From the curtains of rain at his unveiling to the flawless top-corner winner in the final minute of his debut off the bench and the video-game soccer on display in his first start in flamingo pink, Lionel Messi’s beginnings in Miami have seemed providential, almost biblical. Messi is not, of course, the first aging superstar to put himself out to pasture on the gentle greens of US soccer. Pelé set the precedent, and many will follow once Messi has gone. But to choose America now? In this economy? With Saudi Arabia’s gushing riches within reach, and the lure of nostalgia calling him back to Barcelona? Surely that says a lot.
Or perhaps it says nothing. For every charitable reading of the Messi-provided tea leaves today, an opposite and proportionately negative interpretation also seems plausible: the downpour at Messi’s unveiling was proof of the idiocy of running a soccer league through the extremes of the American summer, the PlayStation skills Messi treated us to in his first MLS start was only possible thanks to Atlanta United’s Commodore 64 defending, and so on. But Messi is Messi, even at 36: an argument all to himself and a divinity in any league. The arrival on these shores of a player uniquely able to shape the game to his will seems to portend the creation of a new reality for American soccer.
Is soccer now a “proper” American sport? Will Messi’s embrace of MLS, however opportunistically motivated by the promise of the millions to be made in streaming revenue it may be, catalyze America to finally take the next step and assume its place among the game’s global powers, as a country at last able to attract and compete with the world’s very best in the men’s game? Whether Messi will reshape the game in the US or merely adorn it remains to be seen. But whatever direction his MLS sojourn eventually takes, it plainly fits into a broader narrative arc.
Like Messi, soccer’s global administrators are betting big on America: the US is set to host Copa América in 2024, the inaugural expanded format of the Club World Cup in 2025, and the men’s World Cup in 2026, giving soccer an unprecedented three-year stretch of prime-time exposure, through the least crowded part of the American sporting calendar, in the world’s biggest media market. Things look very different now to the way they did a few decades ago: the US lost its bid to host the 1986 World Cup after Fifa’s then-president João Havelange, dismissing America as “not ready for such an event”, instead threw his weight behind Mexico, “a real soccer country”. No longer is the US condescended to as some distant, irrelevant province of world soccer; increasingly, it’s seen as the sport’s future, the market that must be converted if the game is to maintain its global supremacy.
Related: ‘They’ve been given everything’: Rival fans watch Messi shine again for Miami
Exactly what it means to “convert” America to soccer is a little less clear, though, and the ambiguity of the sport’s relationship to this country captures some of the uncertainty over its direction as serious money starts to pour into the game. Missteps are still, without question, being made at an administrative level: the reappointment of Gregg Berhalter after last year’s World Cup feels like a managerial own goal, locking the USMNT into another four-year cycle of tedious timidity on the field and bizarre machinations off it, the USWNT no longer reign supreme, and MLS commissioner Don Garber’s leadership has a late-imperial stagnation to it after more than two decades in the job. The soccer coverage on Fox Sports, which has mystifyingly been handed the rights to all major international tournaments up to and including the 2026 World Cup, remains incurably embarrassing. But the sport’s general direction of travel in the US is positive.
On the field, things are progressing at a reasonable clip, if not totally perfectly. Despite their shock early exit in Australia and New Zealand, the USWNT remain the most successful team in Women’s World Cup history, and while their counterparts in the men’s team have not reached quite the same heights, they are now regular fixtures in the Mundial’s knockout rounds. The USMNT’s performance in Qatar, which included a brawling goalless draw against England and an insipid round of 16 exit to the Dutch, suggested American soccer fans can and should expect more of them. The US has yet to produce a genuine male soccer superstar – following Christian Pulisic’s underwhelming stint at Chelsea, the mantle of expectation has now seemingly passed to Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna – but there’s a bright crop of young players regularly competing for starting spots in Europe’s top leagues. In the women’s game, hope abounds that Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman and Naomi Girma can extend the world-beating legacy of star veterans like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan in 2027, when the US may well host the Women’s World Cup.
Attendances in both MLS (where crowds averaged 22,000 per match last season) and the NWSL (7,000) are buoyant in comparison to other non-European leagues. MLS clubs such as Atlanta, Charlotte and Seattle regularly draw crowds in excess of 30,000, while Angel City and the Portland Thorns boast large attendances in the NWSL, giving the match-day experience some of the texture and volume of European soccer. MLS also had the sixth-highest number of players competing at last year’s men’s World Cup, outranked only by Europe’s big five (the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1). Even with oil money upending everything this summer, there’s a fair argument to be made that America boasts the strongest league outside Europe, with perhaps only the Saudi Pro League and the J-League for competition.
More than these statistical markers of progress, though, it’s the palpable sense of an emergent and robust soccer culture in America that provides real hope the game will continue to grow and strengthen on these shores. The Latino community remains the heart of the sport’s fanbase in the US, and MLS has arguably embraced Latinos more deeply than any of the country’s other major sporting leagues.
Elsewhere the story is more complex. Non-Hispanic America retains some of its insecurity when it comes to soccer, a sense of not quite measuring up to the original – a complex that can be seen in the mimicry of English chants and formulations among American soccer fans (“Dude that nutmeg was proper filthy”) or the prestige that’s still attached to certain accents in TV coverage of the sport on these shores, that enduring Jamesian fondness for the old English plum. (The James in question here is Henry, not Reece.) Nowhere but America would a man like Fox pundit Warren Barton, the former Newcastle full-back whose commentary career consists almost exclusively of the insight that the players on the field need to “put the ball in an area”, be given years on TV to repeatedly, unvaryingly instruct professional footballers to cross the ball. But such is the currency attached to English accents in coverage of American soccer.
Beyond the Latino community, supporting soccer in this country can still feel a little forced, like the affectation of a Cockney accent after a week-long vacation in London, and the sport remains a viable, if deflating, punching bag in the local culture wars, an activity that’s still useful code on the right for everything conservatives despise: globalism, foreignness, an openness to the Other. To be an American who supports soccer is still, at some level, an act of cosmopolitan intent, a self-exoticizing declaration of one’s own essential difference from the sports-loving mass of (white) middle America. But that is changing, and fast, because increasingly, watching soccer is simply what America – already a powerhouse of participation in the sport at youth level – does. This is not only a function of robust crowd numbers at MLS matches; it’s also reflected in the growing popularity of soccer on American TV, with NBC’s coverage of the Premier League now reaching approximately 530,000 viewers per match window. (Premier League matches in the UK, by way of comparison, attract an average of more than two million viewers.)
The roll call of celebrities who showed up to cheer Messi on from the matchstick grandstands of DRV PNK Stadium in his first two matches for Miami – Kim Kardashian! Serena Williams! Tom Brady! DJ Khaled! – underscores soccer’s rising social status, and every big personality in the NBA now seemingly has his European team of choice: LeBron and Liverpool, Steve Nash and Spurs, Steph Curry and whatever team has just handed him a personalized shirt with his name on the back. Throughout America, men’s soccer is now authentically cool in a way that it wasn’t, say, in the era of Landon Donovan and Brian McBride, when the US was no more than a punchy underdog and the sport was for outsiders, wannabe Europeans and liberal freaks. Local fan culture has grown in sophistication to become the equal of anything in Europe; as anyone who’s spent time in an American-dominated soccer group chat would know, there is no reason for the US to feel any inferiority when it comes to memes and “bantz”, the most critical cultural battleground of the modern game. Soccer in America today – not only as it’s experienced live in stadiums but also as it’s debated and enjoyed in sports bars and WhatsApp threads – has most of the fun of European soccer and none of its baggage.
If anything, it’s America that is now influencing the direction of the sport, rather than being influenced by it. The irresistible urge for soccer to “make it” in America is not hard to decode or understand, given the size of the media market here. But as Messi and David Beckham and various outlying figures of the greater footballing firmament – one thinks, for instance, of Troopz, the Arsenal fan blogger who left AFTV in 2020 for the greener, shoutier pastures of New York and Barstool Sports – join the grand transatlantic pilgrimage, it has begun to feel as if America is seen as a nation of spenders first and soccer fans second. Messi’s MLS deal has been designed to include a cut of the subscription revenues from the $2.5bn, decade-long media partnership signed between the league and Apple TV. The structuring of that deal, along with Messi’s committed promotion of the $15/month MLS Season Pass to his 481 million Instagram followers, shows how soccer’s administrators see the sport developing in this country: as a content play with a highly favorable risk/reward profile. No VAR needed here: the commercial upside looks tantalizingly clear.
Related: The Megan Myth: what critics and fans get wrong about Rapinoe
Increasingly, soccer in America is seen primarily as a business, and supporters are treated less as fans with a voice in the sport’s direction than simple consumers, monetizable units to be juiced for all they’re worth. This is true of the sport everywhere, of course, but it’s the specifically American way of monetizing soccer – through a combination of data and performance analytics, private equity and debt financing, and the relentless transformation of soccer into a mediatized, perpetual content product – that is coming to predominate globally. The Saudi approach, by contrast, involves throwing billions of state-supplied dollars at prestige players to enhance Saudi Arabia’s attractiveness as a leisure and recreation destination in a decarbonized future. This is not a strategy that is easily or meaningfully replicable across markets the way the American model of sports investment is.
The real story of soccer’s dawning American century is not about lucrative broadcast deals, Messi in Miami, or the coming World Cup. It’s about the influx of American institutional money – mostly supplied by private equity and hedge funds – into the storied clubs of Europe, and the cultural distortions that this export of the American ownership style is triggering. As a very general rule, team fanbases in American pro sports have historically enjoyed less direct participation in the administration of their teams than fans of European soccer have. The structure of a club like Luton Town, freshly promoted to the English Premier League and partly owned by its supporters’ trust, is alien to the world of US professional sports, in which teams are run as pure profit-driven franchises. The American model of ownership makes big structural changes difficult to pull off, inducing a kind of paralysis in the administration of individual sports: MLS’s structuring as a single legal entity, for example, in which club owners effectively operate as franchisees, has long frustrated efforts to introduce promotion and relegation into American professional soccer, since exposing MLS to the full pyramid of professional and semi-professional soccer in this country would effectively be a league-wide act of self-sabotage.
More importantly, the American model also incentivizes a culture in which owners feel the need to placate supporters with content and memberships and other bells and baubles of “engagement” that substitute for the lack of real fan participation in the running of their chosen teams. It’s a strategy of distraction designed to keep supporters occupied while owners get on with the real job of maximizing profit – and increasingly it’s the rule in the European game too. Nine of the 20 teams competing in the approaching season of the English Premier League are part- or majority-owned by US investors. American capital’s vulture-like descent on the Premier League has been motivated primarily by a belief in English soccer’s fundamental potential – and undervaluation – as an asset class. The real goal here is not to bring communities closer to the sport they love but to convert them – through gambling, streaming, and various NFT-like imbecilities – into thoughtless consumers of a decontextualized, 24/7 media product. It’s a recipe for engagement without participation, inducing soccer fans into a state of permanent and blissful disenfranchisement. Everything about the direction American investors are taking the sport in (most egregiously, in their dormant dreams for a European Super League) points to a future in which soccer will become fully delocalized, a sport from nowhere.
For now the American money men’s attentions are fixed firmly on Europe; but in the future, why not elsewhere? The jolt to the established order of club soccer that the Saudi experiment has administered may raise hopes on these shores that America, eventually, will boast a domestic league to compete with the world’s very best. In recent decades, the fortunes of soccer’s club hegemons have fluctuated according to capital’s ripples: Italy reigned supreme in the 1990s, Spain dominated the 2000s/2010s, England is enjoying its moment today. Nothing about the Premier League’s place as the pinnacle of the modern sport is fixed or preordained. Money will go wherever it sees the biggest opportunity, however that’s measured – including, potentially, to America. But the day when a player like Kylian Mbappé spurns Real Madrid for Real Salt Lake still feels distant, if not impossible; for now, Europe remains the gold standard. Which is why the American investors will keep going to Europe, with their merch and their hashtag campaigns, their EBITDA multiples and their content packages.
As the US looks forward to hosting the World Cup and Messi’s prestige enhances the appeal of MLS to the world’s top professionals, a curious dualism has taken hold in American soccer. At a cultural level, soccer in America is still a sport in the process of figuring itself out, a teenager working its way through the ugly bloom of puberty. But as a business proposition, the sport’s potential is already priced in – and the eyes of America’s most ruthless investors are locked on the vast riches that soccer could yet disgorge. Fragility and belligerence make for a curious mix, promising a future that oscillates continuously between potential (a deep run for the USMNT in its home World Cup, a resurgence of the women’s team in 2027) and peril (a 39th Premier League match in New Jersey). The real question is not whether soccer will change America, but how America will change soccer.