If MLS has any cartons of unsold souvenir t-shirts and scarves from July’s All-Star Game in Colorado, it might want to consider unpacking them Sunday at StubHub Center. There, just to the south of Los Angeles, the LA Galaxy and visiting New York City FC will play a regular-season game that arguably will surpass the wattage at last month’s exhibition and, perhaps, any prior match in league history.
It will be the “all-star” game MLS hoped to stage a few weeks ago. Merchandise will move. Don Garber took some heat for naming LA’s Steven Gerrard and NYCFC’s Frank Lampard to the All-Star roster, but the commissioner knew those names would attract eyeballs on both sides of the Atlantic. They both wound up missing the game. The Galaxy’s Robbie Keane was absent as well and the timing wasn’t right for Andrea Pirlo, who made his NYCFC debut just a few days earlier, or Giovani Dos Santos, who had just signed with LA.
But they’ll be on the field on Sunday (Lampard will likely feature despite a quadriceps strain), along with NYCFC forward David Villa (an All-Star participant), a few U.S. internationals and a couple of intriguing young attackers.
The six designated players will command the spotlight. Lampard, Pirlo, Villa, Dos Santos, Gerrard and Keane have combined to win two World Cups (scoring 17 World Cup goals), an Olympic gold medal, five UEFA Champions League titles, 15 domestic league championships and a glut of other honors. Those six players have represented England, Italy, Spain, Mexico and Ireland a combined 662 times. And they’ll earn some $28.8 million this year in guaranteed compensation (pro-rated), according to MLS Players Union figures, which is more than 17% of what the 20 MLS teams are spending on every player in the league this year.
There’s never been an MLS game like it, and the TV networks are going all out. ESPN will have 11 commentators covering the match, a record for a regular-season contest, while Sky Sports’s interest in the game likely prompted the kickoff shift from 2 p.m. local time to noon, thus creating prime-time programming in the UK.
Old Premier League foes Lampard and Gerrard will face off for the 27th time in their glittering careers, but for the first time in MLS. Villa (14 goals, seven assists) and Keane (13 and five), the reigning league MVP, rank third and fourth in the MLS Golden Boot race, respectively. Pirlo has an assist in each of his past two games (he’s started only four) while Dos Santos, the first big Mexican star to turn out for the Galaxy in more than a decade, already has one goal and two helpers in a pair of MLS matches, plus a goal in CONCACAF Champions League play.
The intrigue is immense. The ironic twist is that it may not be a very good game. LA, the reigning MLS champion, leads the Western Conference at 12-7-7 and is on a 9-3-0 run in all competitions. NYCFC is a 7-11-7 expansion team that’s been building and rebuilding as it goes. Lampard, who was close to signing with LA two years ago, arrived in New York six months late thanks to his controversial Manchester City detour. The back four has been overhauled, with three foreign defenders signing since June. U.S. international Mix Diskerud has been inconsistent, Adam Nemec was a bust and coach Jason Kreis, who won so frequently at Real Salt Lake, has started a league-high 22 players at least five times (it will be 23 if Pirlo starts on Sunday). Kreis was so frustrated in May that he said, “I guess I didn’t realize it would be this difficult. Maybe I forgot how very hard it is to build a team in this league and have success on a consistent basis.”
On Sunday, he’ll get his first look in nearly two years at the team and manager who wrote the manual on MLS success. Kreis’s RSL teams gave Bruce Arena’s Galaxy fits—and knocked them out of the playoffs twice—because they were so balanced and well-drilled. There was no revolving door at Rio Tinto Stadium and no multi-million dollar contracts.
But building an MLS winner in that manner will likely prove more difficult as the league grows. Spending continues to rise (Dos Santos’s arrival was paved by the new Targeted Allocation Money rule, which allowed LA to buy down Omar Gonzalez’s budget charge and remove his DP tag). And if MLS intends to reach its stated goal of being one of the world’s top leagues by 2022, it will have to spend even more.
What the league and its several owners now understand is that big-name players will attract the attention, attendance and TV viewership that will finance the necessary growth. There are still teams that don’t spend to that level. As of last month, Lampard alone was making more than the full roster of 12 MLS clubs. And thanks to savvy scouting, chemistry and good coaching, some of those teams are successful. But they don’t necessarily move the needle, especially on TV. As soccer grows in the U.S. and Canada, fans will demand a product that looks more like the one produced in the sport’s leading countries. The pressure to invest in top talent, and then win by filling in smartly around them, will only increase.
On Sunday, MLS’s ambitious start-up will face the team that has perfected the formula. It’s fitting that the Galaxy used Alan Gordon, Dan Gargan and Ignacio Maganto to lampoon the recent oily tanktop magazine photo shoot featuring of Lampard, Pirlo and Villa. Gerrard and Dos Santos may have been bummed to miss out, but LA always has been about more than its DPs. While other top-heavy MLS teams have struggled, Arena and the Galaxy have blended their roster beautifully, often turning role players into internationals along the way.
“People say we buy championships every year,” LA’s A.J. DeLaGarza said this week during his appearance on Planet Fútbol’s podcast. “If it was that easy, it would just be handed to us.”
One of three Galaxy players who’s been with the club since 2009, DeLaGarza was a second-round draft pick out of the University of Maryland who’s developed into an integral defensive linchpin and a key component of the surprising Guam national team that leads its group in Asian World Cup qualifying (he also was capped twice by his native U.S.).
“There are other teams who have brought big-name players and spent a lot of money and it didn’t pan out for them for whatever reason,” DeLaGarza said. “Bruce Arena, maybe. He knows how to handle all the egos on our team. He knows where to put people and how to get the job done ... I think guys know their roles and if they don’t, Bruce will have a talk with them.”
LA’s DPs commit to the club and stay hungry, none more so than Keane. Dos Santos and Gerrard are new, but the Galaxy’s track record suggests they will integrate quickly. Of equal importance is the fact that the Galaxy's supporting cast usually raises its level. They become stars. There’s a decent list of examples on the current squad alone, starting with veterans like Gonzalez and Juninho and moving through local product Gyasi Zardes and now the revitalized Sebastian Lletget.
No expansion team should be expected to have that all worked out this quickly. Especially when big spenders in Toronto and Seattle still are trying to master it. Nevertheless, playing the Galaxy should remind NYCFC’s owners back in Manchester that their work isn’t done now that Villa, Pirlo and Lampard are in light blue. There were early doubters thanks to Yankee Stadium’s temporary turf and quirky sightlines and the new team’s relationship with Manchester City, but those have pretty much disappeared. NYCFC is drawing MLS’s third-highest average home attendance. Eventually, however, the novelty of simply seeing three superstars on the same field will wear off a bit. New York isn’t known for its patience with losers.
There have been a few bright spots in the Bronx. Winger Khiry Shelton, out of Oregon State, added a spark before getting hurt in May (he’s close to returning). Now Ghanaian forward Kwadwo Poku, who arrived in the U.S. as an unknown in 2011 and signed with the NPSL’s Georgia Revolution, is capturing a surprising amount of attention ahead of Sunday’s DP derby. The electric 23-year-old has five starts this season, three of which came in NYCFC’s past five games. In those three starts, Poku has three goals and four assists. He tallied one of each in a 3–1 win over D.C. United on Aug. 13 and then both goals in last weekend’s 2–2 draw in Columbus.
Some have joked that Lampard, for whom NYCFC fans waited so long, now may be left on the bench thanks to Poku’s heroics. Kreis will figure it out. He’ll have to. On-field success in MLS can depend as much on the player making $6 million as the player making $60,000. But it’s the $6 million men who create the stir.
“With all the star power on the field, it’s going to be one for the ages,” DeLaGarza said. “It’s going to be a noon game. I don’t know who scheduled that. It’s going to be hard.”
That mid-day August heat will be brought to DeLaGarza and you by ESPN, Sky and the interest in a collection of pedigreed players the likes of which MLS hasn’t seen in its first 20 seasons.