Super Freaky Soccer Fever
MLS All-Star Game is set for a historic Reliant Stadium sell out, but theparties are an even tougher ticket
His body almost collapsing into the banquette, Houston Dynamo chief operating officer Chris Canetti surveyed the scene. Canetti was worn out, but still wide eyed.
"Super Freak!" blared out the speakers of the larger, even louder Hotel ZaZa ballroom party room next door, but this exec didn't even seem to hear Rick James. The clock was racing toward midnight, but there wasn't anything close to a pumpkin in sight.
Canetti had just found out that Wednesday night's MLS All-Star Game is almost assuredly going to be a sell out, that there were only a few thousand tickets left for the 70,000-seat, NFL-geared Reliant Stadium — that a soccer game of all things is going to be one of the top attended all-star games in any sport this decade. With even a very modest day-of-game sales figure for an event that only seems to be picking up momentum, Major League Soccer will have arguably its most important moment ever, right here in Houston.
"To know it's going to be a sellout is huge," Canetti said. "This is what we've been working toward."
Landing sports' reigning global supreme superpower Manchester United as the American soccer league's opponent was the coup that allowed it to happen of course — one of the reasons the Wall Street Journal is calling MLS's All-Star Game the most significant all-star game in professional sports. The crowds outside the Red Devils' hotel — the security force in place at ZaZa for Tuesday night's VIP party that wouldn't even let potential crashers get into the lobby — is testament to that.
In some ways, this scene is as important to soccer as the game.
The most successful all-star games in pro sports are often more about the parties than the games. At the NBA All-Star Weekend, entrance into the most buzzed-over bashes are more coveted than tickets to the game. The NFL — the first, second and third most popular sport in America right now — is built around a Super Bowl tradition where tons of people come into town to party all week and then fly out right before the actual game's kickoff.
You haven't really arrived as a sports league until the parties around your big games take on a life of their own. The MLS and really, soccer in America, is taking its first big step toward that in Houston.
"This is probably the biggest buildup we've had for an All-Star Game," MLS commissioner Don Garber said, who spent 16 years working in the NFL and knows the difference between real hype and the manufactured version that fledging leagues rely on.
Garber had come out of a private room (in any VIP party there's also a real VIP area where the actual big shots mingle) to talk to reporters. Not so long ago, the MLS would have been begging reporters to be in that team-owners-only room.
I knew that this MLS All-Star Game had gone big when people started asking me if I could get them into the parties around the game. If anyone knows that you've ever worked as a sports writer, they automatically assume that you can grant them access to anything sports related with a nod and smile. The fact that I haven't regularly covered an NFL team since Herm Edwards was coaching the New York Jets — and that the highlight of my NFL beat writing days was probably a stakeout of Bill Parcells' Jersey Shore home that had his wife giving me cookies out of pity — my neighbors continue to ask me to this day for Houston Texans' tickets.
And these same people (and others) suddenly yearned to get into soccer parties this week.
The lure of Man U and even its secondary stars like Mexican hero Javier Hernandez is unmistakable (especially with the one U.S, player who really matters — World Cup breakout star Landon Donovan — not arriving till this morning).
Several young women who'd talked their way onto the VIP list (a short enough skirt and big enough hair will still get you access almost anywhere in 2010) walked around the ZaZa party, hoping to run into a Red Devil, only to find red-faced businessmen instead.
The players mostly loathe these corporate-type affairs and many of Manchester United's players reportedly dined at Stella Sola instead.
"I can't believe none of the guys are here," said one crasher who gave her name as Maria Sanchez — with a wink. "I squeezed into this dress for this?"
Despite that wasted feat of physics, more than 800 VIPs mingled late into the night — included many of Houston's most recognizable party frequenters (yes, Miya Shay was there), along with most of the MLS league office, LA Galaxy owner Philip Anschutz, the billionaire who's graced the cover of Forbes, and Bob Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots.
"We should have brought this game to Houston a long time ago," Garber said, looking around the sea of humanity stretching out before him.
There's no party like a soccer party. Who knew?