There’s nothing wrong with the MLS All-Star Game, so why would Commissioner Don Garber and the Board of Governors seriously consider changing it is beyond me. It certainly ain’t broke.
However, since such discussions have taken place and will continue, it’s a worthy topic. There are pros and cons to each of the alternatives.
Let’s consider the possibilities. In reverse order of sexiness, they are:
DROP IT. There’s a virulent segment of the fan base that wants the All-Star Game to just go away. It’s not. So we move on.
RETURN TO EAST VS. WEST. No, no, and no again. While this would showcase more of the league’s best players -- doing the math, we can see that two teams of All-Stars would consist of more players than that of one All-Star team playing a foreign team -- it didn’t work in the past and probably won’t again.
If the idea is to showcase the league’s top players, getting more of said players on the field is the way to go. The league has doubled in size since launching with 10 teams in 1996 and there are far more high-profile players than in the early days. So rather than one team of 20 or 22 players, having two teams of all-stars squaring off certainly fits the bill of showcasing the league’s best.
But East vs. West has been done and despite a much richer talent pool than in the past, it’s not the right format. And suggesting that MLS should mimic MLB and award hosting rights for MLS Cup to the conference that wins the All-Star Game is heresy. It's bad for baseball and stupid for soccer.
MLS VS. LIGA MX. There’s a good, healthy rivalry between the border nations. Every USA-Mexico international is a big deal and club teams regularly clash in the Concacaf Champions League. Occasionally they play friendlies, too. So pitting league all-star squads against each other is a great idea, right?
Wrong. Set aside factors such as the game might get too edgy and too competitive if not downright vicious, and that the Liga MX players in preseason wouldn’t be as fit and sharp as their in-season MLS opponents. This is an idea that demeans MLS in terms of image and prestige.
It makes no sense for MLS to showcase the top Liga MX players in its All-Star Game. The Mexican league and Mexican teams are embedded in the U.S. market. Most Liga MX games are televised in the U.S. and so are the Copa Libertadores, Copa Sudamericana and CCL games involving Mexican teams. Liga MX teams are competing with MLS clubs for players. MLS wants to promote its stars, not those of a rival operation.
Five or six times a year, the Mexican national team draws huge crowds and rakes in big money for friendlies played on U.S. soil, and while U.S. Soccer gets a cut of those revenues, as it does for all international games, the Mexican federation plays those games north of the border for simple reasons: Money. And exposure. And money.
In 1999, MLS staged its All-Star Game in San Diego (bad idea No. 1) and coupled it with a Guadalajara-Universidad Catolica friendly (bad idea No. 2). The doubleheader drew poorly and triggered the exit of then-commissioner Doug Logan. The league has matured greatly since then, yet Liga MX is much more prominent in the U.S. as well.
The FMF and Liga MX already have their place in the U.S. market. The All-Star Game should be about MLS.
USA-ish VS. THE WORLD. In 1998, the league matched its non-U.S. All-Stars against the U.S. national team and the USA romped, 6-1. The 2002 game featured MLS all-stars, some of them American, against the U.S. national team: Steve Ralston and Jason Kreis were among the MLS scorers in a 3-2 win, and Landon Donovan and Cobi Jones scored for the U.S. Huh?
Given the caliber of talent in MLS this year and presumably going forward, if a change is made, a tweak on this format could be the most intriguing.
The “home” team could be an all-USA/MLS team, or a combined regional squad of Concacaf players (All-North America). The opposing team would be picked from everybody else who plays in MLS.
The following squads are not meant to be a stone-cold final list of the most deserving players. Several players on both teams could be swapped out for others without diluting the quality. They are representative of how deep and varied is the current MLS player pool and just how much talent could be assembled with two full squads of league players:
GOALKEEPERS. David Ousted, Stefan Frei.
DEFENDERS. Laurent Ciman, Liam Ridgewell, Kendall Waston, Jose Goncalves, A.J. DeLaGarza, Alvas Powell, Jamison Olave.
MIDFIELDERS. Kaka, Morales (Javier or Pedro, take your pick), Federico Higuain, Matias Laba, Fabian Castillo., Diego Valeri, Gerson Koffie, Juninho.
FORWARDS. Robbie Keane, Sebastian Giovinco, David Villa, Kei Kamara, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Cyle Larin.
GOALKEEPERS. Nick Rimando, Bill Hamid.
DEFENDERS. Omar Gonzalez, Chad Marshall, Drew Moor, Matt Miazga, Nick Besler, Matt Hedges, Chris Tierney.
MIDFIELDERS. Dax McCarty, Sacha Kljestan, Sebastian Lletget, Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber, Ethan Finlay, Perry Kitchen, Harry Shipp.
FORWARDS. Will Bruin, Chris Wondolowski, Clint Dempsey, Charlie Davies.
If each squad consisted of 22-24 players, most players could go 45 minutes. Players could thus give a solid effort and if the tempo was thus higher than for a normal game, well, what’s wrong with that? The allure of watching Bradley facing off with his TFC teammate Giovinco, or Keane going against Gonzalez, would bring more spice to the game than is present when said teammates are on the same side in an East vs. West format.
Or the league could use a North American designation to include players from Canada, Central America, and the Caribbean along with those from the U.S. That would move players like Larin, and Powell to the other side and also take care of Osvaldo Alonso.
There’s no pressing need for a change. The crowd at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park and a national TV audience saw a spirited, entertaining game last Wednesday. Yet the same atmosphere and intensity can be generated by two teams of All-Stars, since neither will want to lose to the other if the format is the right one. Bragging rights do carry weight among elite athletes and there's enough talent to stack two full teams of players better or at least as good as Tottenham's backups.
Entertainment and a fair dose of competition is the ideal All-Star formula. Pitting a U.S team, or a regional squad, against the best of the rest is worth serious consideration.