It has been a heady July for soccer in the United States and Major League Soccer wants to believe the best is yet to come.
The league bills its All-Star game as a showpiece in the domestic calendar, pitting the finest MLS players against a European club. This year, the opposition is Everton from the English Premier League. Yet after a month in which soccer, at least in terms of attendance, made a serious play to be recognized as mainstream, Wednesday's game in Sandy, Utah, is in danger of being an afterthought.
The welcome invasion of high-profile international teams prompted a swell of interest this summer, with crowds flocking to games in eye-opening numbers. A total of 336,813 witnessed the six matches of the World Football Challenge, an invitational exhibition tournament featuring Chelsea, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Club America. Then there was the Gold Cup, which greeted 79,156 to Giants Stadium for Mexico's 5-0 trouncing of a weakened U.S. side in Sunday's final.
At a time when all is relatively quiet in many of the big American pro sports – with the NBA, NFL and NHL all in their offseasons – the MLS All-Star game is facing big competition for attention within its own sport.
Remarkably, some of this competition is primarily of MLS's own making.
Soccer United Marketing, the league's marketing arm, was the driving force behind the several events aimed at bringing big international club teams to North America for lucrative exhibitions.
A school of thought within MLS is that any increase in exposure for soccer is positive for the league, yet it is going to be increasingly hard to get local fans interested in the home product when access to some of the world's best teams is so readily available.
FC Barcelona – the reigning European champion and most people's pick as the best team in the world – is currently in the country to play three exhibitions.
So, if SUM can attract global icons to the U.S., then why can't it do the same for the MLS All-Star game?
No disrespect is intended to Everton, a fine team led by a great manager in David Moyes, who worked wonders to take his side to fifth place in the EPL last season. But Everton is not a Chelsea or a Barcelona (which plays a club friendly against the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Rose Bowl on Saturday) or even the biggest club in its own city (Liverpool holds that distinction).
The last two All-Star opponents have both been English – West Ham in 2008 and now Everton. Neither have been top-four finishers or Champions League participants in the year they arrived.
There may be fear of embarrassment stemming from a 2005 game in Madrid, where an MLS representative squad was destroyed 5-0 by Real Madrid. But what does it mean to have the All-Stars face opposition that is clearly very good, but not the best out there?
MLS spends much of its existence copying from the rest of the world and increasing the sophistication of soccer in the United States. However, it also borrows heavily from other American sports with mixed results. The playoff system used in MLS has been reasonably successful. The draft and the All-Star game? Not so much.
The All-Star game problem is not how to make it stick – it has been around every year since the inception of the league.
The problem is how to make it matter.