As the marquee event for Major League Soccer, the 2014 All-Star Game, finally arrives (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2), everything has lined up perfectly for the American soccer league.
A deep roster of U.S. Soccer talent teaming up with notable stars from around the world to play against the best club side on the planet in Bayern Munich, with their own set of world-renowned stars fresh off Germany's victory in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
It should be the league's greatest night. And yet the concern has to be: What if it's not?
Before we delve into the negative, let's look at all the positives. The MLS roster is stacked with known quantities, and not just MLS standouts who may only be household names to those who habitually watch the American soccer league, but bona fide stars in this country after the performance of the U.S. national team in Brazil this summer.
Michael Bradley did not have the best World Cup by any means, but he did solidify himself as a cornerstone of American soccer over the last calendar year. Clint Dempsey—the current iteration of soccer's Captain America—must be considered one of the most recognizable figures in American sports today, in any sport.
De'Andre Yedlin may have been the breakout star in Brazil for Jurgen Klinsmann and the United States. After rebuffing advances from European clubs that expressed interest after the World Cup, Yedlin is still an MLS commodity for the Seattle Sounders and one of the fresh young faces of American soccer, internationally and domestically.
Both Graham Zusi and Matt Besler went from vital cogs in the Sporting Kansas City machine to important pieces of Klinsmann's Brazil plans this summer. Besler, in particular, raised his profile immensely this summer, choosing to stay in MLS despite options to go abroad as well.
In all, the MLS All-Star roster boasts eight players from the U.S. Soccer national team that went to Brazil—add goalkeeper Nick Rimando, center back Omar Gonzalez and injured midfielder Kyle Beckerman to those previously mentioned—with an additional group of Americans that just missed (and some might say should have made) the World Cup team, too.
Michael Parkhurst is a name most U.S. Soccer fans know, even if his inclusion in an All-Star game may have no impact on moving the television needle. Maurice Edu, who returned to MLS for the Philadelphia Union this season, is another who just missed out on the World Cup this summer and was added to the All-Star roster this week.
And then there's this guy you might have heard of…Donovan Landon, as one radio host called him during an interview I did during the World Cup.
No, sir, it's Landon Donovan, and he has been the face of U.S. Soccer for a generation, and the American spokesman for MLS for almost his entire career.
Donovan seems back at the top of his game heading into a matchup against one of the European clubs he once called home. If it's a big game for Donovan, it becomes, in a way, a bigger game in MLS. That's kind of how the system in America has always worked. This game is big for all of them.
By my count that makes 11 U.S. Soccer pool players that make up part of the MLS All-Star team that faces Bayern on Wednesday. And that's not even counting wunderkind Julian Green, who will suit up for the Bundesliga champions against the MLS stars.
Let's not forget, of course, all the non-American talent on the field as well. The stars just keep on shining in this game.
While there's no Tim Howard, Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron or Jozy Altidore to join the other U.S. players, the MLS All-Stars have international talents like Robbie Keane, Jermain Defoe, Tim Cahill—who scored one of the best goals of the 2104 World Cup—and an old guy named Henry you almost may have heard of before.
Thierry Henry is one of the biggest names in the world, and with word of his potential retirement after this season, the MLS All-Star Game could serve as his personal Derek Jeter moment. As if the league needed even more juice heading into the match with Bayern, it may have it with Henry.
From a big-picture standpoint, this is as notable a group of MLS All-Stars as the league has possibly ever assembled—throw in the "hey I've heard of that guy" inclusions that feature the likes of Diego Valeri, Obafemi Martins, Bill Hamid, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Liam Ridgewell—especially given the increased interest level of the sport in America after the World Cup.
To top that, they MLS All-Stars are playing a Bayern side that, for better or worse, will be as close to full strength as possible after flying in some of its stars who missed the early part of Bayern's American tour after the long, World Cup summer.
It's all set up for MLS to have a huge win on Wednesday night, regardless of the score on the field.
But what if American soccer fans don't tune in? What happens then?
This has to be a huge concern for MLS, part of the reason it feels like the league has been promoting this game more than previous endeavors against the likes of Chelsea or Manchester United. (It's worth noting that the 2012 contest against Chelsea did not have a strong television audience, while last year's match against Roma, even with a Michael Bradley connection, was not the draw a German power like Bayern Munich should bring.)
The match is big for Bayern, too, a club making a concerted effort to capture more of the rich American audience. The German side recently launched an English-language online endeavor and opened an official office in America, with the expressed interest of growing its brand in this country. A big television rating would be a fine start to that relationship.
And what would be a good television rating anyway? For the World Cup, more than 25 million viewers across all platforms tuned in to the U.S.-Germany match. The World Cup final, which featured many of these same Bayern players defeating Lionel Messi and Argentina, drew more than 25 million as well. Even the semifinals, on a weekday afternoon, had more than 12 million American viewers.
As much as a Wednesday evening in the summer seems like prime real estate on the sports calendar—MLS doesn't even have any NFL preseason games with which to compete—the match is starting rather late for the East Coast and impossibly late for any fans in Europe who might have interest in the event.
In addition, the match is on ESPN2, and while The Deuce is in nearly as many homes as the Mothership for ESPN at this point, there is a certain mentality with kicking an event over to "Option 2" that makes it seem less special. If ESPN doesn't care enough about it, why should we?
And yet, it won't be ESPN's fault (entirely) if the rating isn't big.
MLS needs to be able to grow its own brand at this point in the league's history and not rely on television partners to do the work for it. In other words, if this game doesn't draw, it's time to blow up all the plans and figure out something new.
This game, with a dozen USMNT players, including some of the biggest stars in the country, facing the likes of Franck Ribery, Robert Lewandowski, Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Jerome Boateng, Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze, is as perfect an advertisement for soccer in America as one game can get.
Soccer, as a sport, is doing just fine in America. More than 109,000 people packed Michigan's Big House this past weekend to watch Manchester United scrimmage Real Madrid in a game that was shown on Fox across the country.
Will the MLS All-Star Game provide that kind of buzz, or are we going to see the same level of interest as for another European game this past weekend, when 12,000 people smattered around Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia to watch AS Roma face Inter Milan?
The poor gate in Philly could be used as a knock on American soccer fans just as the record-breaking attendance in Michigan is a sign of the sport's strength, but it could also be a sign that we've become more selective and savvy with our soccer dollars. We'll pay to see Manchester United and Real Madrid, but we aren't willing to shell out Champions League dollars for a Serie A friendly. We have better options now.
Whether the MLS All-Star Game is a better option remains to be seen. Surely the crowd in Portland will be raucous, but will that translate to the wider television audience?
And again, the question MLS hopes not to have on Thursday is…what if it doesn't?
In terms of fan interest and television ratings, the English Premier League is king in America. La Liga, if not saddled with being shown on beIN Sports, would be just as popular in terms of marquee matches that feature Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Hell, American fans have even been clamoring for more Bundesliga on television too, something that will help the sport in America grow, while adding more competition for MLS eyeballs.
If MLS can't draw a solid rating for this game—I threw a number of 4 or 5 million viewers last week on Twitter, and after seeing the rating of 11.3 million viewers for the MLB All-Star Game, I think it's fair to hold to that projection—what should the league do other than scrap the model and start the hell over?
Last year's MLS Cup had just over 1 million viewers, and despite the huge new television deal that will go into effect among ESPN, Fox and Univision, there has been little proof that American domestic soccer can move the television needle.
This is the league's chance to prove everyone wrong. Everything this summer has led to this moment for MLS. There can be no excuse, even if the German side comes out and cruises to victory.
This match, after this summer, should be a huge showcase for the league. We should be talking about the growth of MLS—and soccer as a sport in America—coming out of this event.
I just can't escape the question: What if we're not? What then for MLS?