The All-Star Game gives MLS a chance to turn the uninitiated into believers
CHICAGO -- Everywhere Real Madrid goes, its fans are sure to follow.
It's about 6:30 p.m. local time on Monday, and the MLS All-Star Game, in which Los Merengues will take part, is 48 hours away. More than 100 fans have lined up outside the team's hotel in downtown Chicago. A woman stops and asks the assembled press, "Who are you waiting for?"
The light goes on. "Ohhhhh."
As the team buses pull up, the players exit one by one, and duck into the hotel. The hysteria doesn't rise to the level of say, the Beatles at JFK back in the day, but Real's arrival evokes its own unique frenzy. Fans yell out their names. Banners are held aloft. Cameras flash and click. Even Real Madrid president Florentino Perez is serenaded with shouts of "Tino! Tino!"
The next day, the scene is repeated at the team's practice, which cost fans $20 to witness. Fans flock to the players' tunnel and scream their names in the hope that some will stop to sign autographs. Marcelo obliges, as does Sergio Ramos. And then they're off to start practice, where each goal or trick is met with appreciation, and for good reason. Seeing the players' quickness of foot and mind is something to behold up close.
Clearly, it's preseason. The first bad result is at least a week away, at which point the straight jacket that comes with playing for Real Madrid begins its claustrophobic constriction. But for now, the players are free to enjoy their work a bit more, and soak in the adulation of the fans.
"Everywhere we go, USA, China, Europe, the fans are crazy," midfielder Toni Kroos said at Tuesday's news conference. "They are so happy to see us, to watch our training or our games. It's great to see. If you see that, you know that you are maybe in the biggest club in the world because I think there is no other club like this."
On Monday, about 11 miles to the southwest of Real's hotel, in Chicago's south side, a very different fan gathering was taking place. MLS Works, the league's charity arm, in conjunction with the Chicago Fire and the U.S. Soccer Foundation, was opening up a pair of all-weather "mini-pitches" at Gage Park. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was on hand, as was MLS commissioner Don Garber and Chicago Fire owner Andrew Hauptman. MLS All-Stars Tim Howard, Michael Parkhurst, Dax McCarty, Johan Kappelhof and Hernan Grana were in attendance, joined by a passel of youth players who were given the honor of giving the mini-pitches a proper christening.
As those in attendance mingled in and around the new mini-pitches, one could see the challenge that the league faces. The hearts and minds of Real's fans are already won. For MLS, that work is ongoing, and here was an attempt at not only giving to the community but also planting some seeds that might one day grow into the kind of passion and fandom that is the fuel for leagues and teams around the world.
This is really what the MLS All-Star Game is about. There is a tendency to focus on the game, the players and whether a win by the MLS All-Stars makes some kind of grandiose statement about the league's level. (To be clear, it doesn't). Yeah, sure, there is the spectacle of the match itself, especially when an opponent like Real Madrid is lined up. And as Michael Bradley said, the desire to make a good impression is there.
"We want to be sharp, and on the night represent ourselves and the league in a good way," he said.
But the week of the All-Star Game is more about creating connective tissue at as many levels of the game as possible, with the hope that someday those connections will become unbreakable bonds. Some of those efforts succeed. Others fail. And MLS is by no means the only driver of this. It takes place at all levels, from youth, to college, through the USL and NASL and so on. But in a crowded sports landscape, MLS and the game itself have little choice but to engage in these kinds of efforts.
It always helps, of course, when the local team is doing well, and the current MLS campaign has witnessed a revival by the Chicago Fire. Given that the team's home stadium, Toyota Park, is located in suburban Bridgeview instead of downtown, getting some traction and attention in the city has been harder than it might be otherwise. But McCarty has sensed an improved atmosphere in the city for the team and Wednesday's game.
"The vibe in the city is electric, it really is," he said. "I did an appearance [Sunday] at North Ave. Beach, and there were a ton of people out there playing soccer, having soccer balls out, kids everywhere, a lot of important people in the game bringing the city together. I think all those factors are great when putting on an event like this. And let's hope that with the Fire doing well, the city can forget about the last couple of years in Fire Land. The fans of the Chicago Fire have been patient and I think they've earned the right to have a team that's more competitive than the past couple of years."
The top level of creating those connections could be witnessed during the MLS portion of Tuesday's news conference. Flanked by Bradley and Chicago Fire manager Veljko Paunovic was Chicago midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. The German World Cup winner has been the ideal designated player for the Fire. Not only has his play inspired a revival on the field, but he also has given both the city and the league a bear hug.
Since his arrival in March, Schweinsteiger has engaged all manner of questions with grace, patience and humor. At his unveiling, he was memorably asked a cringe-worthy question about whether his signing meant the Fire could "win the World Cup." On Tuesday, the topic came up again, albeit with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Schweinsteiger played right along.
"If we can beat [Real Madrid] then maybe we can move forward to win the World Cup," he said as the assembled press broke out in laughter.
Schweinsteiger added that when he played in the 2014 All-Star Game for Bayern Munich, it was there that he "fell in love" with MLS.
"I was there with my brother, and we were sitting there on the bench together," he said. "Then I could feel the atmosphere, the positive atmosphere in the stadium, the supporters, and you could feel the [passion] of the people and how much it means for them. I actually said to my brother, 'Why not play once in MLS?' So it started like this."
And thus an MLS ambassador was born. The hope is that the week's festivities can create a few more.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.