It's time to re-think the MLS All-Star Game

By Ridge Mahoney

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.

19 comments about "It's time to re-think the MLS All-Star Game".
  1. Raymond Weigand, July 24, 2015 at 5:22 p.m.

    Strongly disagree. Watching high scoring East vs West games are not entertaining. Watching a friendly between Bayern Munich and the MLS All Stars is Entertaining!

  2. George Gorecki, July 24, 2015 at 5:27 p.m.

    The East v West format was TERRIBLE! The game was less competitive than a kickaround in the park. If they go back to that format I will make it a point not to watch.

    And precisely how are fans shortchanged when they get to see Man United or Bayern Munich playing? I like seeing those teams play.

  3. Santiago 1314, July 24, 2015 at 5:31 p.m.

    How about Liga MX v MLS... that would be interesting. .. ???

  4. Allan Lindh, July 24, 2015 at 5:39 p.m.

    Quite right change is needed, but E v. W doesn't do. The MLS v. Liga MX is an interesting suggestion, except that it would be awfully bloody. Could also do Homies v. the Imports, with the Homies those eligible to play for US or Canadian MNT's. The Homies would play very hard, and might make for an interesting match. And the way things are going, the Import's would be an EPL old guys team.

  5. Miguel Dedo, July 24, 2015 at 5:41 p.m.

    I am a MLS season ticket holder since the beginning, 1996, and have no interest in the All Star match, consider it an insult that the league thinks it necessary to play a "big-time" team in order to sell tickets and TV. For me, scrap the match. If the league office needs money, have a bake sale.

  6. Glenn Auve, July 24, 2015 at 6:14 p.m.

    I agree with Miguel. They should just abolish this thing altogether. It's pointless. Just exposes more players to potential injury.

  7. Al Gebra, July 24, 2015 at 6:46 p.m.

    MLS could stage an All Star match in a manner similar to what is done in the EPL, La Liga, the Bundesliga, Serie A, Liga MX, France's Ligue and the Netherland's Eredivisie. . . NOTHING! Just like Miguel and Glenn said. Or, MLS can continue to emulate MLB.

  8. DonJuego Lee, July 24, 2015 at 7:27 p.m.

    Drop it. We don't need it. It adds nothing.

  9. Chris Wirth, July 24, 2015 at 11:06 p.m.

    I don't hate the ASG in principle, but I think it should go away. I just contributes to an already crowded schedule without really being that much fun. There's really no way to win. Play hard and beat a big Euro team? Who cares, they are in preseason and just looking not to get hurt in a glorified "spring training" game. Lose the game as often happens and it's even worse.
    A solution would be doing MLS only games, but they wouldn't be very interesting, and again, worsen a crowded schedule. If you want to break in the middle of the season (the reason for the baseball/basketball ASG's) freakin' stop play during the FIFA windows, or just have USOC games then. I would much rather have my team play at full strength during the meaningful games than in a pointless ASG.

  10. R2 Dad, July 24, 2015 at 11:22 p.m.

    Problem solved: MLS all-stars vs USWNT.

  11. Gus Keri, July 25, 2015 at 7:53 a.m.

    My vote goes to US stars vs. World stars.

  12. Joey Tremone, July 25, 2015 at 11:09 a.m.

    @George, I remember those games and you're right, but the league is changing. We're not quite there yet, but we're near an inflection point. Sometime soon, we'll have a seven-figure player, one who's actually performing and is a hero for his team's fans, not playing because there just aren't enough roster spots. We're already to the point where, if you forgot about the ages, the list of names on the MLS team is a lot more impressive than the opponent. An EvW game would have a lot more appeal today than in 1999. I do think MLS vs Liga MX all-stars is something we have to try to run at least once or twice, but the same thing will happen eventually with the big, star-driven league and the small roster.

    The people who wanting this game to 'just go away' should just give up already, it's going exactly nowhere--deal with it. MLS teams play a bunch of other friendlies during the year, there's no reason why this particular one should insult you more than those do.

  13. John Soares, July 25, 2015 at 12:31 p.m.

    Both have their merits. But including Lampard and Gerrard (in place of two deserving players) was a joke.
    Regardless of the format it is still the "MLS" all stars. These two are not....yet.

  14. Miguel Dedo, July 25, 2015 at 12:51 p.m.

    I do as Joey suggests, I ignore it, except for hoping that my team's players are not selected so that they are not injured. This chat board about the all star game has been more interesting for me than the game.

  15. Kent James, July 26, 2015 at 9:41 a.m.

    Do not revive the East-West format. I like the current format (and the bigger the opponent the better). With more MLS teams (and more stars), expand the roster and have 2 all-star teams (maybe one from the East, one from the West), and have each play a half against the foreign team. Or challenge another league to send and all star team (such as Santiago suggested, with the Mexican League).

  16. beautiful game, July 26, 2015 at 11:38 a.m.

    Let's get real, the current All-Star game set up is far better than the tango East -West farce. As for showcasing talent, there's not enough All -Star talent on the MLS non-foreign player side. BTW, Lampard and Gerard may not merit the selection, but they are sure better than any US MLS players; even at half-pace.

  17. Zoe Willet, July 26, 2015 at 10:03 p.m.

    I thought my point of view was clear before reading these comments- E v W, but there sure is a lot of negativity about that. On balance, though, if there will be an all-star game, I think it should be all MLS. We generally see quite a few European teams play here around this time of year. And cut it out already with saying "they are sure better than any US MLS players"! And "there's not enough All-Star talent on the MLS..." If that's how you feel, then just go away! I personally think the MLS gets better every season, and the attendance figures bear me out.

  18. Tim Gibson, July 27, 2015 at 8:37 a.m.

    My vote would be to instead showcase CONCACAF Nat'l Teams, MLS needs to better support our region. Additionally, I seriously believe MLS must do away with color commentators with the Euro accents! Why is it a must that almost every MLS nat'l feed has the Token Scot doing the color commentary? It has been great seeing Tony Meola, Brad Friedel & Cobi coming back amongst others & I would MUCH rather listen to a former USA Nat'l commentator who truly understands MLS.

  19. Ric Fonseca, July 28, 2015 at 9:34 p.m.

    Well what do ya know!!! Of all of the comments, the last one makes more sense than not!!! Thanks to Tim Gibson! All the MLS is doing is to copy MLB, the NBA, yet let's look at the NFL.... they don't have one!!! I've always wondered why MLS saw fit to have such a mid-season game!!!
    And YES, YES, YES, do away with the Euro/UK accented "color commentators!" It is aakin to having heavily accented South Americans (read this, Argentines) calling a game being played in Colombia or Mexico!!!

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