There are some rather important lessons to be learned from this week’s MLS All-Star game. As these occasions go, this was one of the better games, featuring, for most of the time, Bayern Reserves rather than Bayern Munich.
But it had its sour moments. For starters, Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola could learn a thing or two about common courtesy and class behavior. His post-game snub of MLS coach Caleb Porter was appalling -- refusing a handshake, preferring to wave an admonitory finger in Porter’s direction.
We have Sunil Gulati’s word for it that it all ended well between the two. Maybe so, but there was no excuse for this public rudeness, which was both churlish and childish.
Whatever the provocation. And there was some provocation. What upset Guardiola and left Porter looking uncomfortable, if not actually apologetic, were some examples of excessively physical play by the All-Stars.
What we’re looking at here is a fundamental problem with the All-Star game. It is not a soccer tradition. It’s roots are in baseball and other American sports. All-Star games do not exist, to my knowledge, in any soccer country.
None of that would be of any consequence if MLS kept its All-Star game to itself. Made it an internal affair -- East vs West, Americans vs. Imports, that type of thing, ideas that have been tried before but which, it seems, don’t electrify the fans.
So the idea of international opposition was taken up in 2005. An idea that radically altered the landscape. Now the All-Star game was not just a domestic mid-season fun fest, giving fans a chance to see all the stars in one friendly game. It became, immediately, an occasion by which the caliber of MLS could be measured against the world. (There was also, still is, a hint that at least some of the All-Stars see the game as an opportunity to impress the Europeans).
Some success (the 3-2 win over Chelsea in 2012 was the highlight) has been largely offset by stern lessons inflicted by ManU and Roma. This year, the confidence of the MLS All-Stars was evidently high, a feeling that “we” were good enough to give Bayern Munich a run for its money.
That was an enthusiasm based largely on the decidedly suspect evidence of a 1-2-1 win-loss-tie World Cup record. But Jurgen Klinsmann said that was a great performance (well, he would, wouldn’t he?), so look out Bayern. MLS was out to prove that it couldn’t be kicked around.
Suddenly the All-Star game is not a fun fest. It has become a test of MLS maturity. The league’s machismo is being tested. In that atmosphere, it’s hardly surprising that a determination not to take any kicks might easily brim over into a willingness to deliver kicks.
What Bayern had every right to expect -- a preseason warm-up game, a chance to look at the Bayern youngsters, above all a mildly competitive game free of injuries -- was not what the MLS All-Stars had in mind.
There you have the birth of two heavy second-half tackles that angered Guardiola. Osvaldo Alonso going in hard on Xherdan Shaqiri, then Will Johnson recklessly challenging Bastian Schweinsteiger. Unfortunately, Porter has some responsibility here, for both Alonso and Johnson were his own additions to the roster.
But the tone of the MLS team had already been set by an original lineup including Aurelien Collin, Tim Cahill. Add in Maurice Edu along with Alonso and Johnson and you have a team virtually guaranteed to collect a card or two. Both Alonso and Johnson did get yellow cards for their efforts. Schweinsteiger got a bruised ankle.
“We will prepare better ...” said Guardiola. Presumably meaning next time. It sounded more like a threat than a commitment. Why would he want a repeat? Revenge for a meaningless defeat? Why would any European team (or South American team, should MLS ever get around to inviting one) want to get involved in an exhibition game involving a snarling opponent determined to show that it’s not a pushover?
An MLS All-Star team playing a top European club team sounds like a great idea but in fact it raises difficulties that are not easy to overcome. The concept is unknown to the rest of the soccer world and therefore unlikely to be taken seriously.
The timing -- dictated by the MLS season -- is not good for the Europeans, who are not yet ready for a blood and thunder type game. And from now on, you can be sure that is the sort of game that MLS will want -- trying to prove that Don Garber’s vision of MLS as one of the world’s top leagues is not a silly dream.
But it’s going to soundsilly if the game results in claims of a “win over Bayern Munich” which everyone knows is not the truth of the matter.
Hidden in this is a lesson for MLS. It is quite clear from the players made available to Porter that MLS is happy to present itself as a physical league. We have even been told by referee Mark Geiger that MLS referees have been instructed to ignore certain fouls in the interests of a “game-flow model.”
Whatever that game-flow model is, Guardiola clearly didn’t think much of it. Nor, I assume, will any other coach trying to get his team fit for an upcoming season be too pleased.
For the moment, the All-Star game doesn’t fit in with the global game. Not in terms of scheduling; nor can it make much sense if one team is treating it as a serious endeavor while the other is playing below full strength and trying to ensure that none of its players gets injured. Double the importance of that last consideration if we really are dealing with deliberately lax refereeing.
If the game cannot be imbued with genuine soccer relevance, then we are left with yet another marketing event. A return to an internal game, between two factions from within MLS, seems the best that can be achieved for now. That will maintain it as an American tradition. If the fans don’t want to watch that, if it’s not “marketable,” then the idea needs to be dropped.
Which might give MLS more time to consider what sort of league it wants to be, what sort of soccer it wants to play, what sort of players it wants to attract. And what sort of refereeing it wants.