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DENVER - It only took 10 years, but the Colorado Rapids have wasted no time in making an overnight splash on the international soccer scene.

Colorado takes center stage in stateside soccer in 2007 with the grand opening of its state-of-the-art soccer specific stadium April 7 in the league's nationally televised opening match between the Rapids and D.C. United. They've also earned a spot hosting first round competition in the inaugural SuperLiga tournament between top U.S. and Mexican teams. And now, as announced in Denver on Thursday, Colorado will host the 2007 MLS All-Star Game.

"I'm very pleased to announce that the 2007 Sierra Mist MLS All-Star Game will take place on July 19 in the heart of Colorado at Dick's Sporting Goods Park," said MLS Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis. "It will feature the best players in Major League Soccer against one of the legendary and historic clubs in all the world, Celtic FC, the current Scottish Premier League champions."

Celtic FC's participation will make it three consecutive years and four of the last five that the mid-summer All-Star Game has featured the best from the MLS taking on a prestigious soccer club from abroad, with MLS winning all three - a 3-1 victory against CD Guadalajara in 2003, a 4-1 defeat of Fulham FC in 2005, and last year's 1-0 squeaker against Chelsea FC.

For their part, in addition to their claim as the reigning Scottish Premier League champions, Celtic is currently in first place in Scotland, having lost only once in their last 25 games. They qualified for the knockout round in the UEFA Champions League last November with a 1-0 upset of Manchester United, and will face Italian superpower AC Milan in a home-and-home series beginning next month.

"There is definitely more and more interest in participating in this event," Gazidis said of the enthusiasm elite clubs like Celtic FC bring to an All-Star showdown. "The event itself has an international profile, and the fact that MLS teams have been able to compete successfully in it means the teams that take part know that they have to take it seriously or be embarrassed on a global scale."

Alongside Celtic FC's on-field prominence in the world of soccer, they are also one of the best supported clubs internationally, averaging more than 57,000 fans a game at home and boasting 41 supporter clubs in the United States and another 26 clubs in Canada. Rapids Managing Director Jeff Plush gave fair warning to Colorado residents of the expected descent on Denver among Celtic enthusiasts.

"I think you'll see 10,000 people wearing green and white hoops around town," Plush said, referring to the club's signature jersey complete with shamrock crest.

"It will be a tough test for our players," Gazidis emphasized. "They're playing against a club that's 120 years old. We're only 11 years old. We ourselves think we're up to the test. We like to match ourselves up against the best in the world, and we believe Celtic certainly represent that."

The privilege of hosting the prestigious event represents a coup for the Rapids, who are raising their own profile at the same time that MLS is thriving on its heightened international exposure. The league will see a new Toronto team come to the league, two new soccer specific stadiums open in '07, four new national television agreements embarked upon, and perhaps most exciting of all, some of the world's most prominent players attracted to the league through the designated player initiative, bringing the likes of Claudio Reyna (New York Red Bulls) and David Beckham (Los Angeles Galaxy) to the United States. And, yes, Beckham will be eligible to participate in the match, should he be selected either by fan voting or by one of two commissioner's picks.

"We've been quietly building an infrastructure over the last 10 years for a professional sport in this country," Gazidis said, noting the various initiatives to raise the sports profile at home and the league's stature worldwide. "We would rather it weren't being done quietly. It's gone largely unnoticed, but there have been some extraordinary developments. A lot of people are very focused on the signing of David Beckham, and rightly so. It's a very important and public step that we're making. But in fact, it's one of a series of steps."

Soccer is unique among the major sports in the United States in that the sport already has the global presence that other sports yearn for but must continue to strive to build a substantial following at home.

"As we see demographic changes in this country, as we see the increase in immigrant populations, we see our youth becoming more and more connected with the rest of the world through multiple television channels where they can watch soccer heroes from all around the world and through the internet where they can read and get information about their soccer heroes from all around the world," Gazidis said. "These changes that are happening in our society are really driven globally. Today a kid that grows up here in Denver has a lot in common with a kid that's growing up in Shanghai. It's a very important part of our strategy, connecting ourselves with that global soccer community."

Colorado Governor Bill Ritter served as the personification of a perfect case in point of the journey soccer continues to make in establishing itself stateside.

"I never played soccer as a child," Ritter said, smiling at his early soccer memories. "We're from a little farm family. One of my brothers played goalie, and the coach had to actually tell him mid-game that he could use his hands. So this is how far it's come.

"My kids all played soccer," Ritter continued. "I think that's been one of the ways this has grown into the sport that it has. We're still in the process of evolving, but all of my children played, I watched all of their games, and I got excited about soccer because of that."

The excitement of the MLS All-Star Game will mark Colorado's fifth professional all-star game in the past 10 years, having previously hosted games for Major League Baseball in 1998, the NHL in 2001, the National Lacrosse League in '04, and the NBA in '05, the last three all hosted by Rapids owners Kroenke Sports Enterprises.

"We know how to do this," said Ritter of Denver's All-Star hosting history, comparing the event's international significance to the Democratic National Convention that Denver will host in 2008. "It's a great thing to have happen for the state of Colorado and for this metro area."

Details of additional events surrounding the All-Star Game are not yet completed, but MLS's "Soccer Celebration," a fan-oriented festival of all things soccer, will be held in Denver as part of the festivities, Commissioner Don Garber will give his mid-season State of the League address in Denver, Celtic FC will likely hold an open practice, and various youth soccer tournaments, games, and skills competition will be in the mix, with plenty of opportunity to interact directly with the MLS All-Stars.

Tickets are currently available only to Rapids season ticket holders, included at no extra charge as part of their season ticket package. After allowing time for additional season ticket sales, the Rapids will open up sales to Celtic FC's North American supporters clubs and then finally to the general public.

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quote:Originally posted by jasonm

"I'm very pleased to announce that the 2007 Sierra Mist MLS All-Star Game will take place on July 19 in the heart of Colorado at Dick's Sporting Goods Park," said MLS Deputy Commissioner Ivan Gazidis. "It will feature the best players in Major League Soccer against one of the legendary and historic clubs in all the world, Celtic FC, the current Scottish Premier League champions."

I'm probably about the millionth person to ask this, but will the media refer to the stadium as "the Dick"?
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