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Aug 7, 2006

Postgame celebrations were overkill

The MLS All-Star Game had almost everything you could ask for if you were a Major League Soccer fan. There was a memorable effort by the MLS All-Stars, a high-quality goal by Dwayne De Rosario and a victory against mighty English champions Chelsea. When the game ended, though, things got a bit ugly.

There were celebrations, a trophy presentation and the painful sight of confetti cannons being shot off after MLS All-Stars won an exhibition match. Yes, you read that right. The league's best won a friendly, 1-0, against a European club playing its first preseason match and the league treated it as if it were celebrating a Champions League title.

Call the painful scene a product of finally having some real ammunition to show the league's detractors that MLS does play some quality soccer. That is, if you believe a win in an exhibition against a team just starting its preseason is some sort of landmark moment for the league. Don't believe the hype. The win wasn't meaningless, but it was nowhere near as meaningful as the match's broadcast and several articles written in the aftermath would suggest.

The MLS All-Stars deserved a chance to celebrate to some degree. It isn't every day you can go on the field against a team of superstars and outplay them, regardless of the circumstances. But the hyperbole that ensued was really tough to stomach.

When will the league, its players and its fans stop trying so desperately to gain approval from the segment of the soccer-loving population in this country that just doesn't care much for MLS? That is what Saturday's desperate display of "Hey, we really are a good league" was about. It was about players who have heard over and over how inferior MLS is compared with Europe's top leagues and about league officials who know full well there are far more people in the United States who follow European soccer than follow MLS.

Saturday's win wasn't totally meaningless. It offered a good glimpse of some of the quality in MLS, and it also served as clear evidence of what casual fans don't often realize about the league, that it is one of the fittest in the world. Playing soccer in the hot summer months in the United States isn't easy, and Chelsea -- which wasn't even at a proper fitness level for the cool climate in England -- felt the burn of playing in the sweltering Chicago sun. And no, the win wasn't just a product of fitness. De Rosario's skill and the tenacity and intelligence of the MLS defense were there for all to see.

As expected, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho spent more time reminding people that his team was early in its preseason than he did praising the effort of the MLS players. No one would confuse Mourinho's behavior with being gracious, but his comments were true. Call them excuses if you want, but you can rest assured that a similar matchup between those same players played in February or March would yield a different result. Is that a fact? No, but it is a strong likelihood.

You heard repeatedly about how the win could change the minds of many who have written MLS off as being too inferior a product to follow. Don't hold your breath on that one. Although there will be some casual observers who give MLS a closer look after Saturday, there will be no tangible dent in the demographic MLS was hoping to convert. American fans who prefer European soccer won't be swayed by the result of a friendly. If anything, many of them probably looked at the postmatch mess and chuckled at the amateurishness of it all.

If the league truly wants to convert the skeptics who ignore it, it can start by spending more money on players than on marketing, as well as spending more time marketing its own teams than it does marketing summer tours. It can loosen the purse strings not only to pay its current players a respectable wage but also so it can attract more quality foreign players, something it has failed to do in recent years. The league is making great strides in terms of securing sponsorship deals and building stadiums, but it must stop ignoring the product on the field, which has improved but has far more room for growth.

The biggest impact of Saturday's win by the MLS All-Stars isn't in the fans it converted but in the fans it reassured. It isn't easy being an MLS fan. Whether faced with minimal media coverage or with having to go to games in stadiums where crowds are modest -- nearly nonexistent in some cases -- MLS fans continue supporting their league. Those fans came away from Saturday feeling better about the league they follow.

Major League Soccer's fans and players should feel a sense of pride about Saturday, but calling the win a landmark moment is an injustice to a league that deserves more respect than that. Let the MLS doubters be the ones who are surprised by results such as Saturday's. The true landmark moment will come when MLS beats a team like Chelsea and treats it like just another match.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.