In the absence of live sport, all we can do is talk about sport. And so I was thrilled last week to be invited by “En Esta Esquina” to debate whether the US would win a World Cup before Mexico. I felt especially honored given the caliber of the other participants – the nation’s most famous coach, Miguel “el Piojo” Herrera, and sports journalists Martin del Palacio and Daniela Cohen.
Daniela and I were on Team USA, and I say this with a somewhat heavy heart. The cool, cartoonish promotion graphics for the debate had me wearing a US jersey, but I don’t actually own one. I always root for Mexico in soccer. Truth be told, for us binational mutts, the heated cross-border rivalry presents a bit of an identity crisis. Things were simpler earlier in my life, when the US couldn’t care less about the game.
But over the last decade or two, a curious thing happened. This isolationist sporting power (which calls its own games’ domestic league winners “world champions” without a hint of irony) has gradually become connected to the world’s game. I once considered the sporting slice of global pop culture a showdown between the US seeking to get the rest of the world to adopt its games (with some success, as the NFL has proven in Mexico) and soccer, the most globalized non-US centric cultural phenomenon. But then came an unexpected plot twist: The US is starting to take over soccer, and soccer is starting to take over the US.
I wore my Arsenal jersey during the debate, ostensibly because my favorite European club would be neutral on the occasion, but also to make a point. Del Palacio and Herrera spoke at length about the strengths and weaknesses of Major League Soccer, the US domestic league which hasn’t reached the level of its Mexican counterpart, but I wanted to underscore that US interests over time have become far more integrated into football’s global economy, acquiring half the “big six” clubs in the English Premier League (including London’s Arsenal). Beyond those, the number of football teams across Europe now controlled by US investors keeps growing – the owners of the Phoenix Suns NBA franchise acquired Mallorca in Spain; the former CEO of Disney Michael Eisner owns Portsmouth in the English third division; the former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers acquired Olympique de Marseille; and Boston investors own Roma. The list goes on and on.
We’ve seen previous waves of US industries go global over the past century; a time comes when large domestic companies realize there are more consumers and greater purchasing power to be conquered abroad than at home. Sports, a more rooted family-centered business, is late to that party, and only now are we starting to see the multi-nationalization of the industry. Sure, if you’re John Henry, the owner of the Boston Red Sox with a knack for applying rigorous analytics to sport, you could spend the rest of your life trying to get people in Nigeria and Malaysia to care about baseball. Or you could acquire the storied Liverpool football club to essentially be your global brand. He chose the latter.
This is becoming a two-way street, as well. Many of the same US sporting interests buying into European football have invested in the MLS. What’s more, outside investors are betting on the growth of the game in the US – the Abu Dhabi/Manchester-based City Football Group, the most sophisticated example of a sporting multinational to date, owns one of two New York MLS franchises. FIFA and the outside world have a rooting interest in shepherding the US to the promised land. Don’t be surprised, for instance, to see Pep Guardiola coaching the US men’s national team in the 2026 World Cup. It’s the game’s final frontier.
This is a globalization story, then, but it isn’t just about economics. The US has numbers (the most players in the world after China, according to FIFA) and diversity on its side. The US remains the country best situated to synthesize the Latin playing style of this continent with the physicality of the European game.
Mexico is part of the reason the US will thrive, both because it contributes so many talented immigrant players, but also because the heated rivalry is helping to elevate both countries’ game. Soccer’s demographics in the US bridge immigrant communities and more prosperous suburban upper middle-class households willing to spend considerable sums to have their kids join elite travel teams and development academies. Del Palacio rightly argued that this elitism is holding US soccer back; the sport needs to find new pathways to identify and nurture inner city talent beyond immigrant communities.
It’s only a matter of time. Soccer is becoming too big to fail in the US,and the ongoing decline of two of the dominant incumbent sports in this country—American football and baseball – will only hasten the inevitable. Both Del Palacio and Herrera cited the NFL’s wild success as an obstacle facing the international version of football in this country, but the NFL’s popularity as TV entertainment can blind outsiders to the implosion of American football at the youth level, given rising health concerns. The state of Ohio, part of the sport’s historic heartland, saw a staggering 27-percent drop in the number of kids playing American football in high school over the last decade. This means the owners of the game feel a need to diversify their sporting interests, and it also means there’s a greater opening for soccer to attract some of the best young athletes to the game that might have previously turned to football.
I see this is in my son’s public high school in Maryland. Most of his friends play the game, are up on the European highlights, and can take sides in the Messi/Ronaldo or Man City/Liverpool debates. This is not the same country I came to when I was their age; that USA was stuck behind some sports Iron Curtain, cut off from the rest of the world. Fans in much of the world might wish it still was, because sooner or later (my guess is in 2030 or 2034), the US will join the exclusive club of nations to have won a men’s World Cup (let’s remember it’s won a few women’s ones already).
I’m bullish on Mexican football, too. It’s stronger today than the US is, and I wouldn’t discard the possibility of Mexico winning a World Cup at some point as well; but in a debate over probabilities, I do fear the US is in a stronger position over time. The challenge for Mexico, as in other walks of life, is to seize the opportunity presented by geography and these long-term trends to ensure that all North America benefits from strategic cross-border engagement (in this case soccer-wise). Two rivals can both play against, and help, each other.
Daniela and I won the debate, by the way. But with a heavy heart.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America .Twitter: @AndresDCmtz