All-star game in Utah puts soccer focus on RSL

Sports » Top players to converge on Utah, but tourist presence likely to be subdued.
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It's the moment Real Salt Lake has been waiting for.

Not even a year after opening its resplendent new stadium, the once-beleaguered team will spend the next few days at the epicenter of American soccer with the arrival of Wednesday night's annual Major League Soccer All-Star Game. Armed with stars such as Landon Donovan, Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Kasey Keller, the MLS All-Stars will take on Everton FC of the powerful English Premier League in what the league likes to call the most compelling all-star game in sports.

"It's going to be something special," RSL's Kyle Beckerman said.

The game will be televised on ESPN2 and seen in 150 countries, with a sellout crowd expected at Rio Tinto Stadium and a number of special events -- including an autograph session and concert in Park City -- leading up to the game. RSL's Javier Morales will join Beckerman as participants in the game, giving the home fans some favorites to cheer.

And there should be plenty of home fans.

Team and league officials expect the majority of fans to be local, unlike all-star games in some other sports whose flash and glamour can attract the glitterati from around the country.

Part of the reason is not just because the game is in Utah -- not exactly New York or Las Vegas -- but because it's on a weeknight buffeted by big soccer weekends. Many of the players are not even expected to arrive until today because of their participation with the U.S. men's national team in the Gold Cup final in New Jersey on Sunday, while next weekend begins a stretch of some high-profile exhibition games involving FC Barcelona and Real Madrid in cities around MLS. The massively popular World Football Challenge also is ongoing, with soccer giants Inter Milan, Chelsea and Club America.

All of that, plus the economy, figures to keep the influx of tourists relatively subdued.

Still, bringing some of the best players in the game to its stadium will be a huge thrill for RSL, and the players welcome the chance to play against Everton -- one of Europe's top teams, even if it's still working through preparations for its upcoming season. The MLS All-Stars are unbeaten against international opponents since the league changed the format of the game four years ago.

"There's a genuine excitement now from the players to play in these games," Donovan said. "We realized quickly that our opponents come to these games and take them very seriously. ... But for me, the most exciting part is always playing with the great players around the league that I get to watch every week. And that is going to be a lot of fun."