Is MLS nearing the point at which it should stop playing a foreign team in its All-Star Game and revert to a format that showcases more of its players?
On Wednesday, Rapids head coach Pablo Mastroeni will sent out an All-Star team to play famed English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur. Selecting an All-Star team to play the likes of Chelsea, Fulham, Manchester United, Roma, Guadalajara, Glasgow Celtic, etc., has given those games a bit more of an edge than was present when East played West. Those games were usually high-scoring affairs similar to those played by their NBA and NHL counterparts, which are showcase events for the best players to show their stuff and not get hurt.
But as the league adds teams and highly-paid stars, the current format in some ways defeats the purpose of the game. Only 22 players can make the game-day squad, and though the CBA calls for more players to receive the status and accompanying bonuses, the fans get short-changed. If two 18-man teams were chosen to square off, the league would showcase more of its players and serve all of its markets (if it adopted a rule that each team had to be represented by at least one player, as Major League Baseball does). It would also reach a milestone of stability and prominence that its All-Star Game can stand on the merits of its own players.
Commissioner Don Garber took some heat for using his two picks on Steven Gerrard -- who has played two competitive matches for the Galaxy -- and Frank Lampard -- who has yet to feature for NYCFC -- yet there’s little question they’d be on the team anyway had they started the season in MLS and not wrapping up their illustrious careers in England.
They may also help the TV ratings, given their fame and the fact they play in the country’s two biggest markets. So far the TV ratings for league games have been very solid, but even a showcase event such as the All-Star Game may suffer from being played in the middle of the week. The game is being shown on Fox Sports 1, which has proved during the Women’s World Cup and Gold Cup that it will commit resources and personnel to major soccer events.
Tottenham is near the end of its preparation for the Premier League season, which kicks off Aug. 8. Spurs’ opener is about as tough as it gets -- a trip to Old Trafford to face Manchester United -- and so its players will be anxious to sharpen their game yet careful about getting too physical. Nobody wearing an MLS jersey will be flying into tackles too hard, either, but in midseason form, the likes of Kaka (named captain) and Sebastian Giovinco and the rest certainly want to perform at a high level. Both of those stars are in their MLS debut seasons and in future years the numbers of such players will increase.
The question is: would those players bring enough intensity and focus in a friendly against fellow MLS representatives to entertain the fans and satisfy the TV audience? No matter how bright the league’s star power becomes, the league would be banking on that appeal rather than the intrigue of playing a foreign team if it switched formats.
Should the league up the ante and take a greater risk that even in preseason, a superteam such as Real Madrid or Barcelona would overwhelm the MLS All-Stars, as Manchester United did in 2010 (5-2) and 2011 (4-0)? The league proudly points to its victories over Chelsea and Bayern Munich, but did those teams take the game any more seriously than West Ham United and Fulham?
This is not a slight on Tottenham in any way. It is a storied English club with one of the sport's most intriguing and romantic names. Its past is dotted with famous names such as Glenn Hoddle and Pat Jennings and Jimmy Greaves and Gary Lineker and Gareth Bale and Jurgen Klinsmann and Robbie Keane. On the current roster is DeAndre Yedlin, and Harry Kane is one of the Premier League's most exciting players. It will put on a good show.
The league has also matched its All-Stars against the U.S. national team, and in 1998 split its All-Stars into USA and World squads. Considering how many U.S. national team players have come back to MLS in the past two years and how rapidly teams are snapping up really good foreign players, a return to the USAvWorld format certainly merits some consideration.
It would be a friendly and an exhibition, and might match club teammates going against each other, but even a game played for fun can be entertaining if the skill level and spirit are high enough.
MLS can no longer pump up the market for its championship game months in advance, as it could with a preselected venue. Enabling the higher-seeded playoff survivor to host the MLS Cup final rewards the competitive side of the ledger while subtracting from the marketing side.
The All-Star Game suffered from excessive tinkering in the league’s first decade. Changing formats often, sometimes yearly, caused confusion among fans and sponsors and detracted from the All-Star allure. Since 2005, when the All-Stars beat Fulham, 4-1, the league has established a tradition of playing a foreign team. Even if the appeal and prestige of that opponent varied wildly, it grants the league a unique approach to an event common to most pro sports leagues in North America. Garber and team executives often cite how their All-Star Game differs from the others.
MLS will not take lightly a decision to tweak the format. Media and fans participate in the selection process, the All-Star coach gets to round out the squad, and the commissioner causes outrage with his shamelessly pro-marketing picks. So far, so good.
But if a USAvWorld game got a lot more All-Stars on the field, and they brought a reasonably competitive edge to the proceedings, the league could further enhance its showcase event.