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Wed July 31, 2013

A Fan's Notes: MLS Stars Shine In KC

Credit Major League Soccer

Barely a year after baseball's best swooped through town, another All-Star Game will kick off Wednesday night at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan. The fanfare may be more subdued, but as Victor Wishna cautions in this month's edition of A Fan's Notes, don't believe the lack of hype: soccer--especially soccer in Kansas City--is major league.

Hosting Major League all-star games is becoming something of a habit in Kansas City. Wednesday, the All-Stars of Major League Soccer will take to the field—er, pitch—at Sporting Park, on the heels of last summer’s all-star game at Kauffman Stadium—and, frankly, in its shadow. Any commentary on the MLS All-Star Game—for example, this one—is bound to make comparisons to last year’s Midsummer Classic.

Some naysayers have argued that American soccer’s all-star event, relatively speaking, is not that big a deal. It's being televised nationally, but on ESPN 2. And the projected $15-$20 million impact would be, at most, a third of what baseball and its fans pitched in last year. The pregame festivities have certainly been shorter on hype. On Monday, some MLS players showed up on the Plaza to shoot soccer balls across Brush Creek. The Home Run Derby, it was not.

Yes, at this expectant moment in the insular Kansas City sports scene, as the Royals flirt with a winning season and the Chiefs unveil their shiny new parts at training camp, it can be easy to overlook the team and the sport whose time here has really come.

Since its flashy new stadium opened in 2011, Sporting KC has won its division each year, in the process creating a raucous, fan-centered experience that has been lacking in those stadiums in the Truman Sports Complex.

Sporting Park’s crowds have set records contributing to a league-wide average that has topped attendance figures for the NHL and NBA. Major League Soccer is not yet Major League Baseball, but it’s bigger now than it’s ever been—and soccer’s popularity continues to grow across the country as does the reputation of the U.S. as a world soccer power. On Sunday, the men’s national team, relying heavily on MLS players, won the Gold Cup as the best North and Central American team, and will now outrank Mexico in the international standings. Outranking Mexico in soccer is like…outranking Mexico in…Mexican food.

Unlike last year, this all-star game isn’t just a case of the big boys swinging through town. It really is a Kansas City affair. KC players earned three of the twenty roster spots—Matt Besler, Aurelien Collin, and Graham Zusi. Sporting manager Peter Vermes will be calling the shots, as well as the passes, defenses, and substitutions.

And one of the exciting aspects of the game is a format that actually gives us a team to cheer for. Here, the all-stars aren’t divided into arbitrary sides like American League and National League or East versus West. More like the Harlem Globetrotters, the good guys will band together to take on an interloper.

This year the opponent is AS Roma, from Italy’s heralded Serie A. Of course, Roma is a United Nations of football with nearly as many Brazilian players as Italians, and even one American: U.S. National Team midfielder Michael Bradley. The MLS All-Star team, meanwhile, is comprised mostly of Americans but also features players from several continents.

Which is one more reason why this All-Star Game is bigger, or at least broader, than baseball’s. Besides ESPN 2, the game will be transmitted live on networks across Canada, South America, and Europe. Not every head in KC may turn, but the whole world will be watching, whether to root on this American endeavor, or against.

And many will be surprised. As the cliché goes, Kansas City has more fountains than Rome. Wednesday night, it should have better soccer, too.

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