After Man United plastered the All-Stars 4-0 last year, I wrote this in this space. Even in a winning effort, it is equally apropos now.
This was for the fans, not the players. Nani and Rooney and all the rest wanted a vital fitness jumpstart before the EPL grind starts. Beckham and Henry were merely avoiding injury before we kick down the stretch in MLS. I'd heard MLS' all-star side had about two days total together as a team, and even that was piecemeal. Compared with the reigning EPL champs and CL runners-up? Meh. At its core, this was a worthwhile event, even if the scoreline doesn't necessarily advertise it. It drew fans, it drew interest and it likely drew TV ratings.
My worry is not the game's format, which I like, or the result, which is ultimately pointless, but the perception. MLS is still culling fans from the rank and file, pulling in those on the periphery who've been charting the league's rise. For most of us, we'll see through this match to what it really was. The average fan will see it for what it seems to be: another subpar display on an international stage from a league still middling well below its American counterparts. Americans are used to rooting for their sports, used to rooting for the best. This was, well, proof they can't have that here.
Screw 'em, you say? A popular sentiment, to be sure. But it is the interest from these fans, the t-shirt fans, the leeches, that will help in our drive for better TV deals, bigger revenue, better flocks of players. Most diehards hate the idea of opening up the gates to the fairweather fans among us. It is a sentiment I can certainly understand. Reality dictates otherwise. Some of those fans tend to turn into lifetime supporters. The ones that don't, the majority, at least drive up interest and merchandise revenue, two things MLS has in relatively short supply, though this is always changing for the better. Start winning these games, meaningless though they may be, and some folks perk up and take notice.
Most of that still holds today, though the polarity is reversed. Instead of putting on a brave face post-game and sulking through all the "This game really didn't matter" jargon that came out of MLS camps, we have some brick and mortar to lay down on the game's steady maturation here. Of course a dash of moderation is required. You cannot, out of one side of your mouth, walk the "This is pointless" company line in defeat and from the other call it a watershed moment in victory. The reality is in the middle. Landon Donvoan's hunger for league respect did not hinge on tonight. It was obvious by their joking around before one free kick that Henry and Beckham were light and loose, obviously not encumbered by the EPL stalwarts across the pitch. But still, there was an air of respect that Chelsea will carry back over the Atlantic through the turbines of its jet that maybe MLS is becoming worthy of comparison to some leagues dangerously close to the continent's top four. Maybe. It is that planted seed that begins to grow, that yeasty malt that begins to ferment that will start the league's perception shift abroad. There will always be full-throated detractors who lob out blind hatred (if you want to see how fervent, read some of the comic vitriol spewed on any general MLS article on ESPN), but those are not the target audience.
Or, in other words.
Words to live by. Here's three more.
- Will Parchman