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Soccer in the United States

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Soccer in the United States

Soccer in the United States
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 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 19 teams today (16 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 18,000 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 particular the World Cup, which is held every four years. The World Cup has become increasingly popular with U.S. TV audiences, with the 2010 World Cup final drawing 24 million American viewers.[11] The men's national team has played in every World Cup since 1990, and the women's national team has won the World Cup twice.


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, recent 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 both allowed players to 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 internal 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 American Football Association (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. 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 [16] The NASL declined during the early 1980s and disbanded in 1984. The popularity of indoor soccer peaked in the 1980s, with both the NASL,[17] 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, leading to colleges forming NCAA sanctioned women's varsity teams. A men's match between St. Louis University and [18] By 1984, more colleges played soccer (532) than American football (505).[19]

In 1967 there were 100,000 people playing soccer in the US; by 1984, that number had grown to over 4 million.[19] 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.[20]

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.[21] 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.[22]

Interest in soccer within the United States continued to grow during the 1990s. This growth has been attributed in significant part to the fact that the FIFA World Cup was 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.[23]

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.[24] 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.[25]


As of 2006, over 24 million Americans play soccer. There are 4.2 million players (2.5 million men and 1.7 million women) registered with U.S. Soccer.[26] Thirty percent of American households contain someone playing soccer, a figure second only to baseball.[27] Increasing numbers of Americans, having played the game in their youth, are now avid spectators. A 2011 ESPN sports poll ranked soccer as the fourth most popular team sport in the United States, with 8.2% of Americans ranking soccer as their favorite sport (compared to 3.8% for hockey).[28] A 2011 ESPN sports poll ranked soccer as the second most popular sport in the country for 12-24-year-olds.[29] In 2013, Lionel Messi became the first soccer player ever to rank among the Top 10 most popular athletes in the U.S.[30]

In addition, as Latin American immigration increases throughout the nation, so does the popularity of soccer. Furthermore, the increase in popularity of soccer in the United States is also the result of other factors such as globalization (with the resulting greater TV exposure given to soccer), the continued presence of U.S. teams in international competitions, and the continued building of soccer-specific stadiums in the country.

Competitions and attendance

Attendance Event Teams Stadium Ref
109,318 2014 ICC Man. Utd. 3–1 R. Madrid Michigan Stadium [31]
101,799 1984 Olympics France 2–0 Brazil Rose Bowl [31]
100,374 1984 Olympics Yugoslavia 2–1 Italy Rose Bowl [31]
97,451 1984 Olympics France 4–2 Yugoslavia Rose Bowl [31]
94,194 1994 World Cup Brazil 0–0 Italy Rose Bowl [31]

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.[32]

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.[21] 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.[33]

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, will be held in the U.S., due to the commercial appeal of the U.S. soccer market.[34] 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."[35]

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 national team also plays 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, Telefutura, 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).[36] 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, TeleFutura, Telemundo 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.[37] 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.[38] Viewership for the Premier League's 2013-14 season on NBC Sports was 32 million, more than double the previous season.[39] 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.[40] 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.

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 (2015-2022)
$600 mil (2015-2022)
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 Deportes)
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
La Liga
$16 mil beIN beIN 115,000 (ESPN Deportes)
29,000 (GolTV)[47]
UEFA Champions League
$10 mil Fox Sports
2015/16 – 2017/18
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).[48] 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.[49] 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.[50]

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.[51] 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.[52]

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."[53][54][55] 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.[56][57]

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.[58] The 2010 World Cup final game drew 24.3 million viewers in the United States,[11] higher than the 14.3 million average viewership of the 2010 World Series.[57][59] 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.[53]

By 2014, the World Cup was considered an elite sports property on U.S. television.[60] 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 NHL Finals.[60][61] 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.[62]

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 Time
Rating Teams Ref World Series
1994  United States 3:30 pm 18.1 m 9.5 Brazil vs Italy [64] --
1998  France 3:00 pm 12.9 m 6.9 Brazil vs France [65] 20.3 m
2002  Japan 6:00 am 11.1 m 4.1 Germany vs Brazil [65] 19.3 m
2006  Germany 2:00 pm 17.0 m 8.6 Italy vs France [66] 15.8 m
2010  South Africa 3:30 pm 24.3 m 8.1 Netherlands vs Spain [67] 14.3 m
2014  Brazil 3:00 pm 29.2 m 9.7 Germany vs Argentina [68] 13.5 m

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
Rating[69] Teams Stage Channel Ref Day
2014 25.2m 9.1  United States v.  Portugal GS ESPN [61] Sunday
2014 24.9m 9.8  United States v.  Belgium R16 ESPN [70] Tuesday
2010 19.4m 8.2  United States v.  Ghana R16 ABC Saturday
2014 19.0m 7.0  United States v.  Ghana GS ESPN [71][72] Monday
2010 17.1m 7.5  United States v.  England GS ABC [73] Saturday
2014 17.0m 3.2  Mexico v.  Netherlands R16 ESPN [74] Sunday
2014 16.5m 6.7  United States v.  Germany GS ESPN [75][76] Thursday
2014 15.8m 4.3  Argentina v.  Netherlands SF ESPN [77][78][79] 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) [80][81]
2011 8.9m USA v. Mexico Gold Cup final FSC (1.4), Univision [82]
2013 7.7m Brazil v. Spain Confederations Cup final ESPN (1.2), Univision [83][84]
2013 7.3m USA v. Panama Gold Cup final FOX (1.7), Univision [85]
2014 7.2m USA v. Mexico Friendly ESPN, Univision
2013 7.2m USA v. Mexico World Cup qualifier ESPN (1.6) [86]
2009 5.9m USA v. Mexico Gold Cup final FSC, Univision
2009 5.9m USA v. Mexico World Cup qualifier Univision [87]
2012 5.3m USA v. Mexico Friendly ESPN2, Univision
2012 5.2m Spain v. Italy Euro final ESPN (2.4), ESPN Deportes [88][89]

FIFA Women's World Cup on TV

FIFA Women's World Cup Matches With Highest U.S. Ratings and Viewership[90]

  1. 11.4 rating / 18.0 million viewers - 1999 Final, USA v. China (ABC)
  2. 7.4 rating / 13.5 million viewers - 2011 Final, Japan vs USA (ESPN)
  3. 2.3 rating / 3.9 million viewers - 2011 Quarterfinal, USA vs Brazil (ESPN)
  4. 1.7 rating / 2.6 million viewers - 1999 Quarterfinal, USA v. Germany (ESPN)
  5. 1.7 rating / 2.5 million viewers - 1999 Group Stage, USA v. Denmark (ABC)

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.[91] 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.[92] 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.[93] In recent decades, more youth sports organizations have turned to soccer as a supplement to American football, and most American high schools offer both soccer and football in their fall sports seasons. 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. Americans between the ages of 12 and 24 rank professional soccer as their second favorite sport behind only American football.[94] And in 2011, the FIFA video game ranked as the #2 most popular video game in the country, behind only Madden.[95]

Though organized locally by organizations all over the United States, there are three main youth soccer organizations working nationwide through affiliated local associations. The [96] 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 16 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.[97] 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 19 teams today, with plans to add teams in New York and Orlando to expand to 21 teams by 2015, 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.[98] In 2013, New York City FC agreed to pay a record $100 million expansion fee for the right to join MLS in 2015.[99]

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 59 20 13 26

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.[100][101] Professional soccer has been less popular in the United States than most other parts of the world. Although MLS is also much younger than most other countries' first divisions, it is already the 12th most-attended premier division in the world.[102] MLS has announced its goal of developing into one of the top soccer leagues in the world by 2022.[103]

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, while the Jacksonville Armada FC, Virginia Cavalry FC, and Oklahoma City FC are scheduled to join in 2015.

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, USL Pro, 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. USL Pro now operates with 11 teams after one of the U.S.-based teams folded following the 2011 season; a new U.S.-based team joined the league in 2013. In that same year, MLS and USL Pro entered into a formal agreement that will eventually merge the current MLS Reserve League into the USL Pro structure. Each MLS team will be expected to field a reserve team in USL Pro, 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; four new teams entered the league for 2014, one of them an MLS reserve side. Six more teams—five in the U.S. and one in Canada—are set to enter the league in 2015. The Canadian team will be operated by an MLS team, and one of the U.S. teams will replace a USL Pro team that is moving to MLS.

The United Soccer Leagues (USL) operates five leagues in all, spanning the lower divisions of men's professional soccer, as well as women's soccer and youth soccer. Below USL Pro is the country's semi-professional fourth-division league, the USL Premier Development League, which has (as of the upcoming 2013 season) 53 teams in the U.S., eight in Canada, and one 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, 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.

The first women's professional soccer league was the Women's United Soccer Association. It was formed in 2001 and featured successful American players Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, and many other national team stars including Germany's Birgit Prinz. The WUSA ceased operation at the end of 2003.

The second attempt, Women's Professional Soccer (WPS), experienced considerable instability in its three seasons of operation from 2009-2012. WPS launched in 2009 with seven teams. The 2009 season was successful, with Sky Blue FC winning the title in Cinderella fashion and the league met its financial goals. The league started the 2010 season with eight teams, as the Los Angeles Sol folded and two new teams joined, but the Saint Louis Athletica folded during the 2010 season, bringing WPS back to its original number of seven teams. Following the 2010 season, the 2010 champions FC Gold Pride folded, and the Chicago Red Stars could not meet financial criteria to remain in WPS and dropped to the second-tier Women's Premier Soccer League (WPSL). The league operated with six teams in 2011 operating entirely along the East Coast, with one 2011 newcomer the Western New York Flash. The 2011 season saw a boost following the women's national team's run in the 2011 Women's World Cup.However, the 2011 season was also marked by conflict between the league and franchise owner Dan Borislow. He had purchased the Washington Freedom, charter league members, and moved the team to South Florida and renamed it magicJack. After the 2011 season, WPS terminated the franchise.[104] A subsequent legal battle between WPS and Borislow led the league to cancel its 2012 season, before ultimately deciding to fold.[105][106]

In the 2012 season, the top level of women's soccer in the U.S. was the newly formed WPSL Elite, a semi-pro league established by the WPSL as a response to the troubles plaguing WPS. The league's eight teams included six fully professional teams, three of which—the Red Stars, Boston Breakers, and Western New York Flash—previously played in WPS. Two independent semi-professional leagues formed the second tier of women's soccer—the USL's W-League and the main WPSL, which broke from the W-League in 1997. As of 2011, the W-League had 19 U.S.-based teams and eight Canadian-based teams, while the WPSL had 65 teams in the U.S. only. Both leagues serve roughly the same purpose for women's soccer as the USL's PDL serves for men's soccer, in that they allow collegiate players to maintain NCAA eligibility while continuing to develop their game against quality opponents. There is no current equivalent to the U.S. Open Cup in the women's game.

A third attempt at a women's professional league, replacing WPS and WPSL Elite, launched in 2013 with eight teams. 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.[107] The league will be called the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL).[108] Teams in the NWSL are privately owned, but national federations are heavily involved in league financing and operations.[109] 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).[109] This freed each of the eight charter teams from having to pay salaries for up to seven players.[110] In addition, U.S. Soccer hosts the new league's front office, and is scheduling matches to avoid conflicts with international tournaments.[109] Most teams in the new league are playing in smaller stadiums than those in previous leagues.[109] At the lower end of the salary scale, players are essentially semi-professional.[110] 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.[109] 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.[111]

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 two World Cups (in 1991 and 1999). They also won four Olympic gold medals (in 1996, 2004, 2008, and 2012), and nine Algarve Cups (in 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2013). As of the most recent release of the FIFA Women's World Rankings in June 2013, Team USA is the world's top women's national team.[112]

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. 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.

College soccer

In the United States, college soccer is featured in many collegiate athletic associations including NCAA, NAIA, the NCCAA, the USCAA, and the National Intramural and Recreational Sports Association for schools without collegiate programs, but have a collegiate club team.[113] 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.

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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