For one night, Philadelphia (more accurately the City of Chester) will be the center of the American soccer world. UEFA Champions League winner Chelsea will face the MLS All-Stars at PPL Park. Philadelphia soccer fans can put aside the disappointing first half of the Union season, the pending litigation between former manager Peter Nowak and the club, and bask in the glow of the national soccer spotlight. A “meaningless” match might be just what the club needs in what’s been a very crowded Union schedule, though there’s certainly gravity to this event.
[Win tickets to the match here!]
We’re not going to pretend that this is anything other than an exhibition. However, to think that in a little less than three years we’ve gone from not having an MLS franchise to hosting the All-Star Game is pretty remarkable. It was understandable to become skeptical of a front office whose philosophy briefly seemed to move toward trading away highly paid players and those with dissenting, powerful presences, while letting a single voice (Nowak’s) dominate the course of the franchise (to its detriment). But recent efforts have things feeling a little more on the right track, if still a little shaky at times. And, you have to give the club and their fanbase credit for bringing this event to the banks of the Delaware River. This wasn’t just penciled in when the league awarded Philadelphia an expansion franchise.
The MLS recognized the club’s achievements over such a short time in getting a stadium built and always either packed or close to it, and they knew they could count on one of the league’s most marketable fanbases to do their part.
This entire event is a celebration of the game. What better way to celebrate than by welcoming a world power like Chelsea for a friendly against our top players?
The Blues boast some of the most recognizable names in world soccer. John Terry (yes, he’s a nightmare), Frank Lampard, Juan Mata, Fernando Torres, Michael Essien, Peter Cech, and newcomers Eden Hazard and Marko Marin are all world class. For various reasons it’s unlikely that all of the players mentioned will feature in the game, but the fact remains that we’re talking about the reigning Champions League and FA Cup winner playing a game in Chester.
For years, local soccer fans have gotten our fix by watching and rooting for and against elite players who wear other clubs’ jerseys. With no team in Philly for most of our lives, we either adopted foreign clubs or just watched whatever we could find on TV. Even after the Union came to town, we still tune in for Saturday morning matches to see the best in the world play. Tonight, we get the best possible casual rooting experience.
We get to see Chelsea do their thing, if even without a top name (Fernando Torres) or two playing and not yet anywhere near season form. Love them or hate them, seeing Chelsea in person is a huge deal for just about any soccer fan.
But we also get the forbidden pleasure of cheering for the guys we usually have to root against. The MLS may still not be able to compete with elite leagues, but they do boast some outstanding stars. Tonight, those guys will be the home team, and we’ll be their fans.
If you’ve ever wished Jay DeMerit were alongside Carlos Valdes on the Philadelphia back line, or dreamt Kyle Beckerman, Dwayne De Rosario, David Beckham, and Landon Donovan were some kind of freakish midfield corps at PPL Park, or Thierry Henry became the next “Player You Hate Until He Plays for You
,” tonight, you’ll get all that and more. Tonight, there’s no shame in screaming on their successes and calling for cards when they’re fouled.
It’s OK to cheat on the Union tonight, and enjoy every minute of it.
Celebrating these players is great for the game. They are the best the US’s pro soccer league has to offer, and we should have pride in them. Looking at the MLS roster, it’s a damn good team. And, it’s a reminder of how far the MLS still has to go. Our All-Star Game is all the best players from an entire league playing a mid-season game against a single English club at the very beginning of its preseason training. It’s nothing we don’t know, but it shouldn’t diminish the event at all. Tonight will be a lot of fun while showcasing the MLS on a more global stage than it usually gets.
For those who can’t make it down, the match will be broadcast on ESPN2 at 8:30.
Rev and Matt P. contributed to this post.