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Will MLS feel the bounce from the 2010 World Cup?
By Orrin Schwarz | Daily Herald Columnist

Last Thursday more than 17,000 fans filled that stands at Toyota Park for the nationally televised Major League Soccer game between the Fire and Real Salt Lake.


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Published: 7/13/2010 12:41 PM | Updated: 7/13/2010 4:45 PM

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For decades American soccer has been building in popularity, slowly but surely.

Its success has been seen on park district and school-yard soccer fields throughout the country as it became a top participation sport for kids.

In bricks-and-mortar terms it has been seen in the soccer-specific stadiums Major League Soccer teams have built the last 10 years, not to mention the teams themselves coming into being as the league continues to expand.

Still, it never had the big breakthrough so many soccer lovers expected, earning taunts from soccer haters about maintaining semi-major-league status despite the hype.

Could the just finished World Cup - which included the United States winning its group to reach the Round of 16 in dramatic fashion - have provided that needed boost to American soccer?

It's too soon to tell for the Chicago Fire, according to owner Andrew Hauptman, who spoke while watching the Spain-Germany semifinal last week. Last Thursday's crowd of more than 17,000 Fire fans there to watch a nationally televised weeknight game - with a late 8:30 p.m. start, at that - was a good sign, however.

For MLS to reap the rewards, it will mean more fans in its new stadiums, more corporate sponsors hoping to reach those new fans, more coverage on the front page of newspaper Sports sections, more soccer-dedicated pages on Sports websites, more highlights on the evening news on local TV, and still more people watching games on television.

The World Cup accomplished that last goal, at least during the tournament. ESPN executives can't stop patting each other on the back after making a huge investment toward the Cup and reaping the rewards with bigger-than-expected ratings (Sunday's final drew 41 percent more viewers to ABC than in 2006). There's even talk of ESPN starting a soccer channel to rival the Fox Soccer Channel.

Were those viewers turned on to soccer for the long term, willing to invest their valuable time and hard-earned dollars in the country's professional leagues? Or did they just watch for the spectacle, the chance to see the world's best players on the world's biggest stage? Will they tune in to the MLS game of the week?

MLS players are good, but they pale in comparison to those on the Spanish or Dutch teams, even with Thierry Henry about to join the league. As Hauptman acknowledges, MLS has work to do on and off the field, and the team and the league are committing precious resources toward their future.

But those resources often go to nuts-and-bolts issues that are easily lost in the grind of day-to-day business. World Cup success might be as close as MLS comes to a silver bullet.

For the U.S. national team success will be seen in filling stadiums with American fans. We're told more than 30,000 tickets have been sold to the Aug. 10 friendly against Brazil in New Jersey, but are those 30,000 going to see mighty Brazil or the up-and-coming Americans?

Too often when the United States hosts a Latin American national team, the U.S. players feel like visitors in their own country, jeered in Chicago or Los Angeles while Mexico or Honduras get the bulk of the cheers.

When that changes, you'll know soccer has arrived in the United States.

And you won't be able to wipe the smile off Landon Donovan's face.