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Friday, February 3, 2023

Opinion | The U.S. World Cup Win Offers a New Chapter in a Growing North American Soccer Story

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Mexico, a soccer-mad nation, never faced a real threat in North America until the United States embraced the sport (including a riotous friendly that prepped both teams for the 1994 World Cup, which sold out the 92,000-plus-seat Rose Bowl). Now the countries have a sustained rivalry that has so much history that Amazon Prime is featuring a documentary about it, “Good Neighbors.”

You didn’t have to squint hard to find some potential breakout North American stars in this tournament. The United States has Christian Pulisic, the preternaturally talented phenom who scored the winning goal in the Iran game to propel the United States into the knockout stage. He has (mostly) dazzled in Europe and has at last put on a show for a global audience in his first World Cup. Alphonso Davies might already be the best (and certainly most famous) Canadian player of all time, the reigning Concacaf player of the year and a burgeoning TikTok superstar. Even the aging, grumbling Mexico team has Chucky Lozano, who had an electrifying goal during Mexico’s surprising 2018 World Cup run. These aren’t household names yet, but Davies and Pulisic are close and could have a breakthrough on the grandest of stages.

In 2026, 11 cities in the United States, three in Mexico and two in Canada will host World Cup action. That will be the fulfillment of the ambitious projects of 1994 and deepen the connection between NAFTA and the World Cup.

Of course, it’s no longer called NAFTA. Under President Donald Trump, it became the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a pact that updated NAFTA for the 21st century. Mr. Trump has long called NAFTA “the worst trade deal ever made.” From its start, its detractors have criticized the pact for, among other things, shipping American jobs to Mexico.

Still, the agreement has endured and enabled greater commercial and cultural connections among the three countries. It has been a boon for New World soccer, and no doubt the commercial cooperation among the countries contributed to the appeal of their bid to host the World Cup.

Since the United States, Canada and Mexico will jointly host the World Cup, they automatically qualify. With the tournament expanding from 32 teams to 48 starting in 2026, these North American countries should become regulars for every tournament. You don’t necessarily need the home country as a rooting interest to enjoy the World Cup — I had a blast in 2018; my team was Croatia — but it certainly doesn’t hurt. It sure helped in 1994.

This sort of fandom, and widespread interest, was born out of that 1994 World Cup and the investments in soccer on this continent that come from decades of dedication. The hope of that World Cup was that it would lay the groundwork for America to finally become a soccer nation. We’re not quite there yet: This is still a football country and perhaps always will be.

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