DETROIT - For U.S. Major League Soccer, things can only get better at the World Cup this month.
Few sports experts see the U.S. soccer team repeating its dismal performance from 2006, a feat in itself, but an advance to the elimination round would mark an improvement and help the game's slow, steady build in the United States.
"There's no real downside, but there is potential upside, and if they go deep it's potentially meaningful upside," said Marc Ganis, president of sports consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd.
"This first game alone could be a very nice springboard for Major League Soccer."
The U.S. team is set to begin play against England on Saturday, with many prognosticators expecting a loss followed by strong enough play to allow the Americans to advance to the elimination round. That would be an improvement over 2006, when the team failed to advance from its group.
While soccer remains more a niche U.S. sport, held back in some potential fans' eyes by its tendency toward low-scoring games and ties, Americans recognize the World Cup's stature globally.
"When major events occur outside of the U.S., we take more interest in them than we did 25 years ago," said sports consultant and former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson.
"The MLS really lives and dies with American interest in soccer, so the MLS would certainly be a beneficiary of increased interest if the U.S. team advances," he added.
MLS has grown since its 1996 birth to 16 teams, with plans to add three more by 2012.
Average attendance at 16,742 is ahead of last year's pace. If history is any guide, the MLS, which stopped playing for the tournament's early games, is likely to see a 5 percent increase after the event, MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche said.
BIGGER, BUT NO MANCHESTER
Entry fees for MLS expansion clubs have grown to $40 million for the Montreal club that will begin play in 2012 from $7.5 million in 2005.
Of course, that is a far cry from the $1.8 billion valuation for English club Manchester United, according to Forbes magazine.
In addition, television rights fees have grown to the point where the United States accounted for the single biggest amount for the broadcast rights to the 2010 and 2014 World Cup tournaments.
Walt Disney Co's ESPN and Univision Communications Inc paid a combined $425 million. MLS paid $40 million for the English-language rights to the four-year period before that.
The World Cup focuses attention on soccer, and that helps the MLS, said sports TV consultant Mike Trager.
"Short-term there would be a little bump," he said. "Long term, I don't think it's going to have a big effect. MLS's growth has been slow and steady and I don't think that's going to change dramatically.
"I was at NBC in the mid-70s when everyone was saying soccer is the next big sport in the United States," Trager added. "I never believed it and I'm not sure I believe it now, but it has its place on our sports landscape."
Certainly, a good run by the U.S. team would help as ESPN would then focus attention on the club and heroes would emerge, said Ganis, who expects strong ratings for the England game.
"The MLS has really enhanced its business model, but it is still a relatively niche sport in the United States," he said. "They need breakout exposure."
Rick Horrow, a sports lecturer at Harvard Law School, said the U.S. team's play during the World Cup matters less than when FIFA, which runs the event, will pick the hosts for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments in December. U.S. officials are hopeful they will get one of them.
"The bid looks like a winner and frankly I assume that's one of the reasons that President Clinton assumed the chairmanship," he said. "He really doesn't get involved in too many losing efforts."
Not everyone is convinced about the MLS's future, however.
Harm Bandholz is a German soccer fan living in New York who does not follow the MLS. He also is the chief U.S. economist for European bank UniCredit, which on Friday released a report in which he said a deep run by the U.S. team would not shock.
However, American attitudes about soccer will not change, he said. "Soccer will remain a stepchild in the U.S."comments