World Cup fever in Chicago, U.S., but what's next?

Challenge now is translating World Cup infatuation into increased love for Fire and MLS

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The United States World Cup team got in one more practice Wednesday before a showdown with Germany tomorrow to decide if they stay at the World Cup in Brazil. (June 25)

A decade ago, when Northwestern men's soccer coach Tim Lenahan had "favorite shirt day" at his summer camp in Evanston, the kids showed up in McMahon, Jordan and Sosa jerseys.

At favorite shirt day this month, the kids were wearing jerseys proclaiming their affection for Neymar, Messi, Dempsey, Manchester United and Real Madrid.

"Kids always played soccer, but they didn't follow it," Lenahan said. "Now it is ingrained in our culture. That is a big difference."

That change is reflected by the stunning level of interest in the 2014 World Cup, generated by the performance of a U.S. team that needs a win or a tie Thursday against Germany to assure it will advance in the tournament.

From record TV ratings to packed viewing parties in Grant Park, the country has made an unprecedented emotional investment in its national soccer team.

"American sports fans love waving the flag," said Don Garber, commissioner of Major League Soccer, the country's elite professional league. "The difference here is this happening with soccer, a sport people for years were saying would not be part of the conversation."

Soccer has become the talk of the town. The challenge now is how to translate that infatuation with Team USA and the World Cup into an increased love for MLS and, in particular, the Chicago Fire, especially given the buzzkill that will occur should Thursday's match be the last for Our Boys in Brazil.

"We will know we are making progress when the kids at that camp are also wearing Mike Magee jerseys," Garber said.

The Fire's Magee, a Chicago native who was the league's Most Valuable Player last season, could undoubtedly walk down Michigan Avenue wearing a jersey with his name on the back and draw little or no attention. That he is not among the 22 current MLS players on World Cup rosters (10 with the U.S. team) means Magee has missed a singular opportunity to become more visible.

That is why MLS and U.S. soccer officials are careful not to build their future plans on what happens in a tournament that runs a month every four years.

"We're not going to crack some special code the day this special World Cup is over," Garber said.

After failing to qualify for the nine World Cups from 1954 through 1986, the U.S. has made seven straight. The current team was given almost no chance to get past the first round, yet U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said interest in the first U.S. match was greater than it had been throughout group play four years ago, when the Americans reached the knockout stage.

"The World Cup is always going to be the pinnacle of interest, and we shouldn't fall into the trap to think it will stay at that level once the tournament is over," Gulati said in an email. "The growth doesn't happen overnight."

Both growth and stability are undeniable, as measured in a variety of ways:

•Average MLS attendance has remained above 18,000 the last three years, thanks in part to the boost provided by Seattle, a league member since 2009, drawing well (40,091 average in 2014) in a large stadium.

The Fire, a relative attendance laggard with a mediocre team this season (15,603), are at more than 75 percent of the 20,000 capacity at Toyota Park; compare that with the White Sox, near their division lead until recently, with attendance at 50 percent capacity.

•MLS, founded as an outgrowth of the hugely successful 1994 World Cup in the United States, is in its 19th season. After two franchises folded after 2001, leaving the league with 10, there are now 19. Two will be added next year, another one in 2017, and the plan is to have 24 by 2020.

•The quality in the league has improved, as evidenced by the number of MLS players on World Cup rosters. A 2013 survey by World Soccer, a British magazine, ranked MLS seventh among the world's best leagues.

•The TV audience for the U.S.-Portugal match on ESPN alone (18.2 million viewers), played before prime time, was greater than the average for this year's NBA Finals (15.5) or the 2013 World Series (14.9), both shown entirely or partly (because of western time zones) in prime time.

•Last month, ESPN, Fox and Univision agreed to pay a combined $90 million for eight years of MLS rights, a deal that gives the league fixed TV slots (Friday on Univision, Sunday on ESPN and Fox) for the first time.

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