UNCW coach: World Cup return could be another boom for U.S. soccer

UNCW coach: World Cup return could be another boom for U.S. soccer
The combined bid of the United States, Canada and Mexico was awarded the 2026 World Cup over Morocco via a 134-64 vote by the World Cup’s member nations. (Source: The Associated Press)

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Logic rules with Aidan Heaney. The UNC Wilmington men's soccer coach rationalizes that if Americans purchased the second-most tickets for a World Cup tournament being held in Russia, then just wait for the domestic response when it's held here in 2026.

"We're not even in the tournament (this year)," said Heaney, a four-time Colonial Athletic Association coach of the year who's entering his 18th season with the Seahawks and is the program's all-time winningest coach with 152 victories. "So can you imagine taking that eight years from now? I think that the impact it's going to have on our sport, from the things that you experience. I had the good fortune to go to the World Cup in Germany and it really encapsulates and takes over the whole country for a month. It's amazing."

We'll find out in eight years.

Indeed, the ticket sales for the start of this week's World Cup speak volumes. Of the 2.4 million tickets sold by the start of the week, nearly 872,000 went to citizens of the host country.

Americans, with about 89,000 purchased since they went on sale in the fall, had the second-highest total, more than perennial World Cup power Brazil's third-place total of 73,000.

That enthusiasm might've swayed the governing body's thoughts on Wednesday.

The combined bid of the United States, Canada, and Mexico was awarded the 2026 World Cup over Morocco via a 134-64 vote by the World Cup's member nations.

Sixty games will be held at various points in America with 10 each played in Canada and Mexico. Heaney and other soccer enthusiasts expect the hype and hoopla for the world's most popular sporting event to escalate in the years leading up to kickoff and along with that, a surge in interest for a sport that has always teetered in and out of mainstream relevance in the U.S.

But that might be an outdated perception.

Seven percent of Americans list soccer as their favorite sport, according to a Gallup poll conducted in December. That makes it the fourth most popular, preceded by football (37 percent), basketball (11 percent) and baseball (9 percent). Soccer was the top pick among only 2 percent of the population in the early 2000s.

Yet it has seen significant growth in American since with the number of soccer players at the high school level surging from less than 750,000 in 2009 to more than 830,000 last year.

Part of that could be slow, though steady, momentum created by other soccer moments that had ties to America, such as when the World Cup was held here in 1994 and the U.S. women's World Cup championship five years later. Skeptics and over-enthusiastic analysts expected an instant impact from both that would elevate soccer in the hierarchy of American sports.

However, more prudent observers, such as Heaney, say it was never going to be an overnight change in soccer participation, but something that would gradually build over years or perhaps even generations.

The additional opportunities to own the world's largest sporting stage should only further power what began moving decades ago.

"It really did have an impact and now we've got the opportunity again," Heaney said. "At the stage we are right now in the development as a sport, I really think it's going to have an incredible impact on the future of our game in this country, but also being able to compete on the very highest levels of world soccer.

"At this stage of our career, or development of soccer at this stage, it's really a pivotal moment," he continued, "and I think it will be a catalyst for our growth."

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