By Rick Firfer
Since time immemorial, the American professional sports scene has been dominated by baseball, football, basketball, and to a lesser extent, hockey. This helps explains why most sports reporting in this country has historically focused on the athletes who play those sports.
Everyone has heard of Babe Ruth, Jim Brown, Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, and most sports enthusiasts can recite chapter and verse about their respective careers. As a consequence, there is a great demand among collectors for those players’ trading cards and memorabilia, the value of which has, over time, been bid into the financial stratosphere. But this may all change as the demographics of America change, and the focus of the younger generation turns more and more to the sport of soccer.
Nothing exemplifies the coming change as much as the advent and financial success of Major League Soccer, the fifth big-time sport now emerging across this great country. One has only to look around, both in the cities and the suburbs, to see that more and more playing fields are being given over these days to youth and recreational soccer at all levels. Park district administrators are seeing more demand for organized soccer among young people and less demand for traditional sports like baseball and football. Soccer has now crossed over into all ethnic and demographic groups and is demanding more and more of our attention and financial support.
As a consequence of this changing sports landscape, more and more attention is being focused on Major League Soccer (MLS) because that is where the best soccer is currently being played in this country. When MLS began its journey in the United States, the trek was all uphill. American players just did not approach the highest level of skill necessary to put on a good show, so the decision was made to bring in players from the countries in which the sport was traditionally played. And not just any players, but some of the best players in the world who could show Americans how exciting the sport could be, all while the league was supporting programs to develop its own homegrown players.
Thus, while legendary players like Pele and David Beckham came to America to play, Landon Donovan and other homegrown superstars began to emerge. As a result, the U.S. National Team has repeatedly made a good showing for itself, and many of the homegrown players began to gravitate to MLS. And with good reason, MLS games were beginning to sell out local stadiums and fans were getting strongly behind their local teams.
With this surge in interest also came an interest in team and player memorabilia, although soccer trading cards have not yet shown that they can be a viable product.
That will come, however, when MLS truly reaches the level of a La Liga or one of the other European major leagues. Right now, by apparent consensus, MLS is to soccer what the Triple A minor league teams are to baseball. This will change, however.
One of the ways MLS shows that it belongs in the conversation is by holding an annual All Star Game, just like all the other professional sports leagues. The one difference of note is that MLS does not pit its stars from one conference against the stars of another conference. Instead, for the last 13 years MLS has, through its own unique selection process, picked a team of All Stars that represents the entire league, and then pits that team against one of the major teams from one of the major soccer leagues from another part of the world. The game is also moved around the U.S., so that fans in different MLS cities get the chance to see this star-studded game and international players from the English Premier League and five other leagues situated in Germany, Mexico, Scotland and other hot beds of soccer.
With this in mind, the 14th such MLS All Star Game was played in Chicago’s Soldier Field (home of the Chicago Bears) before a sell-out crowd of more than 61,000 people on Aug. 2. The game itself was a culmination of several soccer related activities held around the Chicago area to help promote the All Star Game and the sport itself. Some of these activities were held at Bridgeview Stadium, the home of the Chicago Fire, which is Chicago’s entry in the MLS.
Other activities, primarily the youth oriented activities, were held in other local parks and stadiums. And not to be outdone, corporate sponsors such as AT&T also hosted fan events where the fans could get up close and personal with former and current players, to ask questions, take photos and get autographs.
Besides hosting an exhibition game utilizing young, developing “homegrown” talent the day before the All Star Game, MLS also opened the training sessions of the All Star Team and its opponents that same day to the public, allowing several thousand fans to get a glimpse of their favorite players and perhaps get an autograph or two by leaning over the railing and shouting compliments to the players. By glancing at the faces of both the fans and the players, it was evident that everyone had a good time at the training sessions.
Even the media got in on the act because MLS was kind enough to host a couple of press conferences with the coaches and some key players from both teams. They also allowed the media to interview those players who were willing to be interviewed at what MLS calls a “mix zone.” In everyday terms, a mix zone is a media scrum where the reporters basically elbow each other aside so they can grab a player who is running the gauntlet and hope to get a couple of sound bites. But woe to the media person who might try to get an autograph. That appears to be a capital offense.
Now to the really good part. The competition for the MLS All Stars this year was none other than the best soccer team on the planet, Real Madrid Club de Futbol, of Spain’s La Liga. This is the team that David Beckham once played for, and the team that Cristiano Ronaldo currently plays for. It also has on its roster a group of players who, together with Ronaldo, make up a team that is possibly the soccer equivalent of the 1927 New York Yankees. A “Murderer’s Row” indeed. So, even though Ronaldo unfortunately could not make this trip with his team, the MLS All Stars were clearly facing a David and Goliath situation by taking on Real Madrid, especially considering that the All Stars weren’t even a team – they were just a group of super-athletic guys trying to play together and anticipate each other’s moves for the first time. But the game was labeled as “friendly,” so one could only hope that that was what it would be.
Attending the training session press conference on behalf of the MLS All Stars was their head coach, Veljko Paunovic, who also serves as head coach of the Chicago Fire, and players Bastian Schweinsteiger, the All Star captain, and legendary midfielder Michael Bradley. Attending on behalf of Real Madrid was their manager, Zinedine Zadine, perhaps the best player to ever come out of France, and midfielder Toni Kroos.
Bradley got things going for the All Stars by pointing out that the All Star Team was going to play to win so that they could show the world how far the league has come. But as a realist, he bowed to the talent on the Real Madrid team and said he greatly respected all of their players. Bradley also pointed out the vagaries of modern soccer and how players move around so much. He, himself, had recently played for three different teams in the space of one week, including his national team.
Coach Paunovic also underscored how important the All Star Game was as a showcase for the league and a way to get the local soccer communities involved in promoting the sport. When asked how he would devise his line-up for the game, he said what any good coach would say, and that was that he would try to get as many players involved as he could.
When asked whether he was intending to take home any souvenirs from the game, Paunovic said he really is not a collector, but he might try to snag some jerseys as a reminder of the experience. Schweinsteiger also demurred when asked what he collected, if anything, but he said that there are certain opposing players that he admires very much and that when he has the opportunity he does try to swap jerseys with those players after a game. Schweinsteiger also lamented that Ronaldo would not be out there on the pitch, but that he really would like to beat Real Madrid anyway because, after all, they are the best of the best. (Real Madrid has won the La Liga championship 33 times; let the Yankees try to match that in the American League.) Bradley added that he was absolutely thrilled to be back in Chicago because his dad used to coach the Chicago Fire and he remembers running around the city when he was a kid. He loved the experience.
Real Madrid’s manager, Zinedine Zadine, was actually a player on the team the last time the team came to Chicago to play a friendly, which was more than a decade ago. He said he still has fond memories from that very brief visit. He and Beckham were teammates on that Real Madrid team, so you can imagine how they did against the Fire in their match. Zadine, one of the greatest athletes to ever play the game, was asked why he wanted to be a coach. His answer: “Soccer is my passion.”
Midfielder Kroos was asked what it is like for him and his teammates in their role as “rock stars.” “The fans are great everywhere we go,” he said with a smile, “it tells you that you are at the highest level.”
As if to underscore the growing importance of soccer in this country, MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced at his press conference just before the game that Adidas, the maker of shoes and soccer balls, among other things, had agreed to a six-year extension of its MLS sponsorship. The commissioner was making the point that MLS has really arrived when a company like Adidas makes a commitment like that.
Mark King, the North American president of Adidas, was all smiles at the press conference, so obviously they also think this is a win-win situation for the company and the league.
Garber also spent a considerable amount of time talking about expansion. Apparently, a deal may be getting closer to add another team in Florida that would have Beckham as part of its ownership group. The MLS Board met while its members here in Chicago for the All Star Game and apparently Beckham made an impassioned plea on behalf of his ownership group, so things may be looking up for them to become the next MLS team. There are, however, 12 candidates to become that next team, and the Detroit group is also looking good.
We also got a brief opportunity to wander around the All Stars’ locker room to ask questions of the players. Focusing on whether they collect stuff related to their careers or, possibly, the All Star Game itself, we found out that most of them put very little stock in collecting memorabilia or autographs, other than acquiring game used jerseys of other players whom they admire. Most of them did say that they intended to keep one of the two All Star jerseys each of them was given.
What to do with the other one? Some were going to give it to their girlfriends or their parents or siblings, and some were going to use the spare jersey to trade with the Real Madrid players. But a couple of the guys were proud to say that they were donating those jerseys to various charity auctions. All Star DeMarcus Beasley was going to give his spare jersey to his family, but he got the other jersey signed by all his teammates on the All Star Team. That one, he said, would go on display in a special place.
All Star goalkeeper Stefan Frei also wanted some autographs, but instead of his jersey, he got a game ball signed by everyone on the team. He was also one of the guys who decided to give a jersey to charity. All Star forward Dom Dwyer seemed amused by the question as to whether he would try to get something tangible to remember his All Star experience. He finally answered by saying that he got one of his jerseys signed by his teammates, but that he used the other one to trade with Real Madrid player Marcelo, whom he greatly admired. When asked what he would do with the Marcelo jersey, he laughed and said, “Guard it with my life!”
And, oh yeah, the All Star Game ended in a 1-1 tie at the end of regulation time. Instead of playing extra time, however, the rules required the teams to have a shoot-out to see who would win. No surprise. Real Madrid won the shoot-out 4 to 2 and now owns bragging rights until the next time.
Rick Firfer is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.