The annual growth of Major League Soccer is backed by evidence of expansion teams, increased attendance figures and the return of national team players into the league.
The decisions from Sporting Kansas City stars Matt Besler and Graham Zusi to rebuff overseas opportunities and stay in the MLS provided the latest examples. And a couple of additions lined up for next season — Spanish striker David Villa and Brazilian player Kaka — will further confirm the league’s swelling stability.
But if the MLS is to reach commissioner Don Garber’s goal of being one of the world’s premier soccer leagues by 2022, it must close the gap in terms of competition.
How big is that gap? Well, Sporting KC has the opportunity to play a part in the answer.
Sporting Kansas City will play host to Manchester City, the reigning champions of the English Premier League, at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Sporting Park.
The winning team will receive the Champions’ Shield, but the match is purely an exhibition, and the home team plans to treat it as such. Kind of.
“It’s always important to make sure when we’re playing any international match that we perform well and continue to raise the profile of the league. All of these games have a certain significance,” coach Peter Vermes said. “But I don’t want to over play it from the point of view that we’re in the running for our league at the moment. And playing an exhibition in the middle of the season — as much as it’s good for an event for all these other things — is not the focus.”
The focus, of course, remains the MLS season. In that sense, the exhibition Wednesday doesn’t make for great timing. Sporting KC, leaders of the Eastern Conference, travels to face third-place Toronto FC on Saturday.
But the chance to represent the league — and its aforementioned growth — will play a factor, midfielder Benny Feilhaber said.
“(There) is pride to represent MLS, our club, our fans and ourselves,” Feilhaber said. “There’s a lot of things we take into consideration. But most importantly, (we want) to test ourselves and stay healthy.”
Sporting KC is looking to maintain an unbeaten record (1-0-2) against EPL teams. It defeated Manchester United 2-1 in a match played at Arrowhead Stadium in 2010. A year later, it played to a scoreless draw against Newcastle United. And it tied Stoke City, 1-1, in 2012.
There will be no draw Wednesday. The teams will go directly to penalty kicks if the score is tied after regulation.
Vermes said he plans to play two waves of lineups Wednesday, which would equate to more playing time for a contingent of the team’s younger players. It would also likely include the Sporting KC debut for Honduran midfielder Jorge Claros, Vermes said.
The lineup for Manchester City is much less clear. The club is scheduled to play four matches during its U.S. tour — though Sporting Kansas City is its only MLS foe.
Manchester City had 10 players featured in the World Cup, none of which made the trip to Kansas City. But that hardly leaves the cupboard bare for a club that has won two of the past three EPL championships.
“They’re a great team obviously,” Feilhaber said. “It’s their preseason game. We don’t know how fit they’re going to be and how much they’re going to put into it, but for us, I think it’s a good test. It will be fun for the fans. ... It’s always exciting to test yourself against a top club and top players.”