One tries not to find one's self too caught up in the labyrinthine, corporatist world of television ratings; they are easily manipulated and used mostly as bludgeons in pointless, circular conversations about "popularity" and financial dominance. In short, television ratings don't equal prominence: Baseball's World Series ratings have been lower than their historic peak, but this tells you a lot more about television in 2014 than it does about baseball in 2014. Television ratings are the crutch of the lazy and incurious.
That said. The ratings for the USA-Belgium World Cup Round of 16 match are impossible to ignore. Twenty-two million people watched that game, which is actually fewer than watched the USA-Germany game (which had a more desirable time spot) but more than watched the deciding game of both the World Series and the NBA Finals. Now, that doesn't mean, obviously, that soccer is more popular in the United States than the NBA or MLB. But that's a lot of people and they're going to need something to watch for the next four years.
New soccer fans should obviously be watching the MLS -- which is at midseason right now. It's why Landon Donovan keeps being allowed opportunities to whine -- and the English Premier League, which kicks off again next month. (NBC Sports Network gives you better coverage of the EPL than they get in England, much to the chagrin of the Brits.) You should also, you know, watch the rest of this World Cup, which is going to be fantastic.
But the patriotic fervor of the last fortnight was the strongest driver of all the ratings success. Soccer might have been new to some people, but America sure as hell wasn't. It's not often a bar randomly erupts into chants of "USA! USA!" Every four years, in fact.
It doesn't have to be that way, though. U.S. Soccer doesn't just pop up every four years. It's a year-round pursuit that, now that you're hooked, can become a regular part of your life. You should make it one. Not only will it enrich your sports fan experience over the next Olympiad, by the time the next World Cup comes around, you'll know all these players like your fantasy team. Now that you're here, let's keep you here.
The easiest way to stay involved is to join your local American Outlaws chapter. There are hundreds across the country: Here's a map to find one near you. (I'm actually in the process of starting one here in Athens, Ga. You can start your own in your town, too. ) This is highly recommended. The American Outlaws are awesome.
But you can also mark all this by the calendar. If you make sure to follow everything U.S. Soccer does, you won't be sitting around waiting for 2018 to get here: You'll be invested in everything that's happening. So here's a helpful calendar guide for what U.S. Soccer will be up to over the next four years, leading up to the Russia 2018 World Cup.
Women's World Cup CONCACAF Qualifying.
The U.S. women's team is dominant in a way we can only dream of the men's team being: They've won two World Cups and finished second in 2011. (The USWNT hasn't won since that legendary 1999 tournament, though.) Qualifying will be no problem for the women's team, but the games will all take place at U.S. venues and will be pleasant warmups for the real thing, a way to get to know the team you'll be screaming for in a few months.
Men's CONCACAF Under-20 Championship
The U.S. didn't do well at the 2013 Under-20 Tournament, finishing last in its group (France won the whole thing), but it did feature DeAndre Yedlin, a rising star for the USMNT. You could potentially see Julian Green on this team. The U.S. has only not qualified for the Under 20 Championship once (2011) since 1996.
2015 Men's Under-20 World Cup
If the U.S. qualifies, it'll head to New Zealand.
Women's World Cup
The United States, as always, will be one of the favorites, and we'll have a bit of a home pitch advantage: The host this year is Canada. (Venues: Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Edmonton and Moncton. No Toronto, though.) The USWNT will be looking to avenge its loss to Japan in the final four years ago, on penalty kicks.
CONCACAF Gold Cup
The United States won the 2013 Gold Cup, though that feels sort of far away now, considering Landon Donovan was the tournament MVP. If the U.S. wins this tournament, it will automatically qualify for the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia. If it doesn't, it will play the winner of this year's tournament, in one game at a yet-to-be-determined location in 2015, for Confederations Cup qualification. The Confederations Cup is a big deal; the last time the U.S. made it, in 2009, it beat Spain in the semifinals and nearly beat Brazil in the finals. Ideally, the U.S. wins this tournament and will not have to worry about any extra game. They haven't announced a host for this tournament yet, but it'll be the United States because it's always the United States.
2016 Copa America Centenario
So here's the biggest thing that will happen before the 2018 World Cup. The South American soccer association, CONMEBOL celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2016, and to celebrate, this year, the tournament will be hosted by the United States. This features all the terrific South America teams (including Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, any of which might win the World Cup this year) plus six CONCACAF teams. This is the midway point of the Jurgen Klinsmann experiment, and we'll have an excellent idea of where the United States stands. (Think of it as our Euros.) This will be the best United States team available. Venues haven't been announced yet, but you can expect the usual suspects, the Rose Bowl, MetLife Stadium, so on. Until 2018, this is the biggest thing going.
Rio Summer Olympics
Depressingly, the U.S. didn't even qualify for the last Olympics, a major blow to U.S. Soccer. Qualification for the Rio Games will take place throughout 2016. Olympic teams are traditionally for players 23 and under, though FIFA allows three "over-age" players on the squad. It's possible one of those spots could be Tim Howard, who has never played in the Olympics before.
Likely Late 2016
2018 CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying (Part One)
The United States will almost certainly receive a bye into the third stage of qualifying -- the first two stages are for the Belizes and the Turks and Caicoses -- and this qualifying will likely start a little later than usual because of the Copa America Centenario. The U.S. should breeze through here onto the CONCACAF Hexagonal, but it's always funny to see them play in places like Guyana and Antigua.
Likely February 2017
2018 World Cup CONCACAF Hexagonal Qualifying
This will take place from February to October 2017 and will feature the best six teams from CONCACAF. The United States won the Hex this last cycle, and Mexico just barely escaped with fourth place, which required a playoff against New Zealand to qualify for the World Cup. It's likely the same format -- three CONCACAF qualifies, plus a play-in for the fourth spot -- will be in place for these games.
Likely May 2017
2017 Men's Under-20 World Cup
They have these every two years. This one will be in South Korea.
If the United States wins the Gold Cup in 2015 or beats the 2015 Gold Cup winner in that one-game playoff, it'll head to Russia for its first Confederations Cup in eight years. There are only eight spots in the tournament, with one going to Russia and one going to whoever wins the World Cup this year. By the way, did you miss Sochi? Because Fisht Stadium in Sochi -- which didn't have a single sporting event in the 2014 Winter Olympics -- is one of the four venues that'll be hosting Confederation Cup games.
2018 World Cup
The start times (and the crowds) won't be as much fun as Brazil, but the next World Cup will be here before you know it.
The World Cup is over for the United States, but there will be so much to follow over the next four years. You'll have plenty of chances to grow out your Abe Lincoln beard and practice your photoshops of Jozy Altidore riding a bald eagle. Being a fan of U.S. Soccer is a year-round activity. You don't have to wait long for more at all.