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May 30, 2013

MLS players to face Roma in ASG

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Italian club AS Roma will try to follow in the footsteps of Manchester United when it takes on the best players in Major League Soccer this summer.

Man U dominated MLS players in two of the league's annual all-star games, winning by a combined score of 9-2. But the top domestic league in the U.S. has never lost to another international club since it adopted its current all-star game format a decade ago.

Among the MLS victims over the years: Celtic, West Ham, Fulham and Chelsea, which was beaten 3-2 last season when the game was played at PPL Park in Chester, Pa.

"We're thrilled to be able to bring a club as historic as Roma outside of Europe and play in the U.S.," AS Roma board member Mark Pannes said Thursday in announcing the matchup.

The game will be played July 31 at Sporting Park, the home of MLS club Sporting Kansas City.

"We think this format is tremendous, when you can take the best players in MLS and play one of the best clubs from Europe," Pannes said. "It's highly challenging."

AS Roma, founded in 1927, became the first club from Serie A to be owned by foreigners when a four-man group of Americans -- including James Pallotta, a minority owner of the Celtics, and Thomas DiBenedetto, a limited partner in the Red Sox -- purchased a majority interest in August 2011.

They view the all-star game as an opportunity to build AS Roma's global brand.

"Playing in the MLS All-Star game fits in perfectly with our initiatives in the United States," said Pallotta, who serves as the club's president. "Major League Soccer has done a great job building its all-star game into a top-tier event and we're proud to participate."

AS Roma's ownership group isn't the only connection to the U.S., either.

Along with star players such as Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi, Roma is the club of midfielder Michael Bradley, who got his start in MLS and is a stalwart on the U.S. national team.

"I can't think of a better club to join us here. They're one of the most successful and popular clubs in Italy, they have tremendous players and some household names," said MLS president Mark Abbott said. "We think the format makes this game very compelling and very entertaining, and to have clubs from different leagues around the world is perfect for us."

MLS teams have mostly had their way with international clubs.

They defeated Mexican club Guadalajara in the first example of the format in 2003. After the league reverted to an East-West matchup the following year, MLS clubs knocked off Fulham, Celtic, West Ham and earned a draw with Everton in the ensuing years.

Then came the back-to-back humiliations at the hands of Manchester United.

It's that example that Roma intends to follow.

"We're bringing our entire first squad," Pannes said. "If they're healthy, they're eligible to play, we're going to put them on the field. We want to win, bottom line. We view this as a competitive match and we know the MLS views it that way as well."

Sporting KC officials also view it as a crowning achievement.

The club has gone through a rebranding and renaissance since it was purchased by its current ownership in 2006, evolving into a model MLS franchise that routinely sells out Sporting Park -- the $200 million, soccer-specific stadium that the organization opened two years ago.

Along with hosting the MLS All-Star game, the stadium will host what could be a critical World Cup qualifier between the U.S. and Jamaica in October.

"For us, it's going to be another one of those things -- we're going to try to raise the bar if we can," Sporting KC chief executive Robb Heineman said. "That's one of the things we've tried to do here as a fan base, as an ownership group and as a team is take things to the next level."

Heineman joked that he'd try to load up AS Roma's players on some of Kansas City's famous barbecue just before the game, and then expressed his admiration for the three-time Serie A champs.

"This is actually really cool for me," Heineman said. "The first international match I ever saw in Europe was a Roma-Fiorentino game that was incredible, and it kind of captivated me to think about what a future could look like in soccer. So this is kind of coming full circle for me."

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