Neal: Even soccer snobs have to admit, MLS is improving

There are two distinct groups of soccer fans in the Twin Cities. Loons fans, consisting of soccer moms and dads, plus the bicycle-riding, craft beer-drinking hipsters.

There is also a large group of expatriates who couldn’t care less about the Loons/MLS because it remains a retirement league and is not on par with top European leagues.

I call the latter group soccer snobs. This group piles into spots like Brit’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis to watch EPL matches and the Champions League clashes.

The soccer snobs in this town must admit that MLS has come quite a way since its Inaugural season in 1996. This was underscored a few minutes following the opening kickoff of the MLS All-Stars’ Showdown against a team of Liga MX Stars, a game the MLS players went on to win 2-1 in front of a sellout crowd of 19,797 on a warm evening in St. Paul.

Working down the left flank, defender Diego Palacios delivered a fine cross to the far post, where LAFC teammate — and former Mexico star — Carlos Vela nodded it home to open the scoring at the three-minute mark.

The crowd at Allianz Field erupted. Ten years ago, it didn’t seem possible that such a moment would happen in a soccer-specific stadium in Minnesota. But this is a league looking to expand to a whopping 30 teams. And the Loons, in their sixth year in MLS, were fine All-Star Game hosts.

A drone, dressed up as a loon, cruised around the field before the game. At halftime, messages of support came from local sports stars including Anthony Edwards, Justin Morneau, Nate Prosser, Rachel Banham and Rocco Baldelli. A fan even ran onto the pitch in the 53rd minute to hug Paul Arriola, who had scored a goal that was disallowed because of offsides. The poor guy got escorted out of the stadium for a goal that didn’t even count.

Team MLS led 2-0 until the 84th minute, when Kevin Alvarez of Liga MX drilled a 20-yard shot from just outside the box that had MLS goalkeeper Sean Johnson diving at a vapor trail. We suddenly found out how many Liga MX fans were in attendance as they let loose a few cheers, including one that required a warning from the stadium announcer. Team MLS held on, with Loons goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair winning MVP honors.

There was something for everyone on Wednesday.

MLS is developing its own talent, such as Jordan Morris, while also appealing to accomplished players such as Vela and Chicharito. The three were the starting forwards in a 4-3-3 formation deployed by MLS Coach — and Minnesota United Coach — Adrian Heath.

This is not an attempt to put MLS up with Europe’s top leagues. But MLS is a far cry from its early years when, occasionally, someone would get on the end of a cross and shank one into Row 30.

Today’s MLS has players who are fast, skilled, smart and creative. The league is involved in the international soccer economy more than ever.

“With the investment MLS has made in its rosters and attacking talent, overall, it’s a huge difference in talent,” MLS All-Stars defender Walker Zimmerman said. “And you look at the depth of the roster, some of the guys who aren’t playing would have been penciled in as starters 10 years ago.”

Young players are sold for eight-figure transfer fees and the league just saw Gareth Bale, Giorgio Chiellini and Christian Benteke join during its secondary transfer window.

Meanwhile, the stakes have been raised in MLS thanks to players who suited up for the All-Star Game at Allianz Field. Zimmerman is a stalwart of Team USA’s back line. Forward Jesus Ferreira could be USA’s No. 9 in November in Qatar. They were joined by other stars such as Raul Ruidiaz, who converted a penalty kick in the 72nd minute for MLS’ second goal, Paul Arriola and Darlington Nagbe.

A night like this made it easier for me to forget about the soccer snobs. Let’em get up at 6 am to watch EPL games every weekend. I have the option of sleeping in and waiting for MLS.

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