NEW YORK (Reuters) - The United States bid for the 2018 World Cup could hinge on whether the country's passion for the sport is fully appreciated by the rest of the world, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said on Tuesday.

"I think some of the international community underestimates the passion for the game in the United States," Gulati told a news conference in New York at the start of a four-day inspection visit by FIFA delegates.

"When we start talking about the landscape in the U.S. they're surprised by it. They are surprised that we have 16 teams and are growing in (Major League Soccer)."

Gulati felt U.S. support for this year's World Cup in South Africa had made a significant impact across the globe.

"They (in the international community) are surprised that Americans were the No. 1 ticket buyers for the World Cup," he said. "They are surprised that you couldn't get into bars in a lot of major cities at 10 a.m. (1400 GMT) to watch World Cup games.

"They're surprised that the TV rights for the World Cup were the single largest in the world."

Although the U.S. hosted the World Cup relatively recently in 1994, Gulati felt appreciation for the game within the country had come on in leaps and bounds since then.

"If you look at this as a 50-year time span from 1984, which I use as a benchmark because of the (Los Angeles) Olympic Games which gave FIFA the faith in American spectators for the sport in 1994, we're at halftime," he said.

"Look what we've done in the first half. Imagine what we can do in the second half if American television and commercial partnerships treat the World Cup the same way they might treat the Olympics, for example."


Gulati was delighted by the huge number of occasional sports viewers that closely monitored developments as the U.S. reached the second round at this year's World Cup finals.

"We finally got what we've been going for 25 years, which is water cooler talk," he said. "People who didn't normally tune in were talking about the World Cup, (Landon) Donovan's goal, the save, whatever.

"So convincing the world that we're halfway there is a big challenge, and that's what we're working hard on."

FIFA's inspectors, led by Harold Mayne-Nicholls, will tour five prospective host stadiums over the next three days on their U.S. visit.

The vote for who will host the 2018 and 2022 tournaments will be on December 2 in Zurich.

The U.S. are competing against Russia, England and joint bids from Portugal/Spain and Belgium/Netherlands.

(Writing by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue)