As MLS Keeps Building, All-Stars Get Chance vs European Champion Real Madrid

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Wednesday August 2nd, 2017

CHICAGO (AP) The best team in the world facing off against the local lads sounds like a recipe for disaster - just not when it takes place in the MLS All-Star Game.

Then, it's a showcase.

For the 13th straight year, North America's best take on a top international team, this time glamour-boys Real Madrid on Wednesday night at sold-out Soldier Field. The game caps a three-day, MLS-styled celebration of the sport - from matches on the sand at Oak Street beach to star-studded endorsements of the town's deep-dish pizza - that had fans in the City of Big Shoulders following along with their feet.

The payoff for those inside the venerable 61,000-seat stadium, coincidentally the site of the inaugural match of the 1994 World Cup, will be an embarrassment of soccer riches.

Real's Cristiano Ronaldo won't be on hand for what amounts to another preseason friendly, but Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale, Isco, Luka Modric and nearly all the front-liners who helped every important club championship in sight, will. They'll encounter some familiar, if aging, faces across the pitch.

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They range from World Cup winner, former German national team and current Chicago Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, to one-time Real teammate and Orlando City playmaker Kaka, as well former Atletico Madrid rival and New York City FC striker David Villa. Also familiar will be a handful of Americans who logged considerable time with the U.S. national team and European clubs, among them Toronto's Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, Houston's DaMarcus Beasley and Seattle goalkeeper Tim Howard.

Expect a competitive match, even though Real manager Zinedine Zidane is expected to reach deep into his bench after the starters played the opening 60 minutes against Barcelona in Miami last Saturday as part of their preseason tour. The MLS team has won seven of the previous matches.

''I do not know how the game will go,'' said Kaka, ''but we have a great team to play a very even match with Real Madrid.''

MLS fans chafe at the perception the league lags well behind their top-tier counterparts in Europe and want their team to show up once again with something to prove. The All-Stars' 2-1 win over Bayern Munich in 2014, however, may have been too competitive; then-Bayern manager Pep Guardiola left that game without shaking hands, instead wagging his finger at what he considered unnecessarily hard tackles by MLS defenders.

Yet the games have proved worthwhile for both sides, providing MLS with an opportunity to gauge its level of play against top-flight competition and show stadiums packed with passionate and knowledgeable fans to the rest of the world. In return, the international clubs - often English Premier League giants like Manchester United and Chelsea, but also Roma from Italy's Serie A, Bayern from Germany's Bundesliga and now Spain's Real Madrid - have used the exposure from the game and their tours to build their brand with U.S. and Canadian audiences.

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No matter the final score, the game offers little more than a snapshot of how far MLS has closed the gap since it was founded as a condition to host the 1994 World Cup. Asked to make the comparison, decorated MLS imports like Schweinsteiger cite the faster pace of play elsewhere and the experience that enables even young teammates to anticipate how attacks will unfold and exploit the smallest vulnerabilities in opposing defenses.

But fans can glimpse now what MLS could become by imagining themselves standing in the boots of Brooks Lennon, or any of the other promising young Americans gathered here for the game. The 19-year-old winger, who joined Real Salt Lake this year on a season-long loan from Liverpool, didn't make the MLS All-Star squad and instead played Tuesday night in MLS' ''Homegrown Game'' against Chivas Guadalajara's under-20 team.

Lennon has been a force everywhere he's played so far: as a youngster with Real Salt Lake's youth development team and then, from 2015-17, in Liverpool's academy. He progressed to become a regular with the English side's under-23 team, as well as a member of the U.S. national under-18 and under-20 teams.

But when he looked at the next step, joining Liverpool's senior club, Lennon saw players like Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino on the roster and realized he needed more seasoning. He returned to Salt Lake and was an immediate hit, but he'll have to decide his next step at the end of the MLS season.

''The 2 + years in Liverpool were incredible. I matured a lot, as a person and a player,'' Lennon said. ''My choice will probably be dictated by which situation offers the best chance to continue that.

''Right now, though,'' he added, ''my focus is here and what my team needs to do to make the playoffs.''

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Brian McBride, who coached the MLS ''Homegrown'' team, understands Lennon's dilemma. He starred for the U.S. national team and played in Germany and England as well as MLS. He thinks Lennon's upside will make him a valuable commodity on either side of the Atlantic.

''He's already learned the basics of how to be a pro. You can see that not just in his play, but the way he conducts himself,'' McBride said. ''Playing here, or over there, are different experiences. But as long as he continues to grow, there's really no wrong decision.''

MLS is drawing better players to these shores than ever, thanks to the improving caliber of play and higher pay. So many mid-level players have come over in recent years, especially from South America, that the number of U.S.-born players starting from MLS clubs has dropped from 51 percent just three years ago to 42 percent in 2017 - even though three more teams and 33 more starting spots were added through expansion.

''That's a healthy sign,'' said Alexi Lalas, a TV analyst for FOX who played for the U.S. national team, in Italy's Serie A and the MLS. ''It tells you there's more talent here now - and more competition for every spot. And we're looking at a generation of kids who grew up watching MLS teams and maybe dreaming someday about playing for them.

''We need to keep getting better. But we're clearly headed in the right direction. You know the perception and more important, the reality, has changed when a guy like (All-Star midfielder) Diego Valeri chooses to play in Portland during the prime of his career,'' he added. ''I can't wait to see what the future holds.''

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