Friendlies: The case for and against
There are two schools of thought when it comes to Major League Soccer teams hosting global juggernauts during the European preseason.
One way of looking at it is that iconic clubs such as Chelsea and Real Madrid have been barnstorming the United States almost every July and August for more than a decade now, and it's a sign of progress -- not to mention a way to generate valuable income and exposure -- that they're willing to play North American teams (and each other) to prepare for their domestic campaigns. Europe's top clubs generally weren't willing to do this previously.
The other side of the argument comes from those who believe these games are a lose-lose proposition for the local sides: If an MLS team happens to pull off an upset, it's because the giant was just finding its feet following a lengthy break. If the MLS club is on the wrong end of a lopsided result, it perpetuates the idea that the professional team closest to home isn't worthy of support.
The conversation is likely to heat up again in the coming weeks, as the annual summer friendly schedule gathers steam: Following last weekend's entertaining 3-3 draw between Tottenham Hotspur and the Seattle Sounders, Wednesday's slate includes three MLS vs. Premier League tilts: Tottenham at Toronto FC (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN), EPL champ Manchester City at MLS titleholder Sporting Kansas City (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN) and Manchester United vs. the L.A. Galaxy (10:30 p.m. ET) at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
Both sides have merit. Who is right? That probably depends on who you ask.
"The most import thing -- forget about the result, forget about what's going on with the score -- is focusing on playing as well as possible for the people who come to see us," said Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola, whose all-world team will meet the MLS All-Stars in Portland on Aug. 6. "In the end, football is just for that."
Still, a team such as Bayern is always expected to win, even during the preseason and even against players in midseason form. You can be sure Guardiola doesn't want to suffer the same fate Chelsea did in 2012, when the best of MLS beat the reigning Champions League champ in Philadelphia (dating back to 2005, MLS has won five of nine All-Star games).
Meantime, domestic players -- most of whom will never graduate to the international level or one of the planet's best leagues -- relish the opportunity to test themselves against opponents they normally see only on television.
Boiled down, the truth is that these games matter, even if by definition they don't.
"The All-Star Game against Chelsea two years ago was awesome, because we won," said defender Matt Besler, then an uncapped player who used the exposure to boost his stock with the U.S. national team. "The Roma game last year was fun, but we lost, so it wasn't as big for the league."
For individual franchises, the opportunity these matches present is even bigger. Besler recalls how SKC -- known as the Kansas City Wizards at the time -- used their shocking victory over Manchester United in 2010 as the catalyst to becoming one of the continent's marquee clubs.
"That was the start of Kansas City turning into a soccer city," Besler said. "The buzz after the game was incredible, and I really believe that a lot of people became fans of our organization after that game."
A victory over Man City on Wednesday probably wouldn't have the same impact, but in a way it would be even more impressive. According to the most recent ESPN The Magazine/SportingIntelligence survey of global salaries, the Prem champions have had the highest payroll in all of professional sports for two years running, with a 2014 outlay of almost $203 million. That's more than 30 times what SKC spends on its players, even when you account for the long-term, seven-figure contracts recently signed by Besler and Graham Zusi.
There's also more attention on these high-profile exhibitions than ever before as soccer's stateside profile continues to grow. Many matches between MLS teams and European giants will be televised nationally this year, with six games airing on ESPN or ESPN2. (In years past, many of these games were aired on the now-defunct Fox Soccer, which was available in far fewer households.)
"The reality is still that these games are important for the league," Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley, who played against the MLS All-Stars last year as a member of Roma, told the Canadian media this week. "It's important that when we have these opportunities, we play well and we play in a way that represents the league in a good way."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.