The World Cup comes around every four years and consistently does two things in the United States: It makes soccer briefly mainstream, and it awakens columnists who declare the sport never will be permanently mainstream.
But to look at the World Cup as a light switch that will forever turn the country on to soccer misses the point.
Please, take that debate out back and bury it forever. No soccer fan expects a night-and-day changeover. The growth of the world's most popular sport in the U.S. is most definitely going to be a long-term process. Major League Soccer's progression has been going on for 20 years, and there is still plenty more work left ahead.
What drives American soccer fans nuts is the insistence by some that soccer isn't growing here at all, or that the U.S. doesn't have the patience to stick with it for the long haul. To say so is blind to nearly every statistic available.
Let's start with MLS as a whole. It's expansion is undeniable.
In 2002, the league had 10 teams. Today, it has 21, not including Atlanta's franchise set to join in 2017 and David Beckham's potential Miami team. That's 11 new markets that bring an expanded media footprint and greater saturation within both the U.S. and Canada.
In 2002, there was just one MLS team with a soccer-specific stadium. Today, there are 15 teams that play in their own facilities, with Orlando soon to make it 16. In 2008, Forbes valued the average MLS team at $37 million. Last November, Forbes valued the average franchise at $103 million.
MLS's average attendance in 2013 was 18,608 — more than the NHL (17,695) and NBA (17,407).
The easiest way for soccer detractors to ignore that obvious growth, however, is to point to television numbers.
MLS ratings fall well short of the NFL, but so does every other sport in the U.S. There has been progress when it comes to soccer's media impact.
Putting aside the drastically high World Cup ratings and the impressive numbers for the English Premier League on NBC Sports Network, we can point simply at the investment that media companies are pouring into MLS, which is in its 19th season.
Yes, viewership dropped for MLS on NBCSN and ESPN from 2012 to 2013, but the numbers increased on Spanish-language channels, and they were trending up on ESPN and NBCSN early in 2014. ESPN, Fox and Univision clearly see the potential. This May, MLS signed a new TV deal with those three networks worth $90 million per year — quintupling its current contract.
ESPN isn't apt to throw money at something it doesn't believe is going to pay off down the road.
That faith probably comes partly from an ESPN poll that showed that pro soccer — defined as MLS and international play — now ranks as the third favorite sport of Americans aged 12-24, behind only the NFL and NBA. It is the second-favorite among 12-17 year olds, behind only the NFL.
Per that same poll, interest in MLS has doubled in the last 10 years.
There's clearly growth nationwide, but can Orlando really be a soccer town?
Tell that to Portland, which like Orlando, had only one professional franchise before getting an MLS team.
Last season, a Trail Blazers team that finished fifth in the Western Conference boasted an average attendance of 19,746 — fifth-best in the NBA. The Timbers, Portland's soccer team that was promoted to MLS in 2011, averaged 20,674. (The Seattle Sounders led MLS with an average attendance of 44,038 in 2013, about double the NBA and NHL attendance leaders, and better than all but one MLB franchise.)
The Magic averaged 16,245 fans per game this past season. Orlando City, playing in the third-division USL, averaged nearly half that in 2013.
And while Orlando City's newest signing, Kaká, may not be recognized by those who knew Beckham from his underwear ads, he's internationally known for something almost as important: What he's done on the soccer field. The 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year (who, unlike Beckham, has won a World Cup) has pretty good reach beyond the pitch, too; his 20 million Twitter followers are more than LeBron James and Kobe Bryant combined.
There may be plenty of people in Orlando who can't tell stoppage time from extra time, and some who never care to learn, but that doesn't mean the city isn't starving for more soccer. Last month, Orlando City sold more than 5,000 season tickets for the 2015 MLS campaign — in one week.
The City Beautiful may be more devoted to the beautiful game than the detractors might think.