The 21st annual MLS All-Star Game kicks off on Thursday night, as a collection of the league’s best players take on Premier League giants Arsenal FC at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, California. The match will be broadcast live on ESPN in the US and Sky Sports in the UK, as a sellout crowd sees MLS stars tested against one of England’s top teams.
Fans in attendance and viewers around the globe will be treated to David Villa, Didier Drogba, Clint Dempsey and Sebastian Giovinco up against the likes of Petr Cech, Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott and new signing Granit Xhaka ahead of Arsenal’s 2016-17 Premier League season.
The event is meant to be a showcase of the league’s best players and one of Europe’s top squads in an entertaining exhibition. However, in some ways, the All-Star Game can do more harm than good in the overall development of MLS.
An All-Star game is one of the classic traditions in North American sports. All four of the top leagues in the US (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) provide a matchup of the best players at some point in the season squaring off, normally at the midway point of their calendar. MLS is no exception here, and have held various formats for their showpiece match throughout the years.
Originally, the game was set up as Eastern Conference versus Western Conference and one year even pitted a team of MLS All-Stars against the US national team in what was a truly bizarre affair (2002). Since 2005, the league has adopted the format of bringing in a well-known European club to face off against a collective league squad regardless of conferences, with both Manchester United and Bayern Munich having made the trip stateside recently.
The event has gained some enormous popularity during this time and has fit in well with the summer friendlies that are normally taking place throughout the country during the European preseason. For better or worse, MLS is judged by how its All-Star team performs in these contests.
And that is why they may have reached a point where returning to an East versus West format would ultimately be more beneficial.
These friendlies set up a no-win situation for MLS and its players.
If the All-Star squad defeats the European opposition, as they did in 2012 against Chelsea, the win is chalked up to simply being a meaningless exhibition. The MLS players are in midseason form as Europe begins its preseason, and many visiting clubs do not bring their full first-team roster (Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud will not be taking part in the match for Arsenal on Thursday night).
If the European squad wins, as Manchester United did 4-0 in the summer of 2011, it only proves how far the league has to come to truly earn the respect of the global game. A collection of MLS players, no matter how talented, cannot practice for a day or two and then be expected to run rampant all over a championship team from one of Europe’s best leagues.
And results like Manchester United in 2011 only make the league’s progress look minimal.
No league anywhere in the world should be judged by one game, and certainly not an exhibition game at that. An East versus West format would accomplish all of the things that the current setup is after, showcasing the best players in a fun and entertaining environment for fans and TV viewers.
Perhaps they could even include some motivation for the players in the game with the adoption of a rule from Major League Baseball. MLB’s two leagues battle in the All-Star game to have their respective division gain home advantage in the World Series. Currently, MLS Cup is hosted by whichever of the two participating teams had the best regular season record throughout the year’s campaign. The MLS All-Star Game could decide this cup final location by either the Eastern or Western Conferences being victorious in the contest.
While not a perfect stipulation, it might provide a greater incentive to make the game more competitive than just your average friendly match.
Having said all of that, this idea would unfortunately only fall on deaf ears.
The All-Star Game is major cashgrab for MLS that few in the league’s management office would want to change, as high ticket prices and television revenue make the outing a very worthwhile business venture. However, for the reputation of the league and even the state of soccer in the US, MLS should consider a format that casts its product in the best possible light.
Roles and perceptions are difficult to change, in life and in global football. The big teams win and the small teams lose. But MLS needs to let their own teams shape those perceptions instead of an exhibition game.
Roy Emanuel, TFN International Correspondent on 27/07/2016 at 10:31
Follow Roy on Twitter @roy13a