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The spectacular Sunday finish to the Qatar-hosted 2022 men’s World Cup — the most popular event of any kind on the planet — surely left even the most casual fans wanting more. Even in the United States. Argentina’s penalty-shootout victory over defending champion France, considered one of the greatest matches in history by soccer aficionados, drew a huge U.S. TV audience. Viewership through various means topped 33 million in the match’s final moments. The overall numbers were comparable to or better than TV ratings for recent World Series and NBA Finals games, though still lagging far behind the U.S. version of football.
The game’s central story line was straight out of Hollywood — with Argentina’s Lionel Messi, perhaps the greatest soccer player ever, overcoming skeptics who believed he was past his prime to win an elusive World Cup at age 35. That Messi did so despite the historic play of France’s Kylian Mbappé, the 24-year-old heir apparent as king of soccer, made it even more improbable. It’s as if an aging, much-doubted version of Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls triumphed over flashy young Kobe Bryant and his Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, a clash of titans hoop fans never got to enjoy.
The next time the World Cup is held, U.S. fans will be able to attend without flying halfway around the world — or depleting life savings as some Argentinian fans did this year. In 2026, the U.S. is co-hosting the event with Mexico and Canada. Forty-eight nations, up from 32, will compete, with each host nation expected to win an automatic berth. Guadalajara, Mexico City, Monterrey, Toronto and Vancouver will host the first 20 matches. The final 60 will be played at U.S. stadiums — in Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, New York/New Jersey, Philadelphia, the San Francisco area and Seattle. The site of the final has not yet been announced, but MetLife Stadium, in East Rutherford, N.J.; AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas; and So-Fi Stadium in Inglewood — all NFL venues — are considered the early favorites.
Will the event solidify world football as one of the most beloved American sports, perhaps trailing only U.S. football? Maybe not. In 1994, when the U.S. hosted the World Cup for the first time, average attendance was a record 68,000. The belief was common that the immense popularity of youth soccer in the U.S. was finally translating into broader popularity. That didn’t happen. Not only did Major League Soccer, launched in the U.S. in 1996, struggle to get paying fans and TV coverage, soccer often faced ridicule. With each passing year, high-profile sports talk radio host Jim Rome, the “have a take/don’t suck” Southern Californian, found new ways to call soccer “stupid” for its frequent scoreless ties and faked player injuries. Sportswriter Frank Deford even called it “un-American” and said the U.S. would “forever reject soccer.” But writers like Grant Wahl, who died of an aortic aneurysm covering the 2022 World Cup, worked to legitimize soccer for decades. And his advocacy was paying dividends.
Polls about the favorite sports to watch on TV show soccer has been closing on baseball and basketball — though not football — for years. And among Americans under 30, soccer has already surged past baseball, according to a poll this year by The Washington Post. Is this the level of devotion — “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” — described by legendary Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly?
Well, no, not really. That hasn’t materialized with the U.S. women’s team winning four World Cups, including the last two. The men’s team has had nowhere near that success. It lost in the semifinals of the inaugural 13-team tournament in 1930 and in the quarterfinals in 2002 but rarely makes it past the first knockout stage. This year, the men lost in that round of 16, just as they did in 1994, 2010 and 2014.
Who knows? Maybe the U.S. men in 2026 can match the still-astounding feat of the underdog U.S. hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., and win the entire tournament in front of home fans after beating a giant of the sport.
Do you believe in a soccer miracle? Well, no — not yet. But more Americans than ever want to believe in it. And why not? It’s a great ¡goooooooooool!