Maybe this is the summer, crammed with games and tours and competitions and scheduling conflicts, in which the philosophies of Major League Soccer and its marketing offshoot, Soccer United Marketing, came into clear focus through the blur of activity.
MLS/SUM took Real Madrid and Barcelona for its barnstorming events, badgered AC Milan into playing the Galaxy as part-payment of the David Beckham Saga, and wound up with Everton for the All-Star Game. The World Football Challenge, not organized or promoted by MLS/SUM, featured four major European teams and drew some staggering crowds playing each other, and Chelsea, like Milan, also met MLS opposition in Seattle. Somehow MLS/SUM squeezed in a few SuperLiga dates before and after the preliminary round of the Concacaf Champions League.
That's a ton of soccer, and some might say too much, though the crowds and TV ratings seem to indicate otherwise. Yet one element of a saturated summer MLS is adamant about highlighting is its All-Star Game, and by adding some competitive sheen to its exhibition, it's produced a most intriguing hybrid, the competitive friendly.
Several years ago, MLS set out to add relevance and weight to its All-Star Game, and not follow in the dreary path of 9-7 scores run up by its hockey counterpart, or a pair of NBA squads trying to hit the 300 mark in combined points. Sure, a few high-scoring East vs. West games were fun, sort of, and the sight of Jim Rooney and Landon Donovan yanking off their jerseys to reveal sports bras a la Brandi Chastain eight years ago had its appeal, but perhaps a better method of showing the league's top players is to give them a relatively competitive environment that they, and the fans and to some extent the opposition, can respond to.
A lot of elements fell into place at Rio Tinto Stadium Wednesday night. Everton sent out a pretty good team, and the presence of U.S. keeper Tim Howard certainly added plenty of luster even before a string of saves in regulation and the penalty-kick shootout earned him the MVP award. The other keeper, Kasey Keller, last appeared in Salt Lake City four years ago, and during a 3-0 defeat of Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifier pulled off a marvelous rapid-fire sequence of three saves that forever endeared him to local fans.
When Donovan smashed a shot against the post that could have won the game, he and his teammates and thousands of fans agonized as if, well, the miss meant something. Because it did. Freddie Ljungbergand the All-Stars played to win, and thus Everton's players - though well short of match fitness - had to at least keep up with the pace as best they could, with the understanding there wouldn't be any full-blooded tackles or callous forearm shivers delivered.
The timing of the game works well, also. It's a quick break from league play, and sets the table nicely for the final one-third of the season, which could feature more than a half-dozen teams fighting to finish in the top two of each conference to claim an automatic playoff berth, and those not out of the picture scrambling to get in as the No. 7 or No. 8 seed.
Whether or not Barcelona pounds the Galaxy and/or Sounders during the Spanish club's three-match sweep up and down the West Coast, or D.C. United manages to extract a tie against Real Madrid - as it did three years ago - the league has found a way, criticized in some circles to be sure, of following the All-Star example instilled by other American pro sports while spicing up its own version of a midsummer classic.
I'm not going to pretend, as does MLS, the games against foreign teams in preseason reveal anything about the caliber of play or relative strengths. If the foreign teams only received their appearance fees or cut of the revenues by winning, then we'd see a totally different animal, but that isn't why they come here at this time of the year. And a sharp, game-fit AC Milan or Chelsea or even Everton at full throttle would embarrass most of the All-Stars. What would be the point of that?
Despite suffering its first All-Star loss, MLS showed off one of its new stadiums Wednesday and came up with a win-win.