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. Bruce Arena, the veteran coach, recalls 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 under way next 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 complicated. 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 pro 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. More than 12.2 million Americans played in 1994, a number that rose to nearly 13.8 million by 2004, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. But since then the number of players has slipped to 12.7 million. And while more adults are playing, the number of young players – among those age 6-12 and 13-17 – has fallen below their 1994 marks.

For fans, the sport is more accessible than ever, with 19 Major League Soccer teams and international matches available on cable at all hours of the day. U.S. viewers had access to all 380 matches of the English Premier League, and a record 31.5 million Americans tuned in to the 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 in the past 20 years, noting that with progress, the room for growth shrinks.

“I’m pretty sure if somebody said to me in ’93 or ’94, this is what it could look like in 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 we’ve done and not a lot of countries did that much in 20 years.”

EVOLVING FROM 1994

It started with 1994, when FIFA plopped the planet’s biggest sports tournament in a country that preferred helmets, hoops and wooden bats. Alexi Lalas, a defender on the national team that year, said Americans 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.

“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.”

Landon Donovan, perhaps the best American men’s player ever, was 12 years old in 1994 and says the Argentina-Romania game that year was the first he ever watched live.

“It opened my eyes to the bigger world of soccer besides playing club soccer or 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 tournament was contingent on the United States establishing a top-tier professional league, and the birth of MLS was a direct result. Now players can earn solid six-figure salaries – a handful even top $1 million – competing at home rather than in Europe.

“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. “I think over the last two decades that’s been the critical component to growth of the game.”

The MLS average attendance – 18,608 last season – tops that of a typical NBA or NHL game. Still, soccer has struggled to 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 the sport is dull. Nearly half the public (49 percent) surveyed in the Post-ABC poll describes the sport that way. Worse is the fact that that number is increasing, up from 35 percent 20 years ago.

And while 23 percent of non-fans intended to watch the World Cup in 1994, that number has fallen 13 points to just 10 percent of non-fans saying they intend to watch the tournament in Brazil.

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, and the most popular player in U.S. history is arguably a woman – Mia Hamm – not a man.

PROGRESS, BUT NOT ENOUGH

Prior to 1994, the U.S. men’s team qualified for just one World Cup since 1950. While not advancing beyond the quarterfinals, the United States is one of only seven countries to qualify for the past seven World Cups. 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. 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 never introduced to the sport or don’t pursue it because it’s not valued in their communities.

“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.’ ”

Smyth points out that in other countries, talented teens are playing year-round against players who are older, stronger and better. “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 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.