America hardly realizes world's top teams are here
Posted: Thursday July 28, 2005 10:41AM; Updated: Thursday July 28, 2005 1:26PM
Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid's all-star cast put on a display against the L.A. Galaxy.
Submit a comment or question for Jonah.
Europe is invading America. Has anyone noticed?
Of course not, it's soccer. Ask your average American sports fan why the "beautiful game" has yet to take off in this country and odds are he'll say it's because there aren't any stars in our own plodding pro league. Sure, Major League Soccer has some bona fide world-class talent: U.S. product Landon Donovan, Guatemalan Carlos Ruiz and Honduran Amado Guevara, for example.
What it doesn't have are the real superstars: David Beckham, Michael Owen and Ronaldo of Real Madrid; Andriy Shevchenko, Christian Vieri and Paolo Maldini of AC Milan; Frank Lampard and John Terry of Chelsea. They are some of the top athletes on the planet, but they make millions in salary -- money MLS isn't ready to spend. If these guys played on American soil, fans might show some interest.
As it so happens, they are. Three of the world's best teams are playing exhibition games in the U.S. during the month of July, yet it seems like the biggest secret since Deep Throat.
Real Madrid, the free-spending Yankees of soccer, played not one, but two games here: one in Chicago against Chivas Guadalajara (one of Mexico's top squads and a powerhouse in its own right), then another against Donovan's Los Angeles Galaxy (Donovan wasn't even there, but that's another story).
The first match wasn't on national TV. The Galaxy match was broadcast only on Fox Soccer Channel. To me, any sporting event aired on a channel so high up the dial that you need to consult a TV Guide just to find it automatically receives the same status as televised bass fishing.
Meanwhile, English Premier League champion Chelsea and Champions League runner-up AC Milan are participating in a four-match "World Series of Football" in America. The second leg of that event was Milan's 3-1 defeat of another MLS team, the Chicago Fire, at Soldier Field on Wednesday night -- again, it wasn't nationally aired.
Thursday night, champion meets champion as Chelsea visits reigning MLS kings D.C. United at FedEx Field. Ready for some breaking news? That game is being nationally televised. It's on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. ET -- a slightly better billing, but not great, which is embarrassing considering the historical significance of the matchup. No, even the MLS champ probably isn't worthy of sharing the same stadium as an all-star squad with a near-$200 million payroll (United's is around $2 million), but this is as noteworthy as soccer gets here in the States.
The lack of buzz about these squads making the trip to the U.S. is astonishing. Big Euro squads have played exhibitions here before, even recently (usually against each other) -- but the fact that they're scheduling matches against MLS teams speaks boatloads about the increasing respect internationally for American soccer. It's an even more perfect storm now that the U.S. national team has a No. 6 world ranking, its highest ever. Even if the American game has a ways to go, these European powers recognize there's a market here that's ripe for the picking.
MLS executives missed out on a great opportunity to pique sports fans' curiosity by allocating as much money as they could to wage an all-out marketing campaign. As a result, soccer gets second billing to chubby guys playing cards in Vegas.