Three MLS insiders analyze the growing popularity of football in the USA and its impact on the league
Soccer is experiencing a new baby boom in the United States. The first wave of popularity began in the late 1970s, coinciding with the arrival of Franz Beckenbauer and Pele at the New York Cosmos and Johan Cruyff at the Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats in the NASL.
Its second wave came during the 1994 World Cup when the United States was the host nation with the creation of the Major League Soccer (MLS) league following two years later. The iconic generation led by Tony Meola, Alexi Lalas, Tab Ramos, Eric Wynalda, Cobi Jones, Claudio Reyna, John Harkes generated a great foundation to build on.
The USMNT made seven consecutive World Cup appearances with the country’s streak ending in 2018. Now, on the verge of hosting the 2026 World Cup, the country is on the rise again. Only the Netherlands now stand in their way of equalling their best-ever result at a World Cup, which was their appearance in quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan 2002.
“We have experienced a boom in recent years,” Charlotte FC manager Miguel Angel Ramirez told MARCA.
“Before the boys put basketball and American football first and it was the girls who played more soccer.
“All this has changed. Many foreigners have been given scholarships to universities, which has raised the level of the local players, and schools have multiplied all over the country. Many MLS clubs, such as Philadelphia Union or Austin, have made a very strong investment in grassroots football.”
Many, in fact, consider Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna, Sergino Dest, and Tyler Adams to be the best generation of US players in terms of natural talent.
“The level has grown and has allowed many young players to go abroad,” Ramirez continues.
“The secret of this national team is that many players play for big teams in Europe. That was unthinkable before.”
A belief that Carles Gil, a Spanish player current signed to the New England Revolution reinforces.
“At first I turned down the MLS offer because the concept at the time was that it was a league with a low level,” Gil said.
“The league has changed a lot. A few years ago, legends like David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were used to make a big impact. Now they sign more intelligently. Top players are still coming in, but the priority is to sign talented youngsters.”
Gil, who was voted at the MLS’ MVP 2021, highlights the intensity of ‘soccer’:
“I was lucky enough to play in the Premier League and the pace of the games is quite similar to MLS,” Gil continued.
“They are very physical, back-and-forth matches where most teams press high up the pitch.”
Ramirez also highlights the physicality of the American player stating that their intensity makes up for what they lack in pure talent and tactics.
“The MLS is below South America in terms of quality and tactics, but in terms of intensity, rhythm and aggressiveness it is closer to Europe,” Ramirez stated.
“The players are athletes. Physical preparation in the US has a lot of military influence, there is a lot of discipline and sacrifice. Having an athletic profile is the first filter to get to elite football. If you don’t have the minimum, you are not considered fit to compete.”
However, the facet that might hold the MLS back is the fans’ expectation to be entertained, something Ramirez highlights.
“It’s attack, attack, attack…. A bit like the NBA,” Ramirez adds.
“Showmanship is rewarded and that ‘catches on’ with the players. They’d rather win 8-7 than 2-0.”
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US soccer's baby boom: Boys used to put basketball and American football first… – Marca English