The 2014 FIFA World Cup is 290 days away, but excitement about the tournament is already building. With the continual growth of soccer in America, it is getting tougher and tougher to declare any event the defining moment of America's love for the beautiful game.
However, these important moments continue to build on one another as passion for the game in the United States begins to approach that of other nations throughout the world.
Here are 20 reasons the 2014 World Cup will continue that growth.
It is difficult to think of too many events in sports which can match the intensity of the World Cup, a 31-day extravaganza of the world's most popular game.
The World Cup has the ability to draw in even casual fans in a way no other tournament or single game can.
America loves a winner, and right now, the United States men's national team is giving fans a big reason to love them. On a current 12-game winning streak, the team is kicking butt and taking names and looks poised for a potential big run in the 2014 tournament.
It's impossible to quantify how much the team's performance helps pull in and keep casual fans. But anyone who saw Landon Donovan's glorious 2010 goal against Algeria in South Africa became a more passionate fan that day.
Many casual American fans will be drawn in to watching the tournament to follow the names they already know—Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and DaMarcus Beasley.
They'll leave the World Cup knowing and wanting to follow the young players they have learned to love over the course of the tournament.
One of the great things about the USMNT right now is the depth of young talent.
Players like Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley have become household names. Other players like Terrence Boyd, Mix Diskerud, Aron Johannsson, John Anthony Brooks, Joe Gyau, Bobby Wood, DeAndre Yedlin, Luis Gil, Juan Agudelo and Jose Villarreal all have superstar potential.
After the World Cup, fans drawn in by the tournament will want to continue following these young players' development; especially the players who they can watch every weekend playing in the biggest European leagues.
A game can't grow if fans can't watch the games. With the World Cup being held in Brazil, U.S. fans are in prime position to watch the games live.
When the World Cup was in South Africa, many of the games kicked off early in the morning U.S. time, which was difficult to watch for those at work. When the World Cup was in South Korea and Japan in 2002, fans had to stay up well into the middle of the night to catch a game live.
In today's world full of instant Twitter updates, being able to watch the games live in prime time in the U.S. is a big advantage.
While many U.S. fans were critical of Bob Bradley's leadership when he was in charge of the USMNT, time has healed many of those wounds.
And most fans, even those who disagreed with Bradley's lineup and tactical choices, appreciated the calm dignity Bradley brought to the job as U.S. manager.
Now in charge of Egypt, Bradley has the nation on the verge of qualification as they topped their group in the second round of African qualification and await a final home-and-away tie in October and November.
While U.S. fans have no direct interest in Egypt's performances, the fact that an American is in charge will make U.S. fans want to see them do well. It would help the U.S.' reputation on the world stage by showing that American soccer has progressed to a new level, capable of producing coaches with the tactical acumen to succeed on the international level.
If nothing else, U.S. fans and fans around the world should be cheering for Egypt—Egypt rallying around their football team may be the only thing that keeps them from an all-out civil war.
Although ESPN holds the broadcast rights to the World Cup, NBC is already setting the stage in America.
Last fall, NBC won the rights to broadcast the league for the next three seasons. With all due respect to Fox Soccer, which helped bridge the gap between a world devoid of EPL coverage in the U.S., it is already obvious in just two weeks of coverage that NBC has both the ability and desire to take soccer coverage in America to new heights.
By showcasing a game each week on their network channel—something Fox Soccer did once in a while— NBC will continue to pull in more fans. Their pregame, postgame and halftime coverage has also been excellent.
Drawn into watching some of the best football on the planet by NBC, the casual fan will be even more interested by the time next summer rolls around.
The U.S. supporters' group, the American Outlaws, began as a small movement of fans from Nebraska who sought to unite the U.S. fan base beginning in 2007.
Today, they boast 93 official chapters and approximately 6,500 members. Their rabid support of the USMNT is becoming well-known and is helping bring in new fans of the game every day.
The World Cup and the excitement of cheering on the U.S. on the world's biggest stage will only help them recruit more members.
TV ratings for the USMNT have continued to grow and there is no reason to think that is going to stop.
For a big-stage event like the World Cup, it is only going to keep getting better.
For the U.S.' recent World Cup qualifier against Panama, a relatively low-profile game, the U.S. drew 2.7 million viewers across ESPN and UniMas. ESPN's share made it the second-highest rated game for a World Cup qualifier or international friendly, only to be topped by the U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier back in March.
For the World Cup, the U.S. fan base with continue to set records.
Sure, he's quirky, and sure, he makes his share of head-scratching decisions, but he is nothing if not entertaining. He is also leading the team on its current 12-game winning streak and his lineup choices and substitutions have been golden as of late.
His name transcends the game in a way no previous U.S. coach has and is known by sports fans in the U.S. who don't consider soccer to be one of their favorite sports. He has given the U.S. some international credibility and if he can lead the U.S. to a deep run at the World Cup, he will become a legendary figure in the U.S.
As much as the rest of the world hates it, the U.S. is intensely and sometimes unthinkably proud of itself. Nowhere does that translate better in sports than at an international competition like the Olympics or the World Cup.
Nobody in the U.S. cares about the vast majority of Olympic sports, but they cheer because the athletes are representing the United States. Although that doesn't translate well to enlarging the long-term soccer fan base, it will certainly bring in a small contingent of new fans; the way this sport has been growing in America for decades.
Built as a nation of immigrants, perhaps no country in the world has its citizens self-hyphenate themselves more than the U.S. citizens do.
The U.S. has a massive group of German-Americans in Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, John Anthony Brooks, Danny Williams and Terrence Boyd. They have a Scottish-American in Stuart Holden, an Icelandic-American in Aron Johannsson and a Norwegian-American in Mix Diskerud.
After the Germans comes an equally large group, the Mexican-Americans, in Omar Gonzalez, Michael Orozco, Edgar Castillo, Joe Corona, Herculez Gomez and Jose Torres. The World Cup will only help to bring these players more into the spotlight.
Although the team is one, these dual nationals give the U.S. inroads into different segments of the American population and into more potential fans going forward.
In 2006, despite a lifetime of playing and coaching the game, I watched relatively little professional soccer. But during the 2006 World Cup, I became obsessed with watching the game and knew I couldn't let this budding obsession end with the summer.
I ordered Fox Soccer—not part of many cable package back then—and began watching the EPL in search of a team to support. Based on the players I grew to admire during the 2006 tournament, I found a team to cheer for and became an obsessive fan.
I've been that way ever since—and the same thing will happen to thousands more casual fans in the U.S. next summer.
Talk to many teenagers today—even those with no passionate interest in soccer—and you will be surprised with how much they know about the game.
Soccer continues to be the largest participant sport among youths, meaning most American kids have some rudimentary experience with the game. The explosion of advertising by the biggest world superstars and the popularity of the EA Sports FIFA video game franchise has only deepened the sport's roots in the next generation of fans.
Wearing soccer kits is trendy, and in places like Portland and Seattle, going to a game is the thing to do. Those younger fans are just waiting to be tapped into.
In addition to the growing TV ratings discussed earlier, the attendance for USMNT home games shows an exponentially growing interest in the game.
For the upcoming U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio next month, the standing-only supporters' area will be 27 sections of Crew Stadium.
That section will support 9,000 rowdy and raucous U.S. fans; just the kind of passionate fans that will help the game continue to grow as they watch the World Cup next summer, dragging in their friends and family.
On the biggest stage with the world's biggest stars, fans get to see the game performed at some of the highest levels.
The beauty of the World Cup is that players who are normally not highly visible in the United States sit front and center. In the last World Cup, American fans were introduced to the brilliance of Uruguayans Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, who, while playing for Atletico Madrid and Ajax at the time, were relatively unknown to the vast majority of Americans.
Next summer in Brazil, someone new will step to the plate, wow the world with his brilliance and create the love of the game in more Americans' hearts.
Even though it often results in the "wrong" team winning the game, the controversy of the game is often good for its growth because of the discussion it generates.
Whether it was Maurice Edu's disallowed goal against Slovenia for a phantom foul, Frank Lampard's goal that was not given or Nigel de Jong's kung fu kick that Howard Webb somehow missed, these moments of human fallibility generate the debates that professional sports live on.
And even the casual fan will want to be in on the water cooler chatter at work that surrounds the world's biggest tournament.
It's a simple enough concept, really. After all, who doesn't love free beer?
The Free Beer Movement operates under a very simple principle. If you are a soccer fan, buy someone you know a beer and have them watch a game with you.
You essentially lure them in with the promise of a free beer and the game does the rest. The next thing you know, you've created a new soccer fan.
With fans of the game in the U.S. sure to be out in full force during next summer's World Cup, FBM principles will be in full effect.
If you're reading this article, chances are pretty good you're a soccer fan in America. So, do your part to bring your friends, family members and coworkers into the light.
It's a beautiful game. You fell in love with it. They will too.
Be an ambassador.
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