Fittingly, it was on July 4th, 1988 that FIFA awarded the hosting rights for the 1994 World Cup to the United States. Soccer has a longer, richer history in the U.S. than many would acknowledge, but at the very least this vote marks the beginning of its modern era. A year later the U.S. men’s national team qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. The 1994 World Cup still holds the record for largest attendance, and it undoubtedly served as a first exposure to professional soccer for untold millions of Americans. Major League Soccer, which was established as a condition for hosting the tournament, began play in 1996. In the two decades since, the game has seen slow but steady growth in the U.S.
Canadian soccer’s origin story isn’t nearly as neat. The men’s national team qualified for the 1986 World Cup, but hasn’t qualified since. They won the Gold Cup in 2000, but this didn’t lead to any further conquests. The women’s team has had much more success, but only an Olympic bronze medal to show for it. Toronto FC joined MLS in 2007, but Canada had pro teams before then. They’ve hosted FIFA tournaments, but all on the youth level, none even as big as next year’s Women’s World Cup.
Yet, without the big splashes that have characterized American soccer, Canadian soccer has seen steady growth. At the youth level, it is played by more kids than even hockey. And it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the game is more popular in Canada than in the U.S.
All three of Canada’s MLS teams are in the top half of the league in attendance, with Toronto and Vancouver both in the top four. On television, Canadian viewership of MLS isn’t vastly different from American viewership, despite the obvious population difference. Last week in NASL, Ottawa Fury FC set the league’s attendance record with their first game at their new stadium.
The U.S. played in this World Cup, but on a per-capita basis, Canada watched it more. Nearly six million Canadians watched the final, more than 15 percent of the country. To equal that level of interest, 53 million Americans would have had to watch Germany defeat Argentina; 26 million actually did.
But what can we really make of all this popularity and growth? Despite soccer’s prevalence as a youth sport in Canada, the national team still struggles. Infamously, they had a chance to reach the last stage of CONCACAF qualification for this year’s World Cup, only to lose 8-1 in Honduras. None of the three MLS teams have made it past the first round of the playoffs.
The Canadian Soccer association thinks it’s time to start making waves of their own. A recent report has the CSA joining forces with the CFL and NASL to create a professional league in Canada. With the CFL’s stadiums and financial backing, this new league wouldn’t necessarily be looking for or expecting massive crowds. The league could instead focus on providing professional opportunities to Canadian talent. It’s not unusual for the Canadian national team to call in players who are unattached, without professional clubs. Currently, MLS rules consider Canadian players as internationals for U.S. clubs, which limits their opportunities. Don Garber has talked about changing the league’s approach in this regard, but a Canadian league would be a huge boost for the development of Canadian talent.
But the biggest wave of all, and the one the CSA has its eyes on, is the World Cup. Next year, Canada hosts the Women’s World Cup. This is big in its own right; the largest event Canada has hosted so far. But it is also a stepping stone to hosting the men’s World Cup. The CSA has spent the past decade playing nice with FIFA, hosting progressively larger tournaments. Establishing a league of their own would also be done with one eye towards FIFA’s approval. Now, they’re looking to reap the rewards. The CSA plans to bid to host the 2026 World Cup, and they have made it clear that they don’t want to share it with the U.S.
It is far too early to predict the results a FIFA election, but you couldn’t blame Canadians for having high hopes. The game is more popular than ever, and the CSA has certainly paid its dues to FIFA. Canada would need to construct a few stadiums if they were to host, but even then they couldn’t produce anywhere near the controversy of FIFA’s recent hosts. Current guidelines would seem to favor CONCACAF to host the World Cup in 2026, and the U.S. and Mexico have already hosted the tournament. It’s still unclear whether the U.S. will bid, given Sunil Gulati’s misgivings about the voting process. Canada may very well be the early favorites.
In the U.S., hosting the World Cup served to jumpstart the growth of soccer. In Canada, hosting a future World Cup would only cement and further a passion that is already there. It would, at long last, guarantee the men’s team qualification, but that is only a fraction of the significance it would have for Canadian soccer.