Soccer has long been billed as the world's most popular sport.

Although it doesn't rank No. 1 with most people in the United States, its popularity has increased steadily over the past few years.

When the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994, it helped put the sport in the spotlight in America. The growth spurt continued two years later with the debut of Major League Soccer, which is now in its fourth season.

And this summer, the United States women's team has captured the imagination of America as host of the Women's World Cup.

With the continued popularity of soccer has come, not surprisingly, more soccer cards and memorabilia for collectors.

For the first time since the '94 World Cup, Upper Deck is back in the soccer market. The company has produced a 1999 MLS set, which will be its only soccer set of the year. There are five cards per pack and 36 packs per box. The packs retail for $1.99 each. There is even a 19-card autograph insert set at a ratio of one every 35 packs.

"We figured the audience was there," said Mary Mancera, Upper Deck manager of corporate communications. "This was under way before (the success of the Women's World Cup)."

Upper Deck is already working with the MLS on product for 2000 with hopes that it will extend into the future.

Mark Wallis of Thousand Oaks, Calif., has a website devoted completely to soccer cards and memorabilia. In addition to cards from the MLS and Europeans leagues, he sells autographed items and figurines.

Among the many items Wallis offers are 1997 MLS autographed All-Star balls, one by the East squad and one by the West. The pair goes for $375. There are numerous figurines available, with most in the $7.50-15 range. However, there are also some more valuable ones, including Italian figurines Roberto Donadoni and Franco Baresi of AC Milan, which go for $50 each.

Arguably the biggest reason for the current surge in interest in soccer is the success of the Women's World Cup. Although the Women's World Cup is a separate entity from MLS or the European leagues, the attention it has received can only help the sport in general.

"From the standpoint of a direct trickle down effect, I believe good soccer begets good soccer viewing," MLS commissioner Doug Logan said. "I think it's good for the sport overall."

Logan pointed out that MLS attendance has increased 6 percent over last year. Its television ratings on Univision reached its highest marks ever earlier this season.

In the Women's World Cup, the United States has played in front of sold out crowds. After the first two weeks of the tournament, television ratings for the women's team were better than those of regular season NHL games.

And more soccer fans attending and watching the sport, means more potential collectors.

Eric Breier is a staff writer for the North County Times in Escondido, Calif. He covers a variety of topics, including a monthly sports collectibles feature.