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As she churned on an elliptical at a 24-Hour Fitness in Tustin, Rialto resident Shiana Washington looked at a nearby TV screen, saw a countdown-style clock that read “3 Days: 13 Hours: 19 Minutes,” and asked what she thought was an obvious question.
In any other gym, in any other country, people would have thought Washington was joking. Here, her query only resulted in a little man-splaining.
“That’s until the World Cup starts,” said a guy on the machine next to Washington’s. “That’s, you know, soccer.”
The World Cup, which starts Sunday in Qatar, is soccer; 28 days and 32 nations and 96 (regulation time) hours of high-stakes match play featuring national and cultural rivalries that range from friendly to lethal. An estimated 4 billion earthlings will watch at least a snippet of the tournament, and in many countries, everything from schools to bars to wars will pause so everybody can take in the action.
“People say soccer is a religion, and you can chuckle at that, but it’s the truth,” said Martin Wallwork, a long-time youth and men’s soccer coach from Huntington Beach who grew up in England.
“The sport really means something to people,” Wallwork added. “Just not as much for most Americans.
“That’s not a bad thing,” he added. “It’s just the way it is right now.”
Though marketing data and sports participation numbers and even TV and online audience ratings all suggest Americans play the game and watch the game and spend money on it, data is only part of the deal when it comes to measuring soccer fandom. For much of the world, the sport is simply bigger than numbers, offering meaning and solace to people in ways that aren’t easy to track.
Still, if the Burning Man-meets-United Nations vibe of World Cup embodies international soccer fandom, the countdown-clock exchange at the gym – a mix of ambivalence and ignorance – still typifies where the sport stands for many casual sports fans in America.
So, this weekend, as most of the planet gears up to geek out over the world’s biggest sporting event (get used to those words, you’re going to hear them a lot over the next month), the marketing wizards of U.S. and international football will continue to chip away at a project that’s been underway for at least a half-century – transforming the United States from a soccer country, where the game is played and enjoyed and forgotten about, into a full-blown soccer culture, where life and death can seem mere stand-ins for what happens on the pitch.
While that goal seems to inch closer every World Cup, the stakes might be rising. That’s because of another countdown, one that’s not yet on any TV screen but might as well be: “3 Years, 200 days.”
That’s the time between the start of this World Cup and kickoff for World Cup 2026, which will take place in 16 North American cities, including Los Angeles.
If you live in the greater Los Angeles area, and you’re under 40 years old, there’s an excellent chance you play, or have played, a lot of soccer.
Opening game: Qatar vs. Ecuador, Sunday, 8 a.m., Fox Sports 1 in English, Telemundo and Peacock in Spanish
First U.S. game: U.S. vs. Wales, Monday, 11 a.m., Fox/11 in English, Telemundo and Peacock in Spanish
First Mexico game: Mexico vs. Poland, Tuesday, 8 a.m., Fox/11 in English, Telemundo and Peacock in Spanish
The game is one of the nation’s most popular team sports, participation-wise, with about 4.2 million people (all ages, all genders) registered as players with the United States Soccer Federation or its many related satellites, and several million more playing the odd pick-up games in schoolyards, streets, parks and back yards. And the Los Angeles region – an area where Latinos comprise a plurality, and which supports two Major League Soccer teams, a new, well-backed franchise in the National Women’s Soccer League, and dozens of high-profile youth clubs – is considered the biggest soccer market in the United States.
Being the biggest U.S. market, soccer-wise, is bigger than it used to be.
In recent years, the sport’s popularity has grown steadily in the United States. In all, an estimated 85 million Americans now consider themselves to be soccer fans, up from about 50 million a decade ago according to a report issued earlier this year by NBCUniversal/Telemundo Enterprises and conducted by Gallup.
Though measurements vary, taking into account everything from participation rates to ticket sales to TV ratings to the amount of money team owners pay for a franchise, soccer now ranks as Americans’ fourth or fifth favorite sport, either just ahead of or just behind the NHL, and definitely behind NFL football, NBA basketball and Major League Baseball. Among people younger than 40 – the group that is most likely to have played the sport as a kid – soccer rises to a clear No. 3, with most younger people saying they prefer watching soccer to watching baseball.
Such findings are part of why World Cup organizers FIFA are aiming this year’s U.S. marketing campaign “Only Forward/Solo Pa’lante” to younger people, and making that pitch in both English and Spanish.
In August, Kay Bradley, vice president of marketing for U.S. Soccer, told Sports Business Journal that the push is aimed at the groups that will drive soccer fandom in the United States in the future.
“We have graphics, messaging, videos, you name it, that are both Spanish and English, but more importantly, are touching on themes that are relevant to all of our audience bases: our Hispanic audience, our Gen Z, as well as our mainstream avid fans.”
But soccer fandom is about passion, not numbers. On that front, for now, Latinos are more likely than others to feel true love for the game, at least according to the results from the survey Gallup conducted for NBCUniversal/Telemundo.
For example, more than 6 in 10 (61%) Latinos in the U.S. who plan to watch the World Cup said that if their team wins the tournament, their euphoria would be a more exciting experience than getting married. And more than half (57%) said that at some point in their life they’ve skipped some important event – work, family gatherings – to watch an important soccer match. A majority even rated soccer viewing as the second best reason – behind Christmas but ahead of Thanksgiving or New Year’s – to gather with family.
“Around the world, for a lot of people, soccer is it,” said Wallwork.
“When I was a kid it was soccer and soccer, and maybe some cricket in the summer before you went back to playing more soccer,” Wallwork said. “Here, the good athletes have all kinds of sports to play or things to do. For a lot of the world, it’s just soccer.”
Soccer passion is building, at least a little, in pop culture.
“Ted Lasso” is the latest in a long run of TV shows and movies (“Bend it Like Beckham,” “Shaolin Soccer”) to mix soccer and entertainment. The pitch for “Ted Lasso,” in fact, is built around the same thing soccer marketers are trying to overcome – turning an American (in the show’s case, a football coach) into a passionate soccer fan.
Beyond TV, another huge pop culture force – video games – also boosts soccer.
The “FIFA” series – which assigns new player ratings annually to pretty much every real-life player who earns money on a soccer pitch and lets video gamers build squads accordingly – is the most popular sports series in gaming, outselling everything from “Madden NFL” to “WWE 2K.”
“Even the really good players I get in high school have learned a lot of the game from ‘FIFA,’” said Wallwork, who coached the University High of Irvine boys team to a CIF championship in 2018. “It’s inescapable.”
But if America ever flips from soccer country to soccer culture, the biggest reason probably will be women.
While the U.S. Men’s National Team in recent years has bounced from good to promising to disappointing to promising again (the current squad, the youngest in this year’s World Cup – an intentional move to build for 2026 – is ranked 16th) the U.S. Women’s National Team has been mostly spectacular.
American women have won four World Cups, (including the past two, in 2015 and 2019) and four Olympic gold medals. Since FIFA started ranking women’s teams, in 2003, American women have held the top spot for 13 years, and they’ve never been rated lower than No. 2.
That kind of success, and exposure, has created generations of younger women who are passionate soccer fans.
“I don’t care about watching any other sport; men, women, whatever. But when the (U.S.) women play (soccer), watch out. I tell the kids to shut up, and I watch the whole tournament,” said Linda Hirshberg, a dental assistant who lives in Chino Hills.
Hirshberg, 37, said in her teens she played on club teams in south Orange County and, later, in the Pomona area. She earned a partial scholarship to play in college (UC Santa Cruz), but blew out a knee before her freshman year.
“Women around the world, if they played, I think, can identify with the passion of soccer,” she said. “I know I do.”
“And when I hear about soccer fans in some country going crazy after a big win, I totally get it.”
Don Kelley has seen the crazy up close.
Kelley, of Irvine, who played soccer through college, was in Bordeaux, France, in 1998, to watch that year’s World Cup. It happened that year the host country also won the World Cup, with all-time great Zinadine Zidane leading France to a 3-0 stunner in the final over Brazil.
Pandemonium, Kelley said, doesn’t capture what happened after the match.
“Imagine everybody in the country going outside, on the streets, all at once, and saying they love each other, over soccer,” Kelley said.
“I know that sounds weird, but that’s what I saw. Everybody was out, singing. It was beautiful.
“It’s not a party for the Super Bowl or the NBA or whatever,” he added. “It’s much, much bigger than that. Those things pale in comparison.”
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