history by a wide margin, with 68,991 spectators on average at each game.
While the 1994 World Cup may have been the catalyst for a soccer renaissance in the United States, the sport also benefited from increased television exposure. More recently, the emergence of the internet and social media have further accelerated the growth of soccer in the US as clubs have acquired players whose star power extends far beyond the pitch. Just ask David Beckham’s 80 million-plus followers.
So, just how popular is soccer in the US these days? NBC News compiled a few helpful stats for reference. Here are some of our favorites:
- 24,472,778 — Number of people who play soccer at some level in the U.S. — second only to China (who knew!)
- 3,055,148 — Youth players officially registered with U.S. Soccer programs in 2014 — up by 89 percent since 1990
- 21,692 — Average MLS per game attendance in 2016
American soccer fans in the know are probably already following FC Barcelona’s popular U.S. tour, which is part of the annual International Champions Cup, but in case you’re new to the game, we be sure you catch the Manchester United match on July 26. After all, this is your game too!