Twenty-two players. A ball. Two nets. That’s all you need to play the most popular sport in the world. Brilliant because of its simplicities, soccer has its roots in many ancient games. Early Chinese, Greek, Japanese, and Native American cultures all played a version of soccer, in which players could only move the ball via kicking.
Today’s soccer, as most cultures play it, dates back to the 19th century, following an effort by Cambridge University to standardize the many variants of football — soccer — being played around the world.
In 2001, FIFA reported that as many as 240 million people from more than 200 countries regularly play soccer, from backyard games to packed arenas. It’s difficult to point to any other sport that even comes close to that level of participation.
While football -- as it’s known outside of the United States -- is the most-watched and beloved sport globally, it has climbed an uphill battle for viewership in the country. American football dwarfs other sports in the U.S., and despite recent upticks, Major League Soccer still must compete with baseball and basketball. Golf and NASCAR are more watched than soccer.
This may be partially due to the relative youth of Major League Soccer. The league was created in 1993 to strengthen a bid to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup. Initially launching with 10 teams, MLS has grown to 27, with additional plans for expansion teams already in the works. Streaming has led to an increase in viewership of the English Premier League in the U.S., indicating that soccer overall is becoming more popular here.
The MLS is not America’s first attempt at a professional soccer league. The NASL was founded in 1967 and lasted through 1984, peaking at 24 teams and then dwindling down to only two. This league produced the New York Cosmos, where soccer greats Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer ended their professional careers.
The Major Indoor Soccer League played games from 1978 to 1992, with teams like the San Diego Sockers and the New York Arrows dominating the championships. Despite financial hardships, MISL games were well attended and beloved for fans around the States. A few of the folded indoor leagues went on to join different, short-lived leagues.
Some of the greatest included the Sacramento Knights, the Pittsburgh Spirit, the Cleveland Force, and the Denver Avalanche.
So, where is soccer in America going from here? The sky's the limit. We’ll be watching no matter what.