ORLANDO, Fla. — Uruguayan soccer legend Diego Forlán certainly approves of the venue for the 2019 MLS All-Star Game.
Forlán was in Orlando during the weekend as Atlético Madrid’s ambassador ahead of the marquee match, which will pit Atlético against the best players in Major League Soccer at Orlando City Stadium.
He loves the pitch – he called the grass perfect. He loves how close the seats are to the action. It’s the kind of place he’d like to play – just being there on a tour with some of Orlando City’s players made him want to kick a ball around.
“It’s beautiful,” he said of the venue during an exclusive interview with Pro Soccer USA before Orlando City’s match against Toronto FC Saturday. “It’s a great stadium. Everybody’s close. Like, it was before in MLS, they were at the big stadiums, it was more … cold. As a player, you don’t like to play like that.”
Forlán’s views on stadiums across the world carry weight. He’s a World Cup veteran who won the 2010 Golden Ball for his play in South Africa. During his time with Atlético Madrid from 2007 to 2011, he scored more than 70 goals. He’s a Copa America champion.
Orlando City Stadium is just one sign that MLS is growing, Forlán said.
“This is a great country,” he said. “One of the biggest countries in the world. Powerful country, and when they try to do something, they want to do it really well. They have the vision, the people. The project, they try to do it really well. I’m not surprised they’re doing this kind of stadium.
“It’s great that they’re doing that, because it changes everything. Also, for the players, for the club it’s better when it’s more tight and it’s close. For the views on TV, when you watch it from other parts of the world and you see that the stadium is full, it doesn’t matter, it’s going to be big.”
Forlán has also looked at the business aspect of MLS when compared to other leagues worldwide. He said while the game in the United States is growing, it’s not set to challenge the European leagues just yet.
“Milan, Inter Milan, you can say to any player here that they’re really enjoying playing in the [United States] and they say you have an offer and maybe you have less money to go to Europe and these kinds of teams and everybody would say yes.
“There’s clubs for more than 100 years. That’s a lot of history. Now, you are making history, but it will take years. I don’t know in the future because we’re not going to be here.”
He said competing with the European leagues shouldn’t be the top priority for MLS. European soccer is continuing to grow. MLS – soccer in America in general – needs to focus on growth first before taking on leagues overseas, he said.
“It’s like golf, for example,” he said. “European Tour is great, but which one is better? PGA. Everyone wants to play [golf] here because it’s better money.”
Plus, he’s noticed teams abroad are trying to reach the United States. Several teams from outside the States have looked to establish audiences within the U.S. – Atlético Madrid is just the latest European giant to face the MLS all-stars. There are also preseason tournaments featuring European teams.
“There’s a lot of fans,” he said. “A lot of people from all over the world here and the American people [are] getting to know more about football. It’s also a great place to do a preseason. You can get good games. You can prepare well, get rhythm for the next season that is coming up. Also, it’s good weather, good place for the players.”
He added players won’t get swarmed by fans outside their hotel every day in the U.S. and the quality of competition has improved.
Still, he doesn’t see something like the MLS All-Star Game, where players from all over the league join forces, ever taking hold in La Liga.
“It’s nice to watch… like [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic, [Wayne] Rooney, Nani and many other players, they never play together, to have the opportunity, they’ve been playing against each other for many years, but now, maybe for one day, they’re going to play only one game,” He said. “It’s good.”
Forlán said he’s kept an eye on leagues around the world, including MLS. He enjoys watching sports, but he’s also a fan of a few popular TV shows. He’s not caught up on the popular HBO series Game of Thrones just yet. That show will wait until he doesn’t have to watch one episode per week to find out what happens next.
He does have a threshold for what he’s willing to put up with when it comes to sports before he switches to something else.
“I watch,” he said. “I watch soccer. I watch a lot of sports. I like NFL. I watch NBA now with the playoffs. But if the games are nice, I watch. If it’s boring and it’s not, I change the channel. I start watching TV shows, I don’t know, something interesting. I start reading a book.
“Not every game. If MLS is a good game, I watch it. If it’s a bad game, I change it. It doesn’t matter if it’s MLS, La Liga, Premier League. … But then, I watch highlights.”