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A look at the soccer surge in North America as we head into the 2024 MLS season

From the growth of leagues, tournaments, the women’s game and grassroots infrastructure to the impact of star power, soccer has truly found its footing in this continent.

Over the past 15 years, soccer — or football as it’s known by the rest of the world — has seen an unprecedented rise in popularity in North America.

This growth is evident through various lenses: increased attendance in stadiums, rising viewership numbers, an influx of international stars and booming youth participation. 

At the grassroots level, soccer has become a staple of youth sports. Youth soccer organizations in the U.S. and Canada have reported a consistent increase in participation. This uptick is partly due to the sport’s inclusive and global nature, allowing children of all backgrounds and financial status to partake.

Cities across North America have invested in soccer facilities, leagues and training programs, reflecting a growing infrastructure that supports and nurtures young talent. (Province of Quebec and City of Montreal, we need more facilities please!)

Major League Soccer (MLS) has expanded from 10 teams at its inception in 1996 to 29 clubs. Cities are clamouring for franchises, and the league has seen a significant increase in attendance and viewership. The introduction of marquee players like David Beckham in 2007 and, more recently, stars such as Zlatan Ibrahimović, Gonzalo Higuaín and of course the GOAT of them all, Lionel Messi, have brought international attention and credibility to the league. 

The success of international competitions such as the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the Copa America Centenario, held in the U.S., shows an increasing hunger for high-caliber soccer.

The growth of women’s soccer has also been pivotal in the rise of the sport’s overall popularity in North America. The United States Women’s National Team and Canadian Women’s National Team have been particularly influential, as we’ve seen in these past FIFA Women’s World Cups. The team’s successes have not only created a massive following but has also highlighted crucial issues of gender equality in sports.

When I tell you I’ve never felt an energy like the one I experienced at November’s friendly match-up of Brazil v Canada in Montreal, I am not kidding — it was truly brilliant.

Now media rights deals have skyrocketed, with networks and streaming services trying to get matches to your eyeballs wherever you are at any time. The English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Serie A and other international leagues now have substantial followings in North America, with games being broadcast in prime slots all week long.

This exposure has created a more knowledgeable and enthusiastic fan base. Additionally, sponsorship deals, pop-up events and merchandise sales have seen a considerable boost, showing again the commercial interest in soccer.

Soccer’s integration into the mainstream also reflects significant cultural shifts. Demographic changes, immigration and the easy mix of cultures have led to a more diverse and connected population, particularly in cities where soccer’s popularity is seen the most. Come on cowboys… get on board.

Soccer’s global vibe and energy aligns well with the way society is going and is making it a natural choice for a new generation of sports fans.

With the FIFA World Cup coming to North America in 2026, it will be game over!

CF Montréal, back in action with Coach Laurent Courtois

By the time this goes to press, we will be a few days away from the start of the 2024/25 MLS season. CF Montréal has a new coach in Laurent Courtois, a former French professional footballer. (More on him to come.) Coach has taken 32 players to the warmth for training camp this month. CFM will kick off the 2024/25 MLS season at Exploria Stadium against Orlando City SC on Saturday, Feb. 24, 7:30 p.m. ■

Check out The 1st Half podcast (about soccer and football culture in Montreal and beyond) here.

This article was originally published in the Feb. 2024 issue of Cult MTL.

For more Montreal sports coverage, please visit our Sports section.