Tommy Smyth, the longtime ESPN analyst, remembers having to rack up big long-distance charges calling overseas to learn scores of soccer matches. Star player Brandi Chastain learned to kick a ball before the world’s top women players even had a World Cup tournament of their own. Bruce Arena, the veteran coach, recalls a time when maybe one soccer game a year appeared on American television. Today finding live soccer on TV requires a remote control and a thumb.

“I’m actually sick of it,” Arena jokes. “It’s too much.”

As the World Cup gets underway this week in Brazil, the world’s most popular game is years removed from being an American curiosity or even a niche sport. Twenty years after the United States hosted the tournament, fandom here has grown to levels large enough to sustain a men’s professional league, command lucrative television contracts and give millions of young boys and girls something to dream about.

But the state of soccer in the United States is still a complicated subject. The so-called sleeping giant has certainly stirred since the 1994 tournament catapulted the sport into American consciousness, but its strides have been uneven and at times sluggish.

In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 46 percent of Americans say they feel the sport will become more popular in the next decade, but there has been little change in the number who consider themselves fans of professional soccer over the past two decades. Some 28 percent identify themselves as fans today, compared with 31 percent on the eve of the 1994 World Cup.

Soccer participation has also seen changes in the past 20 years. More than 12.2 million Americans played soccer in 1994, a number that rose to nearly 13.8 million by 2004, according to research from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. But since then, the number of players has slipped to 12.7 million. And while more adults are playing than ever before, the number of young players — among those age 6-12 and 13-17 — have fallen below their 1994 marks.

For fans, the sport is more accessible than ever, with 19 Major League Soccer teams spread across North America and international matches available on cable television at all hours of the day. U.S. television viewers had access to all 380 matches of the English Premier League, and a record 31.5 million Americans tuned in to the most recent season at some point, according to Nielsen ratings.

Sunil Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, is quick to point out the long list of successes the sport has seen in the past 20 years, noting that with progress, the room for growth shrinks with time.

“I’m pretty sure if somebody said to me in ’93 or ’94, this is what it could look like 20 years, I would take where we are in a heartbeat,” said Gulati, who also serves on the executive committee of FIFA, the sport’s international governing body. “Now that doesn’t mean I’m satisfied with where we are — we still have long way to go — but you look at all that we’ve done and not a lot of countries did that much in 20 years.”

This month in Brazil, the U.S. national team will look to show the world how that progress translates to the pitch. Pele, the Brazilian legend who helped introduce soccer to a generation of Americans three decades ago, has seen the United States’ relationship with the sport slowly evolve over time and still predicts a brighter future.

“In the United States, the base is much more prepared and much stronger than in a lot of countries,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s at schools, at universities, the women are better than the women in Brazil. It is a fantastic base. Wait 20 years and you will see the [men’s] national team become champion. The world will be surprised.”

Young eyes opened in ’94

It started with 1994, when FIFA plopped the planet’s biggest single sports tournament in a country that preferred helmets, hoops and wooden bats. Alexi Lalas, a defender on the national team that year, said American players took the field carrying a heavy burden. They weren’t trying to prove something to the world; they were salesmen in cleats, eager to interest their neighbors in the sport that already captivated so much of the planet.

The biggest single-event sports competition on Earth is set to kick off once again. From the reign in Spain to the United States’s fierce competition, here’s what you need to know. (Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)

“I think everybody kind of looked to the summer of ’94 as that moment that would hopefully change everything,” Lalas said. “I often talk to young players nowadays and they have no idea what it was like — and I’m proud of that. For me, that indicates progress and evolution. They can’t fathom the world we grew up in. That’s a good thing. I don’t want them to.”

Landon Donovan, one of the best if not the best American men’s player ever, was 12 years old in 1994 and says the Argentina-Romania matchup that year was the first game he’d ever watched live.

“It opened my eyes to the bigger world of soccer besides playing club soccer or playing in my backyard,” he said. “I wish I had been older to properly understand the ’94 World Cup. There’s no question that was the turning point in popularity in this country.”

Hosting the ’94 tournament was contingent on the United States establishing a top-tier professional league, and the birth of MLS was a direct result of the World Cup. While the road was bumpy at times, a generation of male players has grown up seeing professional playing prospects that don’t require a passport. Players can earn solid six-figure salaries — a handful even top $1 million — competing at home rather than in a European league.

“Let’s face it, we had no chance of the sport growing in this country without a professional league,” said Arena, the former U.S. national team coach who coaches the Los Angeles Galaxy. “I think over the last two decades that’s been the critical component to growth of the game.”

MLS teams have inspired passionate fan bases and the league’s average attendance — 18,608 last season — tops that of a typical National Basketball Association or National Hockey League game. Still, soccer has struggled to cast a wide net and build a base of more casual fans. Two decades of professional soccer in the United States and many Americans still can’t shake the notion that the sport is dull and boring . Nearly half the public (49 percent) surveyed in the Post-ABC poll describes the sport that way. Worse news is the fact that that number is increasing, up from 35 percent who said that 20 years ago.

And while 23 percent of non-fans intended to watch the World Cup in 1994 when it was staged at home — a hefty percentage, considering the large size of non-fans — that number has fallen 13 points to just 10 percent of non-fans saying they intend to watch the tournament being played in Brazil this month.

There are encouraging signs in the numbers, though. The game remains popular among growing demographics, such as young Americans and Hispanics, and also scores well with upscale, educated consumers.

The women’s game has seen its participation numbers improve at all levels in recent years, from youth to college. The women’s national team has found more success in international competition, too (a top-three finisher in all six women’s World Cup tournaments, in addition to four Olympic gold medals), and the most popular soccer player in U.S. history is arguably a woman — Mia Hamm. Even though more college teams field women’s teams than men’s, American women are on their third pro league since 2001.

“Let’s be honest,” said Chastain, who played for the memorable 1999 U.S. team that won the World Cup, “if I think about myself as a young person — my son’s age or even younger — there was no women’s college soccer, there was no women’s soccer in the Olympics, no women’s World Cup. This whole conversation didn’t even exist.”

The next steps

Prior to 1994, the U.S. men’s team had qualified for just one World Cup since 1950. While the American team has not advanced beyond the quarterfinals, the United States is one of only seven countries to qualify for the past seven World Cup tournaments. Progress can be tallied in TV ratings and participation numbers, but nowhere is it more plain than in the highest levels of competition, where the U.S. team still lags behind other countries with richer soccer traditions.

“We have a long way to go,” Arena said, “but we’re making progress.”

The challenges to fielding a competitive squad are twofold: finding talent and nurturing it. The game in the United States has thrived in the suburbs, a friendly weekend activity for the middle class. Smyth, the Irish-born ESPN analyst, says many potential stars are either never introduced to the sport or don’t pursue it because it’s not valued in their communities, the potential rewards not always evident.

“If you look around the world, most of the soccer players had very tough upbringings and came from very tough places,” Smyth said. “They have a couple of things growing up: a hunger and an understanding that there’s a huge incentive. ‘I can make a half-million dollars a week playing soccer.’ ”

Even some of the most talented young American players still feel they have to play in foreign leagues to flourish, and many say the developmental programs — particularly the American college athletics system — stunts growth. The United States failed to qualify for two of the past three Summer Olympics, a tournament that features players age 23 and under, and the U.S. Soccer Federation has formed a developmental academy to better train its young talent.

Smyth points out that in other countries, talented teens are playing year-round against players who are older, stronger and better. Plus, there are financial incentives and lucrative contracts offered to prospects elsewhere, whereas American college players are barred from cashing checks. (Eleven members of the U.S. national team played at least some college soccer before turning pro.)

“The U.S. may not have the best team in the World Cup but it definitely has best-educated team,” Smyth said. “It sounds un-American when you say it, but the college situation doesn’t really help soccer players.”

Sasho Cirovski has twice coached the University of Maryland men’s soccer team to national titles and is a big proponent of the college game. But he agrees that soccer needs to be played year-round. “It’s time for a change,” he said. College coaches are working on a proposal for the NCAA that could entail fewer restrictions, a revised calendar and more practice time.

“We’re hoping now with the growth of the game and the understanding of the game that there’s an opportunity to look at elevating college soccer to its rightful place and give it a chance to really grow and nurture the talent,” Cirovski said.

From the Brazilian pitch to the American couch, the next month promises to offer a strong measuring stick for the game’s popularity. ESPN plans to air 290 original hours of soccer programming — including all 64 World Cup matches — in the next five weeks on its primary network, plus ESPN2 and ABC. Brazil and Croatia play the opening match Thursday.

According to the Post-ABC poll, fewer than three in 10 plan to watch the upcoming games, compared with about four in 10 who planned to watch the 1994 tournament in the United States. But outside of Brazil, no country bought more tickets for this month’s tournament than the United States. And sales of the U.S. national team’s jerseys are three times higher than they were four years ago.

“The progress that has been made is pretty extraordinary,” Gulati said. “If we can match that rate of improvement over the next 20 years, we’ll be in a pretty incredible place.”

Gulati and the passionate U.S. soccer community don’t judge progress in a single match, tournament or annual report. The ultimate measurement, they say, is time, and in the past 20 years, the game has transformed at every level, from youth level to the professionals.

“Twenty years is a relatively short time in the evolution of a sport and the growth of the game,” Cirovski said. “We live in a society, though, where it feels like 2,000 years. We’re so much into the now. This is all a natural evolution of the sport becoming a part of the fabric of this country. It’s only going to get better.”

Staff writers Steven Goff, Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement contributed to this report.