On October 10, 2017, an article published in USA Today’s Sports page called the United States Men’s National Team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup the biggest embarrassment in U.S. sports history.
The last time the United States didn’t qualify for a World Cup before Russia 2018 was in 1986. A 1-0 home defeat to Costa Rica sent the Red, White, and Blue packing. After the defeat that kept them out of Mexico 1986, the Stars and Stripes were present in every World Cup from Italy 1990 to Brazil 2014.
Yes, the USMNT won’t be in Russia 2018. It may or may not be in the controversal Qatar 2022. The ultimate shot at redemption for the USMNT will be found in 2026, when the United States, Canada, and Mexico will joint-host the World Cup after FIFA accepted the United Bid on June 13, 2018.
Although the USMNT isn’t in Russia, there are still plenty of Americans there to watch the tournament. The United States trails only Russia in the number of tickets sold to 2018 World Cup games. The statistic somewhat nullifies the notion that Americans only care about soccer when the USMNT makes the World Cup. The United States isn’t at the top yet, but it’s inching its way towards America’s fifth major sport. According to Brian Lewis of the New York Post, soccer has surpassed baseball and is growing ever-closer to taking basketballs place in the ranks of American’s hearts ages 18-34.
That being said, participation in the World Cup has been vital to the growth of the game stateside. The 1994 World Cup, hosted by the United States, led to the creation of Major League Soccer two years later and a major increase in youth participation.
During the time between Italy 1990 and Brazil 2014, the span where the U.S. was present in every World Cup, U.S. youth soccer participation increased 89 percent; Participation grew from 1.62 million to 3.1 million kids. With the acceptance of the United Bid, U.S. Soccer President Carlos Cordeiro believes there is an even higher ceiling for youth participation in America.
“We believe this event will become a lightning rod, will become transformational for the sport as kids who are now eight, 10, 12 years old can all dream of potentially playing for a national team,” Cordeiro said. “The reality is in the United States, on the men’s side, we have a lot of competition, with three or four other sports, and we’re not quite at the top yet.” The United States isn’t at the top yet, but it’s inching its way towards America’s fifth major sport. According to Brian Lewis of the New York Post, soccer has surpassed baseball and is growing ever-closer to taking basketballs place in the ranks of American’s hearts ages 18-34.
It isn’t the only country hosting the World Cup in 2026 experiencing similar growth. Soccer has long reigned as the dominant sport in Mexico, but Canada’s growth in the world’s game has seen it pass hockey as the country’s favorite sport.
“What I can tell you is that we believe that soccer or football will become the preeminent sport in North America. And I’m not just speaking for the U.S., I think I speak for Canada,” Cordeiro said. “Steven Reed talks a lot about how many more kids are playing football today than are playing ice hockey.”
Cordeiro plans to use the 2026 World Cup to grow soccer culture in America. His plan is to develop the game from grassroots up and raise the nearly 4 million participants to even greater numbers, just as the 1994 World Cup did.
Ideally, the 2026 World Cup in the United States will outperform the youth soccer growth and revenue results of the 1994 World Cup, which is still the most successful World Cup from a revenue and ticketing perspective.
The 2026 World Cup is expected to generate the highest revenue of any previous World Cup. Part of this is due to the expansion of the tournament to 48 teams making it the largest World Cup ever. The United Bid is expected to produce $14 billion in revenue and bring in more than 5.8 million spectators throughout the 80 matches, which will increase from 64.
Cordeiro and company needed to beat out Morocco in order for the United Bid to win. The three nation joint-host bid gathered 134 out of a possible 203 votes. The victory helped soothe the burns from the 2022 World Cup bid loss the United States suffered in 2010.
“It was a very emotional moment for everyone,” Cordeiro said later, recalling the devastation he felt in when the United States failed to secure the right to stage the 2022 World Cup, losing to Qatar in a much-criticized voting process.
Eight years later, the United States and Cordeiro are guaranteed their World Cup. However, the United States is not guaranteed an automatic berth into the tournament. Automatic berth is a luxury nations receive as a result of hosting the tournament, but with three nations hosting 2026 it’s undecided if all three will be granted automatic berth.
The berthing decision lies in the hands of the FIFA officials. Pending their judgement, the U.S. may be the first team to have to qualify for a World Cup as a host nation.
For now, with the 2026 World Cup still eight years away and Qatar 2022 four years away, the USMNT must focus on player development. If they are to be serious contenders the team will need more Christian Pulisic’s, Cameron Carter-Vickers’, and Gideon Zelalem’s. The focus becomes youth development.
Preparation for success in the next two World Cup’s must begin now. It will be up to the young American stars, who will be reaching their primes by the 2026 World Cup, to lead the United States on a deep cup run and potentially win their first World Cup.