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Is this the year Americans finally fall in love with soccer?

Shows like “Welcome to Wrexham” and “Ted Lasso” have laid fertile ground ahead of the World Cup in Qatar.
As excitement builds for the 2022 World Cup, America's pop cultural moment aligns with a possible "golden generation" of U.S. players.
As excitement builds for the 2022 World Cup, America's pop cultural moment aligns with a possible "golden generation" of U.S. players.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images / Lasso: Apple TV / Wrexham: FX / Sudeikis: Getty Images / Axelle/Bauer-Griffin / FilmMagic
/ Source: TODAY

On Nov. 20, much of the world will go on a collective, monthlong pause to enjoy the World Cup, when 32 national teams will compete in the premier tournament for the world’s most popular sport, soccer (aka football to much of the planet). 

Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, the international soccer governing body, anticipates that the 2022 competition hosted by Qatar will be watched by a record 5 billion people, besting the 2018 TV audience of 3.5 billion. 

And the time is ripe for Americans to join in with equal fervor. 

After failing to qualify for the Russia World Cup four years ago, the U.S. is back and better than ever with a possible "golden generation" of young and exciting athletes playing for European squads, like Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Brenden Aaronson (Leeds United), captain Tyler Adams (Leeds United), Weston McKennie (Juventus) and Matt Turner (Arsenal).

And America’s exposure to the "beautiful game" — long obscured by American football, basketball and baseball — has been gaining momentum through pop culture and live sporting events.

Indeed, England’s Premier League matches are more accessible than ever, with streaming options across NBC Sports, Peacock and other NBC Universal channels (NBC Universal is the parent company of TODAY). Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga matches can be viewed on ESPN+. And the long-dominant U.S. women’s national soccer team, winner of four Women’s World Cups, has offered a preview of the excitement surrounding this international sport, embraced by people in rich and poor countries alike.

But perhaps the biggest inroads into the hearts and minds of Americans come from both scripted shows and documentary series. “Ted Lasso,” the award-winning Apple TV+ series about struggling English soccer team A.F.C. Richmond, has humorously chipped away at many of the sport’s confounding facets, like the offside rule, scoreless matches, draws, diving and the system of promotion and relegation.

Jason Sudeikis plays the all-American titular character, whose indefatigable optimism and plainspoken advice persist as Lasso evolves from a clueless soccer newbie to a proper manager over two seasons — taking the audience along for the journey.

Jason Sudeikis at Apple's "Ted Lasso" Season 2 Premiere.
Jason Sudeikis wears a top featuring the names of England football players Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka at Apple's "Ted Lasso" Season Two premiere on July 15, 2021, in West Hollywood, California.Axelle/Bauer-Griffin / FilmMagic

Fiction met reality in 2021 when, at the premiere of “Lasso’s” second season, Sudeikis wore a T-shirt supporting real-life English soccer players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, who are Black, after they were racially abused for missing penalty kicks during the Euro 2020 final against Italy.

“I’m just giving them a holler, letting them know that even over here in the States we have our own issues with what they’re going through and let them know that they’re not alone,” Sudeikis told The Associated Press at the time.

And last year, the Premier League scored a licensing deal with "Ted Lasso," allowing the show to better reflect the actual soccer world, with access to archive footage, logos and more, according to The Athletic.

But it is “Welcome to Wrexham,” the FX documentary series that premiered in August, that lays out the most convincing case for America's potential passion for the international sport.

Actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney — in addition to being known for “Deadpool” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” respectively — have been co-owners of Welsh soccer team Wrexham A.F.C. since late 2020. The docuseries’ 18-episode season covers the club’s fate as it pulls back from the financial brink with a Hollywood-style Hail Mary, experiencing the season's highs and lows as it aims for promotion to the next level of the English football pyramid.

But it’s the personal stories that resonate most here — both from Reynolds and McElhenny as well as various Wrexham residents, whether it’s the local pub owner offering his take on the club’s state of affairs; a struggling father whose loyalty to the club stretches back generations; or a longtime volunteer, whom the club is finally able to employ as a disability liaison officer after its financial peripeteia.

Reynolds, who grew up with three older brothers in a working-class family in Vancouver, British Columbia, reveals that his "unquenchable thirst for validation" manifested in sports.

“The main place I got validation from my father, like, if I was good at sports, in my father’s eyes, I was doing all right,” he says in the first episode. “So I played sports long past the point where I was really driven to play sports.”

McElhenney, also from humble roots, revisits his family home in South Philadelphia in the first episode. He says that the city of Wrexham reminds him of his hometown:

It’s a working-class town; it’s a blue-collar town. It’s a town that has had its ups and downs, and they haven’t had all the opportunities that a lot of other people have had. I feel like I know those people. I grew up with those people. I am one of those people.

rob McElhenney

This backstory makes the duo's purchase of Wrexham A.F.C. seem a little less random. (And lately, it has become fashionable, with other American celebrities and investors buying stakes in clubs.)

“When I tell people that the Eagles winning the Super Bowl was one of the greatest days of my life — it was top-five greatest days of my life — people who are supporters of clubs and supporting fans across the world know exactly what I’m talking about,” McElhenney says in his pitch to Wrexham’s supporters. “I put it up there with the birth of my children and my wedding day — not because of what happened on the field, but because of what it meant to an entire community of people and to my relationships with my friends and my family members and the entire city of Philadelphia."

Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds transform from soccer novices to passionate supporters in "Welcome to Wrexham."
Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds transform from soccer novices to passionate supporters in "Welcome to Wrexham."FX

It is one of life’s truths: Sports, and in this case, soccer, is more than just a game.

And here’s where “Wrexham” really shines: You can see the moment when Reynolds falls in love with the sport. A key match late in the season involving Paul Mullin, Wrexham's star striker, puts the Red Dragons on a possible path to London's Wembley Stadium and all of its glory.

Reynolds ecstatically pumps his fists in the stands. Later, he’s seen hugging members of the team and quietly processing what he’s just witnessed with a look of awe. 

“I was so into this endeavor as just like a zoomed-out, macro project that involved a club, a business, which is also the club, and a community, and how those kind of intersect,” he says. “I didn’t expect to take the red pill with respect to Wrexham and really kind of go down that rabbit hole with them and start to understand the actual fabric and DNA of their passion and love of this club; it sort of transcends wins and losses.

“I don’t think I ever really understood football. But that Stockport match, I feel it in my bones.” 

Granted, all of this could be tongue-in-cheek, as it’s told in a humorous format with McElhenney frequently interrupting Reynold's speech with irreverent commentary.

But Humphrey Ker, executive director of Wrexham A.F.C. and McElhenney’s friend and colleague, describes the moment as a turning point. “They saw the whole thing initially as a giant philanthropic engine. That’s what they were excited about,” he told the Tifo Football Podcast last month. “Ryan’s interest to start off with was like, if we build up this football club thing, that’ll be good for the town, and then we can do other things to do good things for this town.”

At the Stockport match, he said Reynolds “just lost it.” Ker recalled receiving a text from a colleague at the match that said, “Ryan’s crying in the corner ... He got it, and he got it bad.”

“And from that moment on, there was a marked change in how he approached the whole thing,” Ker said. “Suddenly, he started to be very, like, ‘What are we going to do about Maidenhead’s approach to their wingback system on Saturday night?’”

“And I’m so pleased," Ker added, "because that’s the thing that happened to me the first time I went to a professional football match and was like, ‘Whoa, this is incredible.’”

“That’s what it’s all about,” Tifo host Joe Devine said. “That’s literally the whole point, isn’t it?”

Looking to get into soccer? Here's what to watch before the World Cup

If you’re looking to learn more about the beautiful game before kickoff on Sunday, here are four other shows to watch.

“All or Nothing: Arsenal” (2022) — Amazon

Amazon

The latest installment of this sports documentary series premiered in August, covering Arsenal in the English Premier League. This brilliantly timed insider’s look at the team’s locker room and boardroom offers a riveting account of a club in transition. Manager Mikel Arteta leads the struggling club, once a regular top-four finisher, orchestrating the departure of superstar Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Today, Arsenal sit in the No. 1 spot in the league, an astonishing feat considering where they were just a year ago.

“Take the Ball, Pass the Ball” (2018) — Netflix

Netflix

Manager Pep Guardiola’s legendary F.C. Barcelona team takes the rightful spotlight in this fantastic documentary showcasing one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport. The filmmakers interviewed everyone from Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry, Xavi Hernández and Guardiola himself. It offers insight into Dutch legend Johan Cruyff’s influence on Barca’s playing style, known as tiki-taka, involving one-touch passes and maintaining possession. This style of play has revolutionized the way soccer is played today, and you’ll see it throughout the World Cup.

“This is Football” (2019) — Amazon Prime

Amazon

For a more diverse, global view of the sport, this documentary series illustrates how soccer is more than just a game. It starts off heavy, exploring the 1994 Rwandan genocide, weaving in personal stories of residents who are united by their love of Liverpool in the Premier League. It goes on to cover the women’s game in both Japan and the U.S., the unlikely success of Iceland’s team, a blind soccer team and the genius of Lionel Messi, a once-in-a-lifetime player (they talked to a mathematician to prove that, too, compared to a once-in-a-generation player like Christiano Ronaldo).

“Sunderland ‘Til I Die” (2018-2020) — Netflix

Netflix

If you want a glimpse of what a soccer team can mean to a community, this documentary series offers insight into the fans who live and breathe the highs and lows of their team. In fact, binge-watching “Sunderland ‘Til I Die” inspired Rob McElhenney to consider taking over a team like Wrexham A.F.C., according to his friend Humphrey Ker.