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Mr. Leitch writes about sports as a contributing editor at New York magazine.
For the first time since 2014, the United States men’s team has advanced to the knockout stage at the World Cup, with a 1-0 victory over Iran.
It is part of a special moment for North American soccer, because for the first time in the World Cup’s storied history, in 2022 in Qatar, the United States, Mexico and Canada — North America’s most populous countries — have all competed in the same tournament. What’s more, this is just a warm-up: In 2026, the World Cup will be held in North America, hosted by those three countries.
I can’t help wondering if the seeds for this sports moment were planted almost 30 years ago, in 1994.
That year began with the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and that summer featured Oprah Winfrey falling through a hole onstage with the entire world watching the opening ceremony (at Chicago’s Soldier Field) of the first World Cup hosted on U.S. soil.
In this Cup, the United States has advanced and will face the Netherlands, Mexico is holding on for dear life to move out of the group stage, and Canada has been eliminated. But having them all, at last, competing (in Qatar, of all places) feels connected to the post-Cold War years when North America was transforming itself in ways that still reverberate.
The World Cup has always intersected with and reinforced trends in global commerce and finance. The tournament was a European-heavy event in the years before it was canceled for World War II. In 1970 it was moved out of South America and Europe for the first time. Then a portent came in 1994, when the United States put on a show that changed the tenor of soccer discussion throughout North America.
Like millions of other American sports fans, I was ignorant of soccer but deeply curious and riveted by the 1994 World Cup. For a Midwestern baseball-and-corn kid, the spectacle was hypnotic, riveting. I just knew it was obvious that the whole world was coming together to watch it. And even more important, I felt a part of it. Who cares if I didn’t quite understand what offsides was?
That World Cup, and the start of play for Major League Soccer two years later (not to mention the expanding ability to watch European leagues on American television), is widely credited with the explosion of soccer’s popularity here. A whole generation of American kids was introduced to the game then, fell in love with it and carried that love into adulthood and spread it to their own kids. Now it’s mainstream: More Americans watched the women’s World Cup final in 2019 than watched this year’s N.B.A. finals or World Series.
That has led to benefits for Mexico and especially Canada, in Qatar for only its second World Cup appearance. For its first, in 1986, it finished last in its group, going 0-3 and being outscored 5-0. But Canada’s team has thrived in the years since 1994, thanks to the general rise in competition in Concacaf (the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football), not to mention its multiple teams in Major League Soccer.
Mexico, a soccer-mad nation, never faced a real threat in North America until the United States embraced the sport (including a riotous friendly that prepped both teams for the 1994 World Cup, which sold out the 92,000-plus-seat Rose Bowl). Now the countries have a sustained rivalry that has so much history that Amazon Prime is featuring a documentary about it, “Good Rivals.”
You didn’t have to squint hard to find some potential breakout North American stars in this tournament. The United States has Christian Pulisic, the preternaturally talented phenom who scored the winning goal in the Iran game to propel the United States into the knockout stage. He has (mostly) dazzled in Europe and has at last put on a show for a global audience in his first World Cup. Alphonso Davies might already be the best (and certainly most famous) Canadian player of all time, the reigning Concacaf player of the year and a burgeoning TikTok superstar. Even the aging, grumbling Mexico team has Chucky Lozano, who had an electrifying goal during Mexico’s surprising 2018 World Cup run. These aren’t household names yet, but Davies and Pulisic are close and could have a breakthrough on the grandest of stages.
In 2026, 11 cities in the United States, three in Mexico and two in Canada will host World Cup action. That will be the fulfillment of the ambitious projects of 1994 and deepen the connection between NAFTA and the World Cup.
Of course, it’s no longer called NAFTA. Under President Donald Trump, it became the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a pact that updated NAFTA for the 21st century. Mr. Trump has long called NAFTA “the worst trade deal ever made.” From its start, its detractors have criticized the pact for, among other things, shipping American jobs to Mexico.
Still, the agreement has endured and enabled greater commercial and cultural connections among the three countries. It has been a boon for New World soccer, and no doubt the commercial cooperation among the countries contributed to the appeal of their bid to host the World Cup.
Since the United States, Canada and Mexico will jointly host the World Cup, they automatically qualify. With the tournament expanding from 32 teams to 48 starting in 2026, these North American countries should become regulars for every tournament. You don’t necessarily need the home country as a rooting interest to enjoy the World Cup — I had a blast in 2018; my team was Croatia — but it certainly doesn’t hurt. It sure helped in 1994.
This sort of fandom, and widespread interest, was born out of that 1994 World Cup and the investments in soccer on this continent that come from decades of dedication. The hope of that World Cup was that it would lay the groundwork for America to finally become a soccer nation. We’re not quite there yet: This is still a football country and perhaps always will be.
But across North America, soccer has made incredible strides over the past 30 years, and the evidence can be seen at this year’s World Cup.
I watched the United States beat Iran at a sports bar jammed to the rafters with rabid soccer fans in Athens, Ga., where the beloved Georgia Bulldogs are preparing for their SEC championship game appearance this Saturday. That game kicks off at 4 p.m. Eastern; the U.S. men’s team will play the Netherlands in the knockout round at 10 a.m. Eastern.
That football-crazed town, like so many across America, is starting its tailgates early: No one would dare miss a U.S. knockout game in the World Cup. Not this year and, surely, never again.
Will Leitch is the author of, most recently, the novels “How Lucky” and the forthcoming “The Time Has Come.” He is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the founder of the sports website Deadspin.
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Opinion | Make Room, Football, Because New World Soccer Is on the Rise – The New York Times