PORTLAND, Ore. – Red bricks rise toward the sun at dusk, the steps at Pioneer Square’s south and west becoming amphitheater benches when movies play across from the courthouse. When the farmers’ market or weekday lunch crowds relinquish control, the 40,000 square foot block between Morrison and Yamhill is split up among skateboarders and chess players, coffee drinkers and tourists. Few notice the 145-year-old building that rests on the adjacent block.
This week, Major League Soccer has taken over the city, leveraging Portland’s refurbished town square as a focal point in the buildup to Wednesday’s All-Star Game. With German champions Bayern Munich in town, MLS has used the site for small-sided games, concerts, and autograph sessions – the type of accoutrement that’s taken MLS’s mid-season showcase from an isolated obligation to something that can occupy a week’s worth of buzz. When a Sunday evening crowd gathered at the Willamette’s waterfront for The Flaming Lips, MLS had an atmosphere that would make the National Basketball Association proud.
It hasn’t always been like this. As recently as five years ago, the All-Star Game was still looking for an identity, with format changes that have taken the game from East versus West and USA versus World evolving into a format that features the world’s biggest clubs. But before the likes of Manchester United, the current Chelsea, and Bayern Munich signed on, there was Fulham. And Celtic. West Ham, Everton, and the smaller, more aspirational Chelsea were there, too, a collection that spoke to the league’s limits. As recently as 2009, when the Toffees beat MLS’s stars on penalty kicks at Rio Tinto Stadium, fans were still deeply ambivalent about whether the league needed an All-Star Game at all.
Since then, there’ve been four major changes.
The first of which was slow evolution, one that has helped define U.S. soccer culture in our lifetime. At some point, an appetite to see Europe’s best transcended remote sources like FOX Sports World or a bar’s Setanta subscription. Clubs can now come to the U.S., draw crowds that may exceeded what they can handle at home, and turn preseason preparation into a business venture. The U.S. was no longer a beguiling frontier of soccer nihilism. It was place that served the bottom line.
That undoubtedly played a part for Manchester United, who became the first mega club to sign onto the All-Star Game in 2010. By then, even the Red Devils were concerned about market share, with a club that’d been England’s most popular in the States seeing new competition for fans’ hearts. With their commitment to All-Star, MLS was able to swap the small, soccer-specific confines of Rio Tinto for Reliant Stadium, with Houston’s NFL venue luring 70,728 to see the Red Devils’ on tour. Finally able to land one of the world’s marquee clubs, the All-Star Game had the second element it needed to become a truly marquee event.
American football stadiums wouldn’t last forever, though, with MLS returning to its own venues the next year. By then, however, the league had abandoned the idea that MLS Cup — to that point the league’s marquee, fall showcase — should be a natural site event. When 2010′s game between Colorado and FC Dallas couldn’t generate any excitement in Toronto, Major League Soccer allowed the league’s title game to be hosted by the team with the best record season record. That inability to plan around a venue made the All-Star Game the priority event, where six months ahead of time you knew exactly where it would be.
You also knew a major club team was going to be there, guaranteeing international media would show up to interview the likes of Thierry Henry and David Beckham. You’d have time to coordinate with a city to use areas like Pioneer Square or Waterfront Park. Held in the summer, the All-Star Game was almost guaranteed to see good conditions, while an exhibition’s atmosphere ensured players, coaches, and staff wouldn’t be counting the minutes before shifting attention back to MLS Cup. Moving the league’s title game to a team’s home ground was a subtle, brilliant solution to an array of problems.
But in terms of the All-Star Game’s spectacle, that solution wouldn’t matter if the league wasn’t seeing dramatic improving in other areas. In terms of player talent, the quality of play, and experience on television and at the venues, Major League Soccer has sprinted forward over the last eight years. The league that swallowed deep and expanded with Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake became extinct a few years ago. Major League Soccer has almost nothing in common with its former self.
It’s the fourth change that’s redefined All-Star. Just as Major League Soccer has grown, so has the All-Star Game, evolving into a destination event for soccer bigwigs from all over the world. Nestled nicely between European seasons, in the splendor that is the American summer, the All-Star Game is becoming MLS’s jewel.
Even now, those changes remain important. Bayern Munich just opened an office in New York. With UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules encouraging teams to maximize revenue, the U.S. needs to leveraged. There’s no better way to start that process than taking advantage of MLS’s showcase, forming a relationship with Major League Soccer.