Humans naturally grasp for simplicity and certainty. In the case of soccer in the United States, for the last decade, fans have held their breath, waiting for a watershed moment to shout exuberantly “Soccer has arrived!” Yet nobody feels tectonic plates shift. You just wake up one day and you live in South America, not Africa. The 1994 World Cup was wholly unremarkable in the sporting sense, yet indelibly left a footprint stateside. And that footprint led to a trail far removed from the “pick off-American football-fans” of the collapsed NASL.
The 1994 World Cup was decided by a missed penalty kick. And it was fitting. The tournament had been a drab, defensive, and dull affair. Despite the offensive brilliance of Romario and Bebeto, Brazil, the eventual champion, was captained by the tasteless holding midfielder known as Dunga. Their opponent in the final, Italy, fielded one of the last true artists of the game: Roberto Baggio. When the pony-tailed Italian’s penalty kick ballooned over the crossbar, darkness descended. One of the tournament’s few individual rays of light, Il Divin Codino, had been snuffed out. A 0-0 draw. A winner decided by an error, not even a sprawling save. Was this really soccer at its apex, Americans wondered?
Off the field, the World Cup had been a stunning financial success. The United States offered first class infrastructure, and already boasted several major metropolitan areas with airports, public transportation, and humongous American Football stadiums waiting to be packed. The record for total attendance still stands to this day. However, there was a sense of “party in the house while the parents are out of town.” While some Americans tuned into the US’s fortunate run to the Second Round, including a lucky Columbia own goal and Tony Meola’s heroics against Brazil, most of America simply watched something else, such as the short-lived Baseball Network.
Why? Well, cable TV had not yet spread the gospel of La Liga and the EPL to American shores. The internet was in its infancy. Before the World Cup, soccer scantly appeared on TV. Also, the NASL had been dead and buried for several years. Thus, the US had not had its own domestic incarnation for some time. The big media focus but questionable business acuity of the former league had managed to make America blink at soccer, but only for a moment. New Yorkers had packed Giants Stadium to watch Pele kick a ball two decades ago, but now, in 1994, mostly foreigners filled the Rose Bowl to watch Romario and Dunga defeat Italy.
The counter-factual possibilities offer a heavy plate. What if the US had managed to tie Brazil in the elimination round and advance on penalties? What if more games had resembled the barnstorming Romania-Argentina and Brazil-Holland encounters, offering goals and excitement to novice Yank fans? Most importantly, what if the NASL had circled the wagons and managed to survive, building up two decades of domestic momentum for the World Cup? And, to the point, why didn’t those things happen?
In life, you must often choose between two opposing paths: singing to the choir or preaching to the masses. Among other mistakes, the NASL dreamed big – the plan was to spend a ton of money to buy the best players and pick off American sports fans from throwball, baseball, basketball, and hockey. Like a media mogul, they overestimated their ability to control the public’s preference with publicity campaigns. They also hitched their horse to the fickle, transient general sports interest population – not exactly sturdy footing.
Yet for all its dull moments, the 1994 World Cup still stirred passion in the hearts of an untapped niche: the small numbered but fiercely loyal US soccer fan. And in 1996, a group of investors, stunned at the turnstile receipts for European tourists packing American throw-ball stadiums for soccer, launched the cautious and methodical MLS. With an aversion to media glitz and opening wallets, the nascent league gained momentum like a snowball rolling down a hill – painfully slow at first, but undeniably so. The rosters stitched together young American athletes with aging South American stars, a Frankenstein’s monster of football teams that still managed to appeal to fans of both athleticism and first touch.
The 1994 World Cup brought glory to Brazil but boredom to most spectators, yet it planted a seed in North American soil which has since born fruit.