This week, many Americans did something they rarely do: they watched soccer.
In a major victory Tuesday, the U.S. men’s national soccer team beat Iran in the group stage at the World Cup in Qatar, advancing the team to the knockout round of 16 for the first time since 2014.
It will play the Netherlands next on Saturday at 10 a.m. ET.
The win was a big boost for soccer in the U.S., which saw its domestic league, Major League Soccer or MLS, break viewership records in 2022.
But experts say that while the sport is growing, elite soccer in the U.S. is unlikely to maintain this level of attention after the World Cup ends.
Why hasn’t professional soccer caught on in the U.S. as it has in other countries?
“If I had the answer to that I could go into the Nostradamus business,” says Northeastern professor emeritus Chuck Fountain, a former sports reporter and broadcaster. “That’s a question that people have been asking at the very least for decades.”
Part of the reason for Americans’ relative lack of interest in pro soccer may be that the public’s attention is split between many popular sports. While a 2018 Gallup poll showed that soccer is gaining in popularity, the top three favorite sports in the United States are still football, basketball and baseball.
“We have a large variety of sports that take our attention, and we have a college system that draws a lot of attention,” Northeastern men’s soccer coach Rich Weinrebe says.
Weinrebe, who says he has “watched an obscene amount of soccer” this World Cup, says that while a lot of kids in the U.S. play soccer, they tend to take on multiple sports. Then there comes a time, as it did for Weinrebe at age 12, when the sports become too much to juggle and kids need to specialize in one.
“You end up choosing the one you love or the one that your family is more entrenched in,” Weinrebe says. The soccer talent pool is, in turn, weakened. On top of that, some of the best American players go abroad to play.
It’s a similar situation in Canada, says Northeastern soccer player Omar Da Naia, who hails from Toronto. He’s one of several international players on the Huskies’ roster.
Da Naia has been playing soccer since age three and rooted for Canada in only its second appearance in the World Cup (Canada was eliminated in the group stage). “This is definitely new,” he says. Canada only recently started its own professional league, he says, as hockey is the dominant sport there.
But countries like Portugal are a different story. Da Naia’s father was born there, so he hopes to make their national team someday.
There, “soccer is like king,” he says. “Portugal’s in Europe, so they’re only watching soccer.”
“Everyone’s gonna be having their eyes glued to the TV at bars,” Da Naia says.
Soccer is also the priority in Norway, the home country of Northeastern soccer player Tobias Wangerud.
“In Norway we don’t have football, baseball, lacrosse, basketball” to take attention away from soccer, he says. “Even hockey is not a common sport.”
Wangerud has been watching the World Cup on his phone while walking to practice or his next class. Norway did not qualify for the World Cup this year, so Wangerud is rooting for Argentina, along with the U.S.
“I also hope the U.S. does well so the interest in soccer here can grow even more,” he says.
More success could bring more attention to men’s soccer in the U.S., but so would more media coverage, Wangerud says.
“One step forward would be to show more soccer on the TV,” Wangerud says. “The more you watch and learn about it, the more invested you get, and the more willing you become to attend games in person.”
In this respect, the World Cup is similar to the Olympics, Fountain says. People don’t tend to get invested in certain sports while these big events happen and are heavily covered. After the World Cup ends, he says, this level of interest will almost certainly wane.
At other times, media coverage can create a chicken-egg effect: the less something is covered, the less people care about it, and, in turn, the less it’s covered.
“They do get regular coverage,” however, he says. “It’s not a curiosity.” It’s just that the sport doesn’t compare with the level of interest in others, and this isn’t likely to change.
“I don’t see the World Cup transforming America into a soccer nation where all of a sudden the MLS championship has got 100,000 fans in the stands, and a Super Bowl- or NBA Finals-type of television rating,” he says.
The size and wealth of the United States doesn’t necessarily matter, either.
Bermuda is a small country and has never been to the World Cup, but they’ve come close to qualifying for the youth World Cup, according to Northeastern soccer player Ahria Simons, who hails from Southampton on the island.
The biggest difference he sees in how Bermuda approaches soccer is that “everybody” plays, since it’s such an accessible sport. Kids don’t even need cleats to play, and the rules are easy to understand.
“Every kid plays soccer,” Simons says. “Sometimes 50 kids to one ball. … Everyone’s chasing the one ball.” He remembers the times he forgot to bring his soccer cleats to school, and played in his socks. By the end of recess, he says, his socks would be dirty.
“It’s a sport that everyone can play, and the reason that it’s so popular is the ease of access,” Ahria Simons says. The best countries in soccer aren’t necessarily the richest, he says. Population size and wealth do not correlate with success. The biggest predictor of success, rather, is previous success.
The U.S. outing at the World Cup could make a difference. At the very least, Simons says, people will share the love of the game, however briefly.
“It’s just a beautiful game,” Simons says. “It brings people together in so many different ways.”
Written by Jessica Taylor Price.