American soccer experienced a decade of
unprecedented growth, along with new highs and lows. Here are our top 10 stories of the 2010s.
1. U.S. women win back-to-back World Cups. The USA won the Women's World Cup in 2015 and 2019, never trailing in 14 games over the two competitions. It almost won a third title, losing to Japan in the 2011 final on penalty kicks after leading late both in regulation and overtime. The U.S. women's championship teams of 1991 and 1999 also inspired millions of young girls to play soccer, but the current team entered a new realm as an advocate for equal pay. In a polarized political climate, Megan Rapinoe, a star on the 2011, 2015 and 2019 teams, underscored the growing power of athletes, speaking out for social justice and sparring with President Donald Trump.
2. USA fails to qualify for 2018 World Cup. The U.S. men's national team's string of seven straight trips to the World Cup ended in shocking fashion as it fell to Trinidad & Tobago, 2-1, in the final game of Concacaf qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The match was played before a sparse crowd in Couva, the Trinidadian city that became synonymous with the greatest debacle in the history of the U.S. Soccer. The USA had recovered from opening defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica that cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job and needed only a draw against T&T in the final qualifier to qualify. But the Soca Warriors, who came into the game with seven straight defeats in the Hexagonal, scored two fluke goals in the first half and held on for a 2-1 win. Bruce Arena quit as head coach within days, and Sunil Gulati, the architect of both national team programs, later withdrew his name from consideration for a fourth (and final) term as U.S. Soccer president. Speaking recently at a soccer conference at Princeton University, Gulati said, "I said some years ago, look, at some point, we’re not going to qualify for the World Cup. I just hope it’s not while I’m president."
3. MLS takes off. At the beginning of the previous decade, MLS's survival was not assured. It began the 2010s with 16 teams but grew during the decade to 24 teams in 2019 with six more slated to be on-boarded by 2022, the largest influx of new teams in league history. While attendance was flat or on the decline at several legacy teams, average attendance grew 27 percent from 2010 to 2019 and total attendance grew 117 percent over the decade. Owners loosened their purse strings to compete (modestly) on the international player market. The Designated Player rule introduced in 2007 was confirmed in 2010 and expanded in 2012. Following an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement in 2015, MLS introduced Targeted Allocation Money (and then discretionary TAM in 2017) to add millions of dollars in new spending for players costing in the range of $500,000-$1,500,000. We won't know the spending levels and mechanisms for 2020 until an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.
4. USA lands 2026 World Cup (as co-host). The 2010s began with a shocker -- tiny Qatar outmaneuvered the USA and won the hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup. The vote of FIFA's executive committee in December 2010 was marred by bribery accusations that even FIFA recently confirmed in publishing the testimony by a South American media executive Alejandro Burzaco in U.S. district court about payments to the three Conmebol representatives Ricardo Teixeira, Nicolas Leoz and Julio Grondona, as part of a 28-page document justifying the lifetime suspension of Teixeira, the former Brazilian federation president. But the USA was back in 2018, this time bidding for the hosting rights to the 2026 World Cup in partnership with Canada and Mexico against Morocco. FIFA has since reformed its voting process, and the United bid won easily, 134-65, in a vote of FIFA's member associations. The co-hosts don't face organizational issues that have plagued recent World Cup hosts, but the next few years will be critical for them to ramp up and take advantage of the interest in the 2026 World Cup.
5. U.S. Soccer under siege. The gender discrimination suit filed by USWNT players and scheduled to go to trial in U.S. district court in Los Angeles in May is just one of many legal battles U.S. Soccer is fighting. There are antitrust suits filed by the NASL (over professional league standards) and Relevent Sports Group (over restrictions on hosting of international matches) attack the federation's authority to regulate the pro game. A trademark dispute between U.S. Soccer and the U.S. Soccer Foundation landed in Federal court a year ago, and there are actions filed by Hope Solo before the USOC and Miami FC and the Kingston Stockade before CAS, the international sports judicial body hearing their pro/rel case. The toll of fighting these suits is mounting. The federation's deficit for fiscal year 2020 is projected to spike to $20 million from $14 million. "Increased legal expenses are the major driver," was the explanation in a recent presentation to the board of directors. The distraction of these high-profile and complex legal cases could not come at a worse time for a federation, which is working to improve its workplace environment following issues exposed in Glassdoor reviews and an organization-wide survey. The federation is still without a CEO more than a year after it was first reported by the Washington Post that Dan Flynn planned on leaving in 2019. Its youth national team coaching staff was gutted over the last two years with the departure of 13 full-time head coaches, including the lone new hire, Raphael Wicky, on Friday, and it faces a fractured youth landscape and declining player registrations.
6. Stadium boom. As the economy improved in the 2010s, new soccer stadium projects took off. The 10 MLS stadiums built or rebuilt as soccer stadiums cost more than $1.8 billion. As expansion picked up at the end of the decade, many of the proposed soccer stadiums set to open over the next three years are real-estate deals, tied to bigger commercial development projects. An equal number of USL Championship teams play in soccer stadiums built in the 2010s, and a half a dozen or so other teams have stadium projects in the pipeline.
NY Red Bulls (Red Bull Arena, 2010)
Philadelphia Union (Talen Energy Stadium, 2010)
Sporting KC (Children's Mercy Park, 2011)
Portland Timbers (*Providence Park, 2011)
Houston Dynamo (BBVA Stadium, 2012)
San Jose Earthquakes (Avaya Stadium, 2015)
Orlando City (Exploria Stadium, 2017)
D.C. United (Audi Field, 2018)
LAFC (Banc of California Stadium, 2018)
Minnesota United (Allianz Field, 2019)
Pittsburgh Riverhounds (Highmark Stadium, 2013)
San Antonio FC (Toyota Field, 2013)
Tampa Bay Rowdies (*Al Lang Stadium, 2015)
Rio Grande Valley FC (H-E-B Park, 2017)
Phoenix Rising (Casino Arizona Field, 2017)
Orange County SC (Championship Soccer Stadium, 2017)
Real Monarchs (Zions Bank Stadium, 2018)
Austin Bold (Bold Stadium, 2019)
Hartford Athletic (*Dillon Stadium, 2019)
Loudoun United (Segra Field, 2019)
*Renovated as a soccer-specific stadium.
7. USL takes off. The pro game in the lower divisions was in flux at the beginning of the decade, hung together by the USSF Division 2 Pro League, managed by U.S. Soccer in 2010, while team owners went their separate ways, to USL PRO and the NASL. The teams that moved to the NASL were more ambitious but by 2018, the NASL was defunct. USL PRO struggled at first, losing three teams in Puerto Rico early in its first season, but the USL is now flourishing with 35 teams slated to play in the second-tier USL Championship and 12 in the third-tier USL League One in 2020.
8. NWSL survives. The NWSL still has no commissioner, no national TV deal, few sponsors and an uncertain expansion plan, but it has done what the two women's pro leagues before it did not do and that's survived. WUSA and WPS, which folded in 2011, both survived only three seasons. In 2013, U.S. Soccer stepped in and launched the NWSL with eight teams. By 2019, its seventh season, the NWSL was only up to nine teams, but thanks to new owners and new management, it enjoyed its best season yet, riding the popularity of women's soccer after another U.S. world title. The Portland Thorns became the first women's team to ever average more than 20,000 fans a game with an average of 20,098 in 2019.
9. Pulisic smashes U.S. transfer fee record. Nine months before his 21st birthday, Christian Pulisic smashed the U.S. record for a transfer fee when he was sold by Borussia Dortmund to Chelsea for $73 million. No American player has ever broken through at the top level of European soccer at such a young age -- Pulisic debuted for Dortmund when he was 17 -- and no American player has ever faces a brighter spotlight. His move to Chelsea has been a roller-coaster ride. Except for one start in the League Cup, he spent all of September on the bench. He then broke out with five goals over three Premier League games and was instrumental in Chelsea advancing to the knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League. But he ended the year on the sidelines with a hamstring injury, playing just 23 minutes in the first three games of the festive season. Pulisic has already been a success in another regard, however. European clubs have arrived en masse on U.S. shores in search of the next Pulisic. U.S. youth internationals were this fall on the books at clubs like Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Ajax and Lille, all Champions League teams this season, and other ambitious clubs like PSV and Wolfsburg.
10. Soccer on the air, everywhere. Competition among broadcasters for U.S. rights to soccer properties reached new highs. Fox Sports and Telemundo Deportes snatched FIFA rights (both World Cups and all youth competitions) from longtime rights holders ESPN and Univision Deportes and will hold them through the 2026 World Cup. NBC Sports set new standards with its coverage of the Premier League, whose media rights it has held since 2013. Beginning in 2018, Turner Sports won the UEFA Champions League rights held by Fox Sports since 2009, but they will move to CBS Sports in 2021. But week in and week out, the two dominant players remain Univision Deportes (now TUDN), which garnered about 50 percent of all U.S. soccer viewership in 2019, and ESPN, whose new pay-streaming service ESPN+ has been snapping up rights to leagues around the world, including Italy's Serie A and Germany's Bundesliga, in addition to hundreds of MLS and USL games.