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Orlando in mix to host sprawling MLS All-Star event in next five years

SoccerMajor League SoccerOrlando City LionsBayern MunichPortland TimbersThe Flaming Lips (music group)Manchester United F.C.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The miniature soccer field in the center of Pioneer Courthouse Square was alive with movement Monday afternoon. A young fan with a soccer ball slalomed between grown men who wore their button-down shirts untucked for a lunch-break kickaround.

It was a strange scene, and yet it hardly felt out of place.

One of the country's most soccer-intense cities is awash this week in the spectacle of Major League Soccer's All-Star Game festivities. It is impossible to avoid the forest green banners advertising the game. They greet visitors in the Portland airport and plaster the city's sidewalks. The logo adorns hotel doors and is pinned to the bellhops' lapels. Pioneer Courthouse Square in the heart of downtown houses the "MLS Experience."

"Portland [is] dressed as much or more than it has ever been," said Drew Mahalic, chief executive of the Oregon Sports Authority. "It is a week unlike any other that Portland has ever hosted."

The panorama may soon be coming to the City Beautiful.

As part of Orlando City's funding agreement with the Orange County Board of Commissioners for a downtown stadium, MLS agreed to bring the All-Star Game to Orlando within the next five years. Orlando City is aiming to host the game in 2017 or 2018.

"It's another example of how we can utilize all our resources that we have in Central Florida, as the world's most visited city, to bring new people to the market and expose Orlando to more and more markets and more and more opportunities," Orlando City chief operating officer Brett Lashbrook said. "Not just domestically and to Canada, but also internationally."

As MLS has grown during the past two decades, so too has the midseason contest featuring the league's brightest stars. The MLS All-Star Game has become a "crown jewel event" of the 19-year-old league, according to Mark Abbott, the league's president and deputy commissioner.

The league altered its format in recent years, matching up a team of its all-stars against an international opponent. This year the MLS squad, featuring eight members of the U.S. World Cup team, will play Bayern Munich, the German Bundesliga champion. Bayern Munich's roster includes six players from this summer's World Cup champion German team.

Kickoff is set for 9:30 p.m. The game will air on ESPN2. The Portland Timbers' home stadium, Providence Park, is sold out.

The change to the international format — MLS had previously used mostly an East versus West format — had a big impact on the popularity of the event.

The 2010 game in Houston, a 5-2 loss to Manchester United, drew 70,728. At the time, it was the largest crowd in the NFL stadium's history. The MLS all-star team beat Chelsea by a score of 3-2 in 2012 in Philadelphia and lost 3-1 to Roma last year in Kansas City.

"There's something about taking our best and putting it up against the world's best," Lashbrook said. "MLS is this growing and emerging league. It's just another thing for us to measure ourselves."

MLS also worked to dress the game up during the past few years, with several events held over the course of the week. This year, that included a "homegrown game" featuring MLS' top young prospects against the Portland Timbers under-23 team, a free Flaming Lips concert, a Special Olympics soccer game and team practices open to the public. Thousands of fans attended Bayern Munich's training session on Tuesday afternoon.

The result is an event that has brought thousands of visitors to Portland. It has also drawn reporters from across the country to the Pacific Northwest, and the game will be aired in more than 150 countries around the world — essentially a two-hour advertisement for the 29th-largest city in the U.S.

The All-Star Game has become another key avenue MLS can use to help boost its audience domestically, both around the country and within a league market.

"The hotels are filled … and there will be lots of entertainment dollars spent throughout the city, which will be great for the economy," Mahalic said. "When you add in the money spent, the travel that has been generated, the national visibility and international visibility, it's certainly a very substantial economic impact that would be measured in the millions for sure."

Orlando is still early in the process of identifying an ideal year to bid for an All-Star Game.

After deciding to move the Lions' new stadium site was moved one block west in downtown Orlando, construction is expected to begin on the venue this fall and be ready for the team's home opener in 2016.

Orlando City would ideally not host the game in 2015, when it is playing in the renovated Citrus Bowl. The team would prefer not to host the game in 2016, its first year in the new soccer-specific stadium. The club also will have to accommodate MLS' schedule and previous agreements.

As part of the funding agreement with Orange County, the team also agreed to stage multiple games against international opponents during the next five years.

"We know they're interested in bidding for it," Abbott said. "And that's something we look forward to, at the right time, having that conversation with them about it."

With dreams of being the next big success story in MLS, Orlando City officials hope to replicate the success of the all-star week here in Portland.

"I think this is just another example of bringing landmark soccer events to Central Florida," Lashbrook said. "And that's what Orlando City is absolutely committed to doing. It's what we committed to doing before the stadium vote, it's what we're committed to doing now in MLS."

ptenorio@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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SoccerMajor League SoccerOrlando City LionsBayern MunichPortland TimbersThe Flaming Lips (music group)Manchester United F.C.
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