In a decade or two, if all goes as it should, we’ll be able to fairly neatly divide American soccer history into three ages. First, there’s what we’ll call the dark ages, spanning from the sport’s arrival on our shores in the 1860s through 1993. Then followed the renaissance, as soccer roused and finally began to deliver on its potential, from 1994 until June 12, 2018, in the run-up and afterglow of the first World Cup held stateside.
On Wednesday, when it was announced that the United States would be hosting its second men’s World Cup in 2026, along with Mexico and Canada in small supporting roles, the enlightenment dawned.
The FIFA Congress made a smart and reasonable choice in selecting the North American bid over Morocco in Moscow, in accordance with the technical report. There is almost no assembly required here, whereas Morocco basically had to build all the necessary infrastructure from scratch. As such, for the first time since the 2006 World Cup, FIFA went with the less risky option.
The decision will vault the American game forward a second time and all sorts of benefits will accrue to every corner of the sport. Not least of them: the U.S. has now already qualified for the 2026 edition of the World Cup, after the painful failure to reach the imminent 2018 tournament.
But to fully appreciate what’s happening here, you have to look back.
In those dark ages, before the U.S. first hosted a World Cup in 1994 – which remains the best-attended and highest-grossing edition ever – the sport flickered from time to time, but never for more than a few years. Soccer was ever-present in America, but it was a niche pursuit, if that. The heyday of the North American Soccer League in the 1970s saw it elevated to something glitzy and glamorous, but than soccer was never really the point of it. It was merely the vehicle for this exotic fad that brought famous foreigners stateside.
Following the World Cup, however, Major League Soccer began – as a precondition to hosting the thing – and has grown in step with the sport’s popularity, paradoxically driven by foreign leagues and tournaments. Three separate women’s leagues got off the ground until the last one, the National Women’s Soccer League, finally managed to stick.
Soccer’s growth has been exponential. It isn’t a rite of passage of a leisurely youth spent in white suburbia any longer, like sleepovers and trick-or-treating. It’s one of the most appealing sports to young Americans across all demographics. And you can trace this ascent pretty directly to 1994. Because several generations of Americans will tell you this is when they first came to soccer, and then encouraged it in their children – or didn’t frown on it, at least. This was the renaissance.
Now follows a new phase. For eight years, pretty much to the day, America will count down to its World Cup and the 60 games it will host – Mexico and Canada will each have 10. And in that time period, an enormous amount can be achieved.
“It’s not about the 32 days of the event,” former U.S. Soccer president and bid board member Sunil Gulati recently told Yahoo Sports. What he meant by that is the value in hosting lay more in the leverage it gives the organizers with potential host cities. Since no stadiums have to be built here, they can instead ask for other things: support for grassroots and professional soccer in their cities; downtown courts; integration of soccer into school and recreational programs. And they plan to ask for exactly that, and no doubt more.
While interest in soccer is already robust, thanks largely to the first World Cup here, a second one could accelerate and galvanize a soccer infrastructure that will safeguard the sport’s future here. Which will in turn will help the game to burrow deeper into America’s mainstream culture as more than a kids’ game.
Investment in and by MLS and the NWSL should pick up, while the chaotic youth game would have another strong incentive to shape up: field the best possible team for a World Cup on home turf, by which time a building hype and confidence will likely demand a contender – whether that’s realistic or not. But that expectation alone is valuable in shoving our national development forward.
The revenue opportunities will be many, for most all of the soccer structure, as corporate America seeks to make its mark on an event that will dominate a month on the bare summer sporting calendar. And local media, which has been slow to embrace the game as fully as the national media has in the last decade, will have a good reason to cover the sport in depth as their markets vie and then prepare to host games.
In economics, they call these happy side-effects positive externalities. And they are endless. There’s simply no describing the momentum that this second World Cup will offer, both in ways predictable and unforeseen. But it all promises to coalesce to strengthen American soccer significantly.
Welcome to the first day of a new age for the sport.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
More coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• U.S., Canada, Mexico win right to co-host 2026 World Cup
• All you need to know about a World Cup in North America
• Ranking potential U.S. host cities, from most to least likely
• 2018 World Cup preview hub