Phil Woosnam, North American Soccer League commissioner, is fond of telling audiences soccer is the sport of the future in the United States, that the World Cup eventually will be played here and that within the next 10 years, soccer interest will equal that of football.

When he makes this speech Woosnam uses two basic premises for his optimism.

"I remember back in 1967 . . ." Woosnam always starts. Then he tells horror stories -- empty stadiums, bankrupt franchises and unpaid players. He tells tales of atrocious travel and playing conditions, a league that went down for a count of nine in 1969 and came off the mat to become a 24-team, coast-to-coast operation.

Step two for Woosnam is to talk about the thousands of youngsters playing soccer in the U.S. "When they grow up," Woosnam says, "we're going to see soldout stadiums all over the country." Two weeks ago in Washington, that almost became reality when 53,000 showed up to watch the Dips play the Cosmos.

To understand Woosnam's zeal, one must understand how far soccer has come in 14 years.

Washington Diplomat President Steve Danzansky likes to point out attendance figures of other leagues after 13 years of existence and compare them with the NASL. Each time, the NASL wins by a wide margin. But it also is a league of 24 teams in a nation of 230 million people. The NFL in the 1930s was one-third as large and the population was two-thirds what it is today.

But the strides made by the NASL and by soccer in the U.S. are noteworthy. There are teams in the league that consistently draw better than 20,000 fans a game. The Cosmos average close to 50,000 fans a game and are a recognizable entity worldwide. Young American players like Ricky Davis, Jeff Durgan, Sonny Askew, Jim McAllister, Perry Van Der Bek, Tony Bellinger, Steve Pecher and Don Droege are earning spots in the starting lineup, not just acquiring them because of the number of Americans required on the field.

Each year, the NASL draft of high school and college players becomes more meaningful because there are more players capable of stepping into an NASL starting lineup.

Still, the downside cannot be ignored. There are more teams in the NASL capable of drawing 2,000 than are capable of drawing 50,000. Some franchises are tottering. Others have leveled off and have not shown improvement for several years. Finding American coaches who can teach children is still difficult.Finding competent American referees is almost impossible.

Some say the soccer boom is here. Some say it is coming.Others say it is over. Probably, there is some truth in all three statements. But to understand where soccer in America is going, it is important to understand where it has been.

There is a small group in this country who strongly believe soccer will catch and surpass all other sports in fan interest, that the Soccer Bowl will at least be Super Bowl's equal within 10 years.

Included in this group are Woosnam, Toronto Blizzard President Clive Toye, Minnesota Kicks President and Coach Freddie Goodwin and Washington Diplomats Coach Gordon Bradley.

Each has been involved with professional soccer in this country since its inception in 1967. All four consider themselves missionaries.

Woosnam often is accused of viewing his league, which he has been commissioner of since 1969, through rose-colored glasses.

Sitting in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium on a rainy May night with less than 1,000 people in the stands, he says, "It doesn't discourage me to see a crowd like this. I remember 1967. I remember when all our stadiums were like this, even when the weather was good.

"It only takes one or two things going right to turn a franchise around. I can remember when the Cosmos were drawing 2,000 fans a game playing their games at Hofstra (Hempstead, N.Y.). With a couple more players, with a little luck, this (Philadelphia) franchise can turn it around too."

Woosnam's critics say his frequent references to the rags-to-riches nature of the Cosmos is, in itself, a failing. They point out the Cosmos are the Cosmos, just as the Yankees are the Yankees, the Celtics are the Celtics and the Canadiens are the Canadiens.

They cannot be duplicated.

"One of the main problems we have in this league is the constant comparison with the Cosmos," said San Jose Earthquakes General Manager John Carbray, who held the same position in Washington for three seasons.

"They are not the NASL. Neither are the Philadelphia Fury though. The Washington Diplomats are this league. So are San Jose, Fort Lauderdale and Seattle. In looking at the league's problems, you have to look at the teams in the middle, not the teams with no problems or problems so great that they should probably be folded."

Toye, who along with Bradley engineered the move that probably saved the NASL (the acquisition of Pele by the Cosmos), would like to agree with Woosnam on the ability of a team to turn things around. But, he adds, there comes a point where reality must be faced and the respirator turned off.

"There are examples of teams being turned around by new ownership, a couple of new players or new management," said Toye, who is trying to do just that in Toronto. "Look at us, look at Washington, look at Fort Lauderdale, look at Chicago. It happens. But there are sick franchises in this league. There always have been. I think we're all agreed that quality is far more important than quantity."

Looking back at league history, serveral discernible eras quickly emerge:

From 1967 to 1969 it was the era of havoc. First, there were two soccer leagues, then one, then almost none. When the era ended, only five teams remained. Woosnam became commissioner of the survivors.

From 1969 to 1975, there was the era of survival. Starting with the remaining five teams, Woosnam and friends nursed the league along, slowly expanding, playing in high school stadiums but, most important, surviving.

June 1975 through October 1977 was the era of Pele. This was the turning point in league history, the period when the NASL went from minor league status to almost major league. By the time it ended, almost every team was in a first-class stadium; the league was on the verge of a national TV contract and there were 24 teams.

From October 1977 to the present has been the era after Pele. Other superstars have followed the Brazillian wonder and helped build the luster and quality of the league. But expansion came too quickly. The league misunderstood the 1977 Cosmos explosion and took it to be a soccer explosion. At least eight franchises are in deep trouble and national TV ratings are abominable.

"We should not have expanded in '77," said Danzansky. "We were doing pretty well with an 18-team league and some people get excited when the Cosmos started selling out."

In fact, the league's planning committee, which included Danzansky, recommended not to expand that year. Now there is talk of retrenching, returning to a 16- or 18-team league next year. Woosnam is adamantly opposed to such a move.

"It's very easy for the stronger franchises to say, 'Let's just lop off the weak ones,'" he said. "I suppose that's the way of the jungle. But a couple of years ago you could have made a case for lopping off Washington. Now look at what they're doing. You could have done the same with Toronto, now they're doing much better. It takes a little patience, a little time."

For some NASL franchises, though, time and patience are running short. More important, money is growing short. None of the NASL's 24 teams finished in the black in 1979 and it seems unlikely that any of them will this year.

"There comes a time where the spigot gets turned off," said Terry Hanson, vice president of the Atlanta Chiefs, one of the league's struggling franchises. "No one can justify losing $1,000,000 a year unless you can show some real progress. You have to sit down at some point and ask yourself, 'Does this town have a soccer community capable of supporting a team?' If the answer is no, you sell, move or fold. You don't stand pat."

The NASL is banking on the growing number of young soccer players to provide it with a future. The 1970s were salvaged by acquiring aging superstars who, even though they were foreigners, had names that meant something.

Teams that have been successful have combined the acquisition of names with dozens of gimmicks -- not to mention thousands of free tickets -- to put people in stadiums.

Now, though, soccer is reaching the point where it must sell itself. People have seen Cruyff, Beckenbauer and Chinaglia once or twice. If they are going to go back consistently, it must be because they enjoyed the experience.

"What we've done is market a product," said Diplomat General Manager Andy Dolich. "The game itself is one part of that product. In a lot of ways, the way we've sold it, soccer is a small part of the product.

"But in the end, the game is the product. Gimmicks will only take you so far. If the game is going to succeed on a major league basis, it has to succeed because of what goes on during the 90 minutes the players are on the field."