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European teams raise bar for MLS

- The Washington Times - Friday, July 24, 2009

It has been hailed as the greatest summer of soccer in the United States since it hosted the World Cup 15 years ago.

Several of the world's best teams are crossing the Atlantic Ocean to play in North America, likely before thousands of fans in some of the continent's largest stadiums.

Top European clubs Chelsea FC and AC Milan will face off Friday before a sellout crowd at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, one of several games across the country involving more than six major international teams. To soccer fans, it's an opportunity to see some of the best players in the world. And to some teams from Major League Soccer, a game against these top clubs offers a chance to gain valuable experience while also pulling in extra revenue.

These North American tours include top Spanish clubs FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, as well as Italian club Inter Milan. And they come when top international clubs are eclipsing the popularity of teams in the United States, interest growing as a result of the Internet and an increase in television broadcasts.

"The reason for them to be here is for us to watch," said ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas, a former general manager of MLS' Los Angeles Galaxy. "It's closer than Asia, they can get a good paycheck and they recognize that it's an emerging market that's important for them to stake a claim in."

While MLS has achieved steady growth since its inception in 1996, the general consensus is that the best athletes still play overseas. The belief is often reinforced by what fans see; games from the English Premier League, Italy's Serie A or Spain's La Liga are more available than ever to American viewers. Visions of stars like Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ronaldinho are nearly as available as those of stars from the NBA, NFL or major league baseball.

Fox Soccer Channel, which broadcasts games from MLS and the English Premier League, has seen steady annual gains in distribution and is now available in more than 35 million homes, with a goal of 50 million homes within three years. Meanwhile, the ESPN family of networks saw record ratings this spring for games in the UEFA Champions League, the top club tournament in Europe. Ratings for MLS games on ESPN, however, have remained relatively flat, with fewer than 500,000 households tuning in to each contest.

"It definitely creates a bar that MLS has to meet because people are aware of what is happening in the world and they want to be entertained and see the sport at the highest level," said David Sternberg, executive vice president of Fox Soccer Channel.

Sternberg insisted, however, that MLS can continue to grow even as interest in teams overseas increases.

"I don't think it's an either-or," he said. "Having MLS has certainly opened a lot of casual fans to the sport here in the U.S., just as the availability of international soccer on television has created soccer fans generally and inspired some of them to go and seek out the live viewing experience."

Real Madrid faces D.C. United on Aug. 9 at FedEx Field. Newly signed superstars Kaka and Ronaldo are expected to play.

FC Barcelona is scheduled to play the Seattle Sounders, Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas Guadalajara next month in San Francisco. Chelsea FC, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Club America will play matches this week as part of a tour known as the World Football Challenge.

MLS, for its part, has generally embraced the North American tours. Its promotional arm, Soccer United Marketing, holds the rights to promote FC Barcelona and organized the recent friendlies. It is also promoting a U.S. tour of the Mexican national team and invited Everton FC of the Premier League to play the MLS All-Stars on Wednesday.

"We really believe that the more top-flight soccer events we have in this country raises the level of passion that fans have for the sport, and that has a positive benefit for MLS, for Women's Professional Soccer and on down to the youth level," league spokesman Dan Courtemanche said. "It's just good to have more soccer content produced in a professional manner."

D.C United president Kevin Payne said there is value in MLS clubs playing the best teams from overseas, but he's less enamored with matches involving international clubs alone.

"I appreciate the fact that Real Madrid's approach is to come here and play teams in our league," he said. "As opposed to other clubs that are coming here for paydays and that's all and really don't care about the development of the game in the United States."

Lalas agreed that soccer in the United States would benefit more if top international clubs played MLS teams.

"At least there's soccer being played, but without a doubt, there is a bit of a challenge, shall we say, when these teams come into your backyard and you're not involved," he said.

Top clubs from Europe, in particular, have embraced North America as a place to train and prepare for the upcoming season, if for no other reason than to get away from a ravenous and critical fan base overseas.

"They don't get hounded, and they don't have the pressure," said Fox Soccer analyst Christopher Sullivan, who will announce the Chelsea-AC Milan game. "The teams love to be able to get away from that, do their work and do their preparation in a serene environment."

In the end, there is a recognition that the world is getting smaller, so soccer in the United States must get better.

"We live in the United States, and competition is part of everything we do and it's a positive and good part of everything we do," Lalas said. "Rather than focus on the challenges it brings up, I [say] it's up to Major League Soccer and the teams and the players to provide an equivalent or better soccer experience."