The FIFA World Cup in Qatar this winter ended in what many have argued is the greatest World Cup final in history: a head-to-head battle between the legendary Lionel Messi of Argentina and next-generation star Kylian Mbappé of France decided by a nail -biting round of penalty kicks.
It was the championship of soccer lovers’ dreams, and its reach extended far beyond regular fútbol fandom. In the United States — a country famously apathetic about the world’s most popular sport — 25 million people tuned into the final, making it the country’s second most-watched soccer match after the 2015 Women’s World Cup final, which garnered 26.7 million viewers.
On Tuesday, the Vail Symposium invited the chief communications officer of the US Soccer Federation, Neil Buethe, to a virtual talk about the development of soccer in the US and how World Cup momentum is fueling the game’s growth domestically.
Buethe, who has worked in communications with the federation since 2006, said that engagement with soccer has increased as a whole in the US over his tenure, but that there is a direct connection between the teams’ performance and interest from the public.
He gave the example of the men’s team making a surprise showing in the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002, only to be knocked out in the first round in 2006. It was his first year as a content manager for the federation, and he remembered that the wave of vitriol players received from fans after the knockout was warmly received as an indicator of high, passionate engagement with the game.
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“People were mad,” Buethe said. “They were sending us emails and yelling at us and leaving phone messages and finding any way to reach out to tell us that it wasn’t good enough, and we were like ‘This is great! People care!’”
The men’s team made it to the round of 16 in 2022, which is further than many analysts expected, but what stood out to Buethe about the young team is that the players weren’t satisfied with their performance. They wanted to take the whole tournament, and the federation knows that is the level of performance needed to expand the sport’s influence.
“We want to continue to perform at the highest level because that will bring more fans in, the more fans that are in helps us with revenue, revenue we put back into the game and it’s this full cycle that allows us to continue to push to beat the best teams in the world,” Buethe said.
Meanwhile, the women’s game has been rocket fuel for soccer interest in the US, a trend that is expected to continue as the national team seeks its third consecutive World Cup championship in Australia and New Zealand this summer. Buethe highlighted how the team’s dominance has turned many female soccer players into household names, and said that the US has created a playbook for investing in the women’s game that is now being replicated in Europe and South America.
Out of the 211 countries that send teams to the men’s World Cup, only 187 send women’s teams, and Buethe estimated that as few as 70 countries actively invest in their women’s programs. With the US, demonstrating the impact and popularity of a high-performing women’s national team, he hopes that more countries will wake up to the massive opportunity for growth that the women’s game offers.
“Think about all the countries in the world that could take that step — that’s what we’re really trying to showcase,” Buethe said. “Our women’s national team drives attention for us, massively, and it can be the same for them if they realize it. Some are, more can, and I think if all of the countries across the world did then the women’s game could really take leaps and bounds and it would be an amazing thing to watch.”
The gathering momentum from the 2022 men’s World Cup and the 2023 women’s World Cup can also be sustained better now than it could in the past thanks to streaming platforms that allow US viewers to easily tune into games in different time zones and social media that allows people to stay connected with players throughout the year.
All of this advancement in soccer fandom is building up to what Buethe believes will be a major turning point for the sport domestically: the 2026 men’s World Cup, which will be hosted in North America for the first time since 1994. The 1994 tournament was the most attended FIFA event in its history at the time, and now 2026 will also be the largest tournament in FIFA history, after FIFA voted to expand from its current 32-team layout to a starting bracket of 48 teams.
Buethe painted a picture of soccer’s growth in the US as a reinforcing cycle of investment, athletic success, viewership and revenue and sees a future in which it can become as popular domestically as it is around the world.
“This is such a massive opportunity for this sport,” Buethe said. “Our vision at US Soccer is to make soccer the preeminent sport in the United States. That’s not going to happen overnight, we’re not going to overtake the NFL tomorrow, but a massive event like a World Cup can have such a lasting impact for the sport in this country and everyone is focused on that.”