If the All-Star Game is looked at mainly as an attempt to show that MLS is on the same level as baseball and the NFL, then this event made the point several times over.
No, this wasn’t quite on the lavish scale of a Super Bowl, but it didn’t need to be. All it needed to do was to show that soccer is on its way, that it can draw a vast crowd to watch its star players in action ... and it did that. In Atlanta.
It’s not too long ago that the anti-soccer voices were always being heard, condemning the sport as a dull affair (“best thing for sleep since pillows”) played only in a few big cities mostly by immigrant hyphenated Americans. Soccer was a foreign sport, would never grip Americans and on and on they went.
Those voices have just about been silenced -- what remains of them will surely have been shut up by the spectacle that Atlanta gave us. When was Atlanta ever a soccer hot bed? Well, it happened while the naysayers were too busy scorning and mocking and ridiculing to notice.
Then again, maybe not. I think they did notice, which is why their once-virulent complaints have slowly faded out. A truth had dawned on them. How could they avoid noticing the growth of the sport in places like Atlanta?
And so boys and girls all over the nation were -- suddenly, it seemed -- playing soccer, and where once you had no soccer, you now had it in abundance. I’m talking about television, thinking back to the day, some 40 years ago, when we had just one pro game (from Germany) a week. Taped, of course.
Along the route of soccer’s progress over those years there have been many gaffes and embarrassments as Americans adjusted to soccer and, reluctantly, soccer adjusted to America. But American confidence has grown, and that was one thing that characterized the show put on by Atlanta: no embarrassments.
This was a solid soccer event, in many ways the most defining moment in the advance of the sort since the modern pro era began some 50 years ago.
America soccer, of course, has its share of problems, but this was an occasion when they could be forgotten. The sheer enthusiasm of those 72,317 fans ensured that.
Forgotten, but not entirely -- because there is an element in soccer that usually manages to get things wrong. This is not an American element. It knows no nationality.
I’m referring to marketing. It would claim to be a soccer element but it is not. And it was the marketing mentality that left me, right at the very end, feeling that a wonderful evening had been marred.
Who the heck decided, some years back, that there had to be a winner in this game? Who cares? A team of MLS players who have never played together before against a foreign team likely to be out of season, the whole thing crowned by the most promiscuous substitution rules you’ve ever seen. A real game? No, it is not ... but that does not matter. An exhibition game, by definition, is there to give an exhibition of the sport -- and this All-Star game did pretty well on that count.
What does it matter if it finishes 1-1? A shootout win is not considered a win anyway -- in the World Cup shootout wins are officially logged as ties.
But in knockout competitions, there must be a winner. That is not the case in an All-Star game. Never mind, someone at MLS (I don’t need a name, but I can be quite certain which department he worked for) decided it would be a good idea to define a winner. Enter the wretched shootout.
So, in Atlanta, Juventus won. Not the game, but the shootout. They won when Bradley Wright-Phillips scuffed his shot just wide. That’s what the shootout is likely to do for you, turn a wicked spotlight on just one player, the guy who lost the game.
And that happened to Bradley Wright-Phillips. The player who has scored 100 goals during his five-year MLS career, who has been the league’s top scorer twice, a player who has accomplished all that with a quiet, smooth style, a respected professional.
And thanks to MLS’s brilliant idea of using a synthetic shootout to produce a synthetic winner, BWP finds himself the goat of the 2018 MLS All-Star game. He deserves better than that.