KANSAS CITY, KAN. – Major League Soccer churns through its calendar with a quiet diligence. It pops into the mainstream consciousness every so often with a spectacular play or a well-timed announcement, but it mostly focuses on steady growth and tends to its business without kicking up a whole lot of fuss.
The priorities change as the All-Star Game approaches. This midsummer event - shuttled from city to city every year to take increasing advantage of the plethora of viable options available across two countries - presents a rare opportunity to herald the progress made and shout about it from the rooftops to a comparably wider audience.
By invading a city (or in Kansas City's case, proceeding into capable, open and willing arms) and staging a variety of slick events (like the series of concerts in the hip Power & Light district downtown this week), MLS offers a reminder that it deserves credit for its achievements and warrants mention among the major sports in the country. And the match against Italian side AS Roma on Wednesday night provides a similar opportunity for this crop of players to reinforce the message about the on-field progress of the league over the past few years and its improving stature in world soccer.
"This is - as always - a showcase event," Los Angeles Galaxy forward Landon Donovan said. "We want to show ourselves well. We'll take this seriously."
They possess little choice in the matter, truth be told. It's an exhibition match with tangible meaning for these players and this league. It's also an opportunity to offer a riposte to the litany of naysayers and skeptics eager to denigrate the league at every turn by establishing some form of parity or supremacy over a transitioning Italian giant in the midst of its preseason preparations.
As the scenario suggests, the entire exercise does not supply a reliable measure of where MLS' best players stand into relationship to their counterparts at one of Italy's largest clubs. It does, however, influence perceptions rather disproportionately. Few casual fans checked out New York Red Bulls' compelling 4-3 victory over Real Salt Lake on Saturday and weighed the merits of the league based upon more cohesive evidence. Several more will flip through the channels on Wednesday night to see whether top domestic-based players can compete with the likes of USA midfielder Michael Bradley and and Italian playmaker Francesco Totti.
Donovan's belated insertion into this mix as a replacement for the injured Robbie Keane highlights the combination of enduring quality (Donovan, Marco Di Vaio and Thierry Henry) and emerging stars (MVP candidate Will Johnson, top scorer Camilo Sanvezzo) required to entice viewers. The selection process mixes merit with talent (and the occasional political or pragmatic appointment) to compile a squad capable of coming together in short order and defeating an opponent trying to find its footing ahead of its impending campaign.
Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes will mold his All-Star unit as best he can given the compressed time frame (one light training session on Tuesday) and the disparate approaches deployed at club level. He will establish a basic framework (expect a standard 4-4-2 setup instead of Sporting's intricate, high pressure system in this affair) and then permit his players to figure out how to proceed against Bradley, Totti and the rest of the Roman guard from there.
Most of the All-Stars spent the past two days reveling in the accompanying whirlwind, but their thoughts will shift to the task at hand by Wednesday night. For most of them, this journey to the recently self-declared "Soccer Capital of America" (it is a moniker inevitably disputed by the fine people in Portland, Seattle and several other cities) and its glittering Sporting Park serves as a source of pride in their achievements and in their league. They do not want to fall short of the standards expected of them.
"These are the best players in the league, up against a Serie A powerhouse in Roma," Johnson said. "It's very important that we show well, that we keep showing the world that we're improving as a league and keep gaining respect."
Much of this week drives toward that same objective. MLS still seeks validation for its earnest, occasionally perplexing (see: the ongoing and unseemly imbroglio at Chivas USA and any incident involving a convoluted player movement mechanism) and largely successful growth over the past few years. Big events like the All-Star Game provide a chance to obtain appreciation for those significant strides. And the prospect of polishing off those pursuits with a victory over AS Roma underscores the underlying message that this league - even when it slips into the shadows - probably deserves more respect than it usually procures.