Suddenly, soccer is cool.

Television ratings for the World Cup are breaking records. Social media is abuzz. Sports bars and outdoor viewing parties have been jammed.

And as the U.S. men's national team readies to play Belgium on Tuesday in a win-or-go-home showdown, longtime soccer fan Enid Balavac is enjoying all the new company on America's soccer bandwagon.

"I have girlfriends who call me and say, 'Did you see the game?' " said Balavac, 67, a San Jose Unified School District substitute teacher. "I'm thinking, 'You're actually watching?' It's a great moment because even people my age who never played the game are investing in it."

We might never become a full-fledged soccer nation. But there's a sense that the sport might be on the cusp of a breakthrough into the consciousness of casual sports fans.

How else to explain why Americans are working up a healthy animosity toward Belgium -- a nonthreatening country that usually just brings to mind waffles and excellent beer?

Dave Kaval, the San Jose Earthquakes president, said everyone was talking soccer as he was getting his hair cut recently in Palo Alto.

"You know you're relevant when you're in a barbershop and that is the conversation," said Kaval, whose Major League Soccer club opens a new stadium in 2015. "We're part of the story and for a long time we weren't. This is a big, big success."

On Monday, Brandi Chastain was surrounded by the evidence of soccer's grass-roots popularity. She was at the AYSO National Games in Southern California, where boys and girls from 250 teams across the country are playing. Most of the youngsters weren't even born when Chastain won the 1999 women's World Cup with her famous penalty kick.

"These are kids who have grown up with soccer," said Chastain, of San Jose. "This is part of their culture. I asked them, 'Are you watching the World Cup?' And their answer was, 'Every minute. It's so crazy.' This is like the Super Bowl for them."

But David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute, cautions that there's a difference between truly embracing a sport and paying attention for a few weeks every four years -- especially when it comes wrapped in red, white and blue.

"You have to remember that the World Cup is about so much more than soccer," Carter said. "It's a global event involving patriotism and national fervor. It also looks like those viewing parties are an awful lot of fun. So you have to be careful to not overstate the case. It's unfair to the sport to expect a seminal moment where we can say, 'It is here.' "

We've been hearing that soccer will arrive, any day now, since at least the 1970s. Aficionados were convinced that the country couldn't resist the charms of a game that the rest of the world calls football.

But Americans remained perfectly content with the kind of football that involves helmets and pads. Pro soccer leagues came and went. Millions of soccer-playing kids grew up to become ticket-buying fans of football, basketball, baseball and hockey.

There are signs, though, that is changing. On Saturday, for the third consecutive year, the Quakes drew 50,000 fans to their annual game at Stanford Stadium against the archrival Los Angeles Galaxy.

And on the world's biggest stage, the national team is shining. For the first time, the United States advanced into the knockout round in consecutive World Cups. To accomplish that feat, the squad had to survive the dreaded Group of Death.

"It feels different," added Balavac, who wore a Stars & Stripes head scarf at the Quakes game Saturday. "And these boys are heroes: Dempsey, Bradley and my favorite, Wondolowski."

Those would be U.S. players Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Danville native Chris Wondolowski, of the Earthquakes. But then you probably knew their first names -- another sign of soccer's trendiness.

The U.S.-Portugal game in group play drew a record 24.7 million viewers on ESPN and Univision. (Another 500,000 watched on mobile devices.) The next game, against Germany, had 14.2 million viewers in the middle of a work day.

Yes, Americans can be appalled by the theatrics players pull to draw fouls. ("And the Oscar for the best soccer dive goes to ... ") But the country is watching.

When conservative commentator Ann Coulter wrote last week that "any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation's moral decay," social media lit up with the consensus opinion that she must have taken a well-struck ball to her noggin.

Ed Foster-Simeon, the head of the U.S. Soccer Foundation, responded in a CNN op-ed that attendance to soccer matches in this country exceeded 10 million in 2013, the sport is the second-favorite of people ages 12 to 24, and soccer is the country's third-largest participation sport.

MLS also has been touting strong growth, drawing about 18,500 fans per game this season. The league also just signed a new $90-million-a-year TV package and has expansion plans.

Speaking from Salvador, Brazil, Wondolowski said the U.S. team has been stunned by the number of Americans at games.

"We've had amazing support," he said. "If you could hear the crowd, it gives me chills every time. They've been so loud, so together. It keeps us going during the hard times."

Just think if they could hear all the noise coming from back home.