MLS All-Star Game caps USA's fun two-week summer spectacle
PORTLAND, Ore. — What did you do when the World Cup was over?
If you’re like me, you went on a vacation from soccer. Not for long, mind you. Planet Fútbol never sleeps, and there’s always something to keep a soccer fan interested. But for most of us, the euphoria of the World Cup—and the withdrawal from epic competitive games that came afterward—called for some time off to regroup and gather energy for what has come next.
And that something, at least in the U.S., has been the Late-Summer Soccer Spectacle.
On Saturday, a crowd of 109,318—the largest ever to watch a soccer game in the U.S.—watched Manchester United beat Real Madrid at the University of Michigan Stadium. On Monday night, United and Liverpool will meet in Miami in the final of the Guinness International Champions Cup, a preseason tournament for some of the top clubs in the European game. Meanwhile, Wednesday’s MLS All-Star Game in Portland will feature a clash between the best players in the U.S. domestic league and German powerhouse Bayern Munich (featuring six newly-minted World Cup winners).
A fair number of soccer hardcores like to criticize these friendlies as empty calories, games without real competitive stakes, and they’re mostly right. Organizers do what they can to create a veneer of real competition: MLS taking on Bayern Munich is more intriguing than MLS East vs. MLS West, and the ICC sets up a final based on group play, with the winner taking home a $1 million prize (or about one-fiftieth of what they spend on a significant transfer acquisition these days). But let’s be honest: Nobody in their right mind views an MLS win over Bayern as a sign that “MLS is turning the corner,” just as nobody seriously thinks Real Madrid is in trouble this season based on their poor results in the ICC.
But I’m not here to bury the Late-Summer Soccer Spectacle. In fact, I’ve come to praise it for what it is: A fun two-week long All-Star break that puts the U.S. and the world’s most prominent soccer names in front of an American public that has fallen in even bigger numbers for the sport thanks to this summer’s World Cup. It’s a U.S. public that’s savvy enough to know these games mean little, yet enthused enough to buy tickets and have a good time seeing their favorite players and teams perform in person, just like seeing their favorite bands on tour.
Preseason is a fact of life in any sport, and I’d argue that top European soccer clubs do a better job of it with their U.S. tours than, say, the NFL with its overlong preseason. For the most part, the U.S. market is still saying yes to the Late-Summer Soccer Spectacle. Ticket sales haven’t been great for every ICC game, but you can’t argue with 109,318 fans at the Big House.
And once preseason ends, it’s easier than ever for U.S. soccer fans—the hardcores and those birthed by the World Cup—to jump down the rabbit hole of the competitive European league seasons, to say nothing of MLS, the NWSL and leagues in Mexico and elsewhere. The English Premier League, the most popular circuit in the U.S., begins play before you know it on August 16. And with some 70 to 80 live games televised from around the world each week, no country is better to watch soccer in than the United States.
What am I thinking about heading into the final few days of the Late-Summer Soccer Spectacle? How about these things:
• MLS All-Star is more than ever like watching the U.S. national team—except this one has Landon Donovan
The biggest change in MLS over the past year has been the league’s long-term signing of top U.S. national team players. Those include Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and (more recently) Graham Zusi and Matt Besler. MLS wants to become a destination league, and in many ways it already has for American players. Plus Donovan, who has been dynamite for L.A. recently, should be motivated on multiple fronts: To show Jurgen Klinsmann he’s still one of the top U.S. players, and to show the same to Bayern Munich, where he had an unsuccessful loan in 2008-09.
• There might still be ways to introduce more competitiveness to this time of year
I love the idea from Rory Smith in The Times of London: To stage a global tournament involving the four top European leagues from England, Spain, Germany and Italy to determine on the field which league is the best at a moment in time. The tournament would have 20 groups: one with all the first-place teams from last year, one with the second-place teams and so on. (For Germany, which has 18 Bundesliga teams, you’d take the top two teams from the second tier as Nos. 19 and 20.) At the end of group play, the league with the most group winners wins the tournament.
Another idea whose time has come: For a league (read: the Bundesliga) to stage a competitive week of its league season outside of Germany (including in the U.S. and in Asia). U.S. sports leagues like the NFL, MLB and NBA stage competitive, regular season games outside the U.S. every year. The Premier League shot down the idea of a 39th game a few years ago, citing tradition, but this could be one area where the Bundesliga sets itself apart from the other top European leagues.
• Portland should be a blast
The self-described Soccer City USA is absolutely a major league town when it comes to the sport, and the party around MLS All-Star has already started in recent days. MLS Timbers games always sell out, and NWSL Thorns games draw in excess of 18,000 for a team that has U.S. women's national team star Alex Morgan and Canadian icon Christine Sinclair. Soccer is simply in the air in the Rose City, which makes weeks like this exactly what this time of year is designed for: Fun.