Patrick Marchal said the proof was in the stands.
During the first three World Cup tournament games for the U.S. men’s team last month, he said the arena had a lot of American fans. Marchal, a goalkeeper for the Michigan State men’s club soccer team and its treasurer, spent a week in Qatar watching the group stage of the international tournament.
“It felt like that in the stadiums there were a lot of pro America,” Marchal said. “It had a really pro-America feel.”
The U.S. team ended its run during the first game of the playoff stage. Despite the loss, the team’s showing has American soccer fans looking toward the future and talking about the growing popularity of the sport.
The tournament, which is held every four years, is set to conclude Dec. 18.
The U.S. team missed the men’s tournament in 2018, but Marchal said the number of American fans at this year’s tournament is a sign this country may be catching up with the rest of the world. Soccer — known as football globally — is widely considered the world’s most popular sport. Four in every 10 people consider themselves soccer fans, according to the 2022 Nielsen World Football Report.
“The first game against Wales the stadium was I would say roughly 60% for the United States, which is really good considering the USA is a lot further away than Wales,” Marchal said. “It was probably 40% against England, which again is still really good.”
But not all conversations about the sport have been positive. This year’s World Cup has been plagued by criticism of FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, and this year’s tournament host, Qatar, which has been accused of mistreatment of the migrant workers who built its sports facilities and bribing FIFA.
Human rights advocates also have been critical of Qatar, where it is illegal to be gay. Before the World Cup started, FIFA issued a warning to teams that players who wear colored armbands to support the LGBQT+ community would be penalized.
“I was really excited to see that an Arab and Muslim majority country was hosting the World Cup because I thought it would put put a spotlight on us and all the good things that come with our culture and in religion,” said Yousef Enayah, a journalism sophomore and reporter for the Spartan Sports Report.
Enayah said the USA men’s team has struggled to find success, but this year’s showing — along with the team’s youth — shows potential. The team, which was the second youngest in this year’s tournament, made it to the round of 16, where it was defeated by the Netherlands 3-1 on Dec. 3.
In 2026, the World Cup will be held in North America, hosted by Canada, United States and Mexico. That should further boost soccer’s popularity on the continent, said Eric Walcott, coach of local soccer club Lansing Common FC, which competes in the semi-professional Midwest Premier League.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of emphasis on growth in soccer at all levels building towards the 2026 men’s World Cup,” he said. “Soccer is already hugely popular in the United States, and I expect that growth to continue. We’re seeing that already in increases in attendance this past summer in our second season with Lansing Common FC.”
This year’s tournament also marks significant change in soccer worldwide with several famous players expected to retire, including Brazil’s Neymar, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Uruguay’s Luis Suárez.
Soccer fan Finn Hopkins, a journalism graduate student at MSU, said it’s been a privilege for this generation to have so many standout players to watch.
“It definitely feels like there’s a there’s a changing of the guard with some of the players that at least I grew up watching, which is exciting and also kind of sad,” Hopkins said.