MLS out to do more than entertain at All-Star game
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- On Monday, the American soccer community shifted its attention from Chicago, the site of the U.S. national team's CONCACAF Gold Cup triumph, more than 500 miles southwest to Kansas City, where the MLS All-Star game will take place Wednesday evening.
Monday was the first big day for All-Star hype, and it included a typical array of photo-ops, marketing opportunities and fan-friendly events. At Theis Park, just south of downtown, players tried to kick a ball over Brush Creek and into a goal on the opposite side during a charity event benefiting Kansas City Parks and Recreation.
A few hours after playing Montreal Impact striker Marco Di Vaio in a game of FIFA, rapper Macklemore took the stage for a free concert in the city's Power and Light District. Locals packed the venue and seemed thrilled with just about everything but Macklemore's bright green Seattle Sounders jersey.
At the official All-Star press conference, players and coaches representing MLS and its opponent, Italy's AS Roma, offered the sort of praise and platitudes one would expect from a generous host and a grateful guest. Everyone was excited and thrilled, MLS is growing by leaps and bounds and K.C. is a burgeoning soccer capital. They all said the right things.
Like its counterparts in baseball, football, basketball and hockey, the MLS All-Star game is a party, a showcase and a marketing opportunity. But what makes the MLS version a bit different from the rest was evident in what else was said at Monday's presser, where the players and coaches revealed a bit of the competitive edge that makes this All-Star game unique.
The MLS All-Stars care about their performance, and the result, in a contest that matters just a bit more than your typical, East-West intramural walkthrough. It may be an exhibition, but there's little question that the competitive juices flow when the opposition is a well-known foreign team like Roma. MLS wants to impress, even if the actual stakes are low.
Thierry Henry, a world and European champion at both the international and club level, said Monday that he felt proud when the All-Stars showed well against newly crowned European champion Chelsea last year.
"What was great last year when we won against Chelsea, it's not (just that) we won against Chelsea, but at the end of the game the guys I played with so many times in England, they said, 'You guys can play,'" Henry recalled. "They were actually surprised the (MLS) guys were passing around and playing football."
He continued, "If Roma at the end of the game Wednesday -- we obviously want to win -- but if they can turn around and say, 'We saw some great players and that team can play,' that speaks volumes for the league."
Sporting Kansas City and U.S. national team midfielder Graham Zusi, representing the host team, guessed that Roma had an interest in a good performance as well. The Giallorossi, featuring U.S. lynchpin Michael Bradley, finished sixth in Serie A last season and failed to qualify for European competition in 2013-14. They also lost the Italian Cup final to archrival Lazio.
"Roma is a world class team and honestly, they're coming off a year (in which) for them, they underachieved a bit," Zusi said. "We know that they're going to come out and jumpstart their season as best they can. We're expecting a serious game out of them. We're going to take it seriously as well."
Zusi, like more than half the All-Star roster, has spent his entire pro career in MLS.
"You don't often get the opportunity at the club level against a team like this," he said. "I think it'll be a nice test, especially for some of the Sporting guys playing in CONCACAF (Champions League) this year, getting a little taste of it. It's always fun to put yourself up against some of the best in the world and see where you're at a bit."
For Bradley, who was 16 when he was drafted by the New York Red Bulls (then the MetroStars) back in 2004, Wednesday's game will be his first match-up against MLS players since he left for Europe in '06. This All-Star game means something a bit extra for him as well.
"I grew up with MLS," he said Monday, referring to his father Bob's years as a coach with D.C. United, the Chicago Fire and New York. "I was nine years old when the league began. I remember watching the first game. I remember watching the first final and I remember seeing so many of the great players in those early years play. So now for me to have the chance to come back and not just come back and play for AS Roma, it's an honor. I've talked a lot about how much it means to me to play for this team and to represent this city and play in this shirt. ... Now for me to have the opportunity to come back to my home country and play against the MLS All-Star team, it'll be a great night."
Like most All-Star games, it will be a night largely about fun. It's an opportunity to take a break from the grind of the regular season, to celebrate the sport and show off some of league's best players. It's an excuse to schmooze, party and kick a ball across a river. But there's little question that this particular All-Star game is also about pride.
"We're playing against Roma and we have a very short period of time together to prepare for the game," All-Star and Sporting coach Peter Vermes said. "But just knowing the players that we have on this roster, I'm sure we're going to make it extremely exciting and try to give them a very, very good game."