For anyone who wants to see the United States win the World Cup in their lifetime, here is how it will happen:
1. More fans consume our domestic league.
More than 25 million U.S. residents watched USA-Portugal on June 22. If even half of those people support a team in our domestic league on a regular basis, Steps 2 and 3 become possible. True, lots of them fill MLS stadiums each week, but reaching our goal will require TV & online audiences in the millions.
2. Generate enough revenue to pay the world’s best players.
The previous first division soccer league folded in 1984 because its business model wasn’t sustainable. Expenses exceeded revenues by too much for too long.
This time, we have a viable, stable league that will soon have 22 teams. Now we get to determine how popular it can be. On average, MLS clubs are spending more than eight times as much on players today than they did a decade ago, and the quality of play has improved significantly. If the owners, sponsors and broadcasters see growth in fan interest, that trend will continue, or accelerate.
Importing top players from around the world complements the investments being made at the youth levels. The various styles, artistry and intense competition they bring help us advance to Step 3.
3. Create a crucible that can forge world-class players.
On the ladder of the world’s top divisions of soccer, our league has moved up more rungs than any other in the past 15 years.
As the level of play in MLS approaches, matches, and exceeds that of the top European leagues, the pool of world-class players eligible to represent the United States will grow.
Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, Pirlo, Mueller — all the best players on the best national teams emerge from high-pressure, high-stakes environments. We need a red-hot crucible like that for as many of our top young players as possible. That means more competition for contracts, starting spots, and minutes. That means more media attention and scrutiny. That means we place more importance on the result of each and every game.
4. Provide ample opportunities for U.S.-eligible players.
The formation and expansion of MLS has created jobs for professional soccer players that previously did not exist. This season, 313 players — almost 60% of all MLS players — were born in the United States. That number has increased steadily over the past eight years. At the same time, the number of American soccer players employed abroad has increased in direct proportion with the growth of our league.
As MLS gains respect around the world, and as our league develops higher-caliber talent, U.S. players will have more opportunities to play regularly for top clubs in other countries. It comes down to scale. Some naturalized U.S. citizens will help our national team. Some U.S.-born players will begin their pro careers in other countries and help. But by far, the largest number of candidates to represent the United States will spend at least part of their careers in our league. Of the players who represented the United States at the past five World Cups (1998-2014), about 74% of them had MLS experience.
When young athletes see a clear path to fame and fortune in soccer, when their classmates are routinely talking about Kyle Beckerman, Matt Besler, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and others, those kids are less likely to opt to pursue other sports at the highest level. This is why we need to make our league as popular, relevant and important as possible.
5. Make the most of our population, infrastructure, and cooperation.
The winning campaign will involve luck, as all do. But we cannot capitalize on our nation’s strengths without completing Step 1.
Entering this World Cup, just eight different nations had ever won it all: Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Uruguay. All eight have strong, well-supported domestic leagues, and arguably had one of the top five leagues in the world at the time that each nation won its first World Cup. A nation must have a strong and popular domestic league before it can win the World Cup.
One might look at Brazil (5 World Cups) and Argentina (2) and note that many of their current national team players are employed by European clubs. This is true, but their domestic league games still generate plenty of television viewers and media coverage every week. Nearly every person that follows soccer in those countries is a devout fan of a domestic club, even though many also watch European leagues on TV.
Here in the United States, less than half of the people who regularly follow soccer have an allegiance to their nearest club.
Overcoming adversity and proving our mettle to the world are great American traditions. We love to compete. Give us tougher competition, and we will get better. We will figure out a way to win, fair and square. We embrace challenges, and the World Cup presents a grand one. No other sport fields so many national teams; no other tournament has so many favorites. To raise our league’s level as high, or higher, than the best in the world, we can each lend a hand — between World Cups.
For those who live outside the United States, this essay probably won’t appeal to you, unless you live in Canada, in which case similar principles apply to seeing your nation qualify for the World Cup again. But it appears, based on support for the three Canadian clubs in MLS, that you already get that.
It is also perfectly acceptable to live in the United States and want another national team to win the World Cup, regardless of the reason. If that’s the case, you might want to enjoy firsthand the fervor and drama that one of the world’s best soccer leagues would provide. You can be part of creating that experience. And it’s a ton of fun. Welcome.