Well that’s it, Major League Soccer has arrived, and Chelsea’s sun is setting. Americans will from now on watch every televised match, and big-name stars will flock to the league. Europe must now tremble under the looming specter of American soccer dominance.
Okay, not really. Not even close. But the least we can say about the MLS All-Stars’ 3-2 win over the Blues earlier tonight at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania is that it can’t hurt. The somewhat penurious league has suffered not just from lack of recognizable names and pitches that are in any way meaningful (MLS currently has less soccer-only stadiums than teams), but also from a downright silly attempt to mimic historic European clubs (I’m not sure which is more embarrassing, Real Salt Lake or Sporting Kansas City… probably the former).
A win over Chelsea, who won the FA Cup and Champions League this past season, is something. Even if you grant that Roberto Di Matteo didn’t exactly bring his A-squad on this US tour, Chelsea did boast the likes of John Terry and Frank Lampard, both of whom lifted trophies this year (ah hem) and have enjoyed successful careers for England’s national side.
And yet, ironically, the first two MLS goals were set up by old European vanguards: Thierry Henry and David Beckham. Yes, the rising talent showed up as well, but it strikes me as quite odd that a Brit and a Frenchman led the US league’s top players onto the pitch. And apart from Becks weirdly hugging his kid (okay not his kid, but the kid standing in front of him) during the pre-game technicalities (who does one need to write to in order to end this kid accompaniment, I wonder), both he and Henry played not just brilliant soccer, but were at the same time brilliant ambassadors for the world’s game. They displayed real class, humility, and even humor. Bravo.
It’s so easy to recycle the tropes about exhibition matches: a friendly isn’t really a friendly, unless your team loses—or, put another way, this game was meaningless for a rebuilding Chelsea side but monumental for a fledgling league, but only in hindsight. The fact is that if Chelsea had won you’d be reading the same old headlines about how far American soccer has still yet to come. Instead, you’ll read about how MLS has suddenly elbowed itself into the club of elite international leagues. In reality neither case is true; the win over Chelsea is good for the All-Stars and for the league (after all, I’m a firm believer in the old adage that a win is a win is a win), but until MLS can compete in these types of competitions without aging giants in their twilight, respect for the league will be in short supply. This kind of development takes money and time.
Or, for a quick fix, just change the stupid team names already.