Maybe soccer is just a passing fad in America.
Maybe the 20,000 fans that showed up at Grant Park to watch the World Cup were only there out of national pride. Maybe the Tottenham fans that serenaded Toyota Park with yells of "come on you Spurs" were nothing more than a cadre of die-hards. Maybe the thousands of Liverpool fans replacing "Bears Down, Chicago Bears" with "You'll Never Walk Alone" on Sunday at Soldier Field aren't a sign of the sport's popularity in the United States.
But the facts seem to tell a different story, one about soccer's explosive growth in America over the last decade. And the two English clubs that made preseason stops in Chicago this weekend have taken note.
"The notion in terms of football as we know it has definitely been changed in America," Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said, "and obviously it's getting much more popular."
Consider this: The 19 MLS teams are averaging 18,716 fans per game this year -- over 1,000 higher than the average attendance at NHL and NBA games last season. New York City FC and Orlando City FC are slated to begin play in 2015, the first year of an eight-year broadcast deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision reportedly worth $720 million.
The quality of play in MLS has grown, too. Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley left Champions League contenders in Tottenham and Roma, respectively, to come back to MLS. Longtime European stars Kaka (Orlando City), Frank Lampard and David Villa (New York City FC) are slated to join the likes of Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe in North America when their teams begin play next year.
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"I think the MLS was put on the worldwide map, certainly for myself, when David Beckham came here," Tottenham center back Michael Dawson said. "And you look how many English-based players have played there and have come over to the MLS. Everyone you speak to is loving it, and the league's just growing."
Tottenham midfielder Andros Townsend agreed.
"I think we saw at the World Cup, the U.S. is kind of getting behind soccer now and they're getting into it more," Townsend said. "The two (MLS) games we've played so far, both teams had a good following, good crowds, and most importantly they've both given us good matches. It's important for the country that more players come over to this league -- we've just seen Frank Lampard and David Villa come over, so I think the league is just going to grow year by year."
But it's not just about getting those European stars to come to America, Tottenham keeper and Ohio native Brad Friedel explained. Those players certainly help increase the profile of the league, but the big picture upshot is improving the level of play in MLS -- which, in turn, leaves U.S. Men's National Team players better prepared for success at the international level.
That was the point Liverpool center back Kolo Toure made, too.
"If you want to be on the top, you need foreign players -- the best players -- coming over, and then they can gel with the players over here," Toure said. "And then the league will be better and the league can be one of the best in the world."
The World Cup is the largest vehicle to expand soccer's popularity in the United States -- just look at the 18.22 million viewers that tuned in for June's USA-Portugal match. But having that strong domestic league is an important cog in the growth of the sport in the United States.
"It's one of those unique countries where the U.S. National Team and the U.S. Soccer Federation and the MLS go hand-in-hand, so the success of one will help the success of the other, especially when it comes to the notoriety and the fan base and the fan participation," Friedel said. "The sport just keeps growing and growing."
For all the talk of the sport's growth and success, though, there's still a ways to go for the United States to become a soccer power.
The MLS, while holding better attendance numbers, doesn't come close to equaling the TV ratings for NBA or NHL broadcasts. NBC's coverage of the Premier League averaged 438,000 viewers, nearly double what ESPN averaged on its MLS broadcasts in 2013. For all the talk about Lampard, Villa, Dempsey, etc., the world's best players aren't in America -- hardly the case for the NBA and NHL.
While the U.S. Men's National Team made a strong run in this year's World Cup, they still lost in the round of 16. True world-class players remain in short supply, especially on the attacking side of things.
"We have so many people in this country and so many participants of soccer, I think we need to do a little bit better job getting the athletes in this country to play soccer and get them developed," Friedel said. "How you get them developed is by better coaching at the youth levels. We should be developing more game-changing players.
"We've got the players that will run through brick walls for you in abundance, we've got team spirit -- we always have going back to the 1990s -- in abundance, usually have a very good team camaraderie. That's just the American psyche. We have all of that.
"I'd like to see us now start developing those No. 10s, the No. 7s, the No. 11s, the guys that are really going to add some flair to the team. And if we start doing that then we'll make a mark on the world stage."
It's a tantalizing prospect, given the population in the country and the available training facilities, among other reasons. But turning those point guards, running backs and shortstops into attacking midfielders or strikers won't happen overnight.
The process to get to that point is a long one, and the United States are still only in the nascent stages of it. Rodgers, though, believes the momentum of the sport's stateside development is too great to be stopped.
"I think that over the years, the quality of the football that the USA team provide, like you saw in the World Cup, it's been improving year by year," Rodgers said. "There's obviously a great coaching program that's going on in the country and you'd expect that they've made big progress in the last 15 years, and I think in the next 15 years they can make similar progress."
The progress, though, is already evident. While Soldier Field was hardly full on Sunday, over 36,000 showed up for Liverpool's 1-0 win over Greek side Olympiacos. Over 17,000 gave the 43-year-old Friedel a proper sendoff in what likely was the former U.S. Men's National Team keeper's final match on U.S. soil.
When Friedel began his professional career 20 years ago, the MLS didn't exist. Finding the Premier League on TV was extremely difficult, if it was even possible.
Friedel used to be able to return home from England to his home country and enjoy some peace and quiet -- people weren't coming up to him and asking about his season or Blackburn's chances in the coming year.
Now, it's a completely different story.
"You could go anywhere anonymously," Friedel said. "That's not the case anymore."