A crowd of 19,727 filled St. Paul's Allianz Field for the 26th MLS All-Star Game and provided the atmosphere of a real game — something that's not the norm for such events held by American sports leagues or the "Rest of the World" vs. the hosts type of soccer charity matches.
Usually, there's not much of anything at stake in traditional all-star clashes. That's why years ago MLS started inviting foreign competition, aware that there's probably never been a fan who cared whether East beat West, or vice versa. And how much could players care about the outcome?
The first foreign foe came in 2003, when Chivas Guadalajara guaranteed a Southern California sellout. Next up, after the last East-West clash in 2004, MLS invited Fulham coming off a 13th-place English Premier League finish. More esteemed competition arrived for the next 14 editions, including Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Bayern Munich and Juventus. More intriguing than East vs. West, but it's always hard to imagine European teams on summer tours treating such occasions as much more than summer scrimmages.
Now, for the second year in row, the game pit MLS All-Stars against a Liga MX selection. It's being taken seriously in Mexico, said a Pachuca staff member hanging out with various colleagues from other Mexican clubs pregame in the northend Brew Hall. "Especially because we lost last year," he said, referring to spot kick tiebreaker win by the MLS stars after a 1-1 tie in Los Angeles.
Nearby, longtime soccer exec Nelson Rodriguez, now chief of staff for the MLS commissioner's office, thought back on the near 20 All-Star Games he's attended and offered: "It’s a natural and real rivalry. It’s not lost on the players what it means."
A sign that Mexican media took serious this inter-league rivalry had come when it reported on Tuesday's whimsical skill contest won by the MLS squad and skewered Mexican national team winger Uriel Antuna for "failing in an embarrassing manner not befitting of a professional player."
The sharp-eyed referee Joe Dickerson had to call two fouls within the first two minutes and contended with the kind of unsavory dissent and ref-mobbing (from the Liga MX players) one only expects from players fearing the shame of defeat.
That the crowd would be split pretty evenly among fans supporting each team was apparent as fans arrived wearing various replica jerseys. Club America, Chivas, Cruz Azul, El Tri, Pumas, Pachuca, Toluca, Atlas, Xolos — more or less in that order of popularity — abounded as did the colorful custom designed shirt for the occasion that listed all-Liga MX team. That sold for $90 at Dick's Sporting Goods in the days ahead of Wednesday's game and sold out quickly in the stadium's four fans shops.
Those supporting the MLS men could be identified by the light blue jerseys of host Minnesota United. Fans who hadn't worn them into the stadium lined up at the merch shops to pay $149.99 for an "authentic" Loons jersey or $49.99 for the T-shirt version. (The large contingent of MLS supporters showed up without the game being part of the MUFC's season-ticket package.)
Fans wearing Mexican national team jerseys weren't necessarily rooting for the visitors from south of the border. "I'm supporting Chicharito," said one fan before the game kicked off with more Mexicans in MLS jerseys than the Liga MX squad.
The LA Galaxy striker was one of two Mexican players, along with Carlos Vela, starting for the MLS All-Stars, which also lined up with defender Juan Araujo, the 20-year-old Californian who after a U.S. youth national team career and one U.S. cap switched allegiance last year and has made three El Tri appearances. (U.S. players Walker Zimmerman, Darlington Nagbe, Jordan Morris and Canadian Kamal Miller started for MLS, as did Jamaican international Andre Blake in goal, Ecuadoran Diego Palacios and Argentines Sebastián Driussi and Emanuel Reynoso.)
Fernando Beltran, the only Mexican starting for Liga MX, was joined by five Colombians, four Argentines and a Paraguayan.
Carlos Vela (left), Julian Araujo and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez celebrate the MLS All-Stars' opening goal.
Vela, the great Mexican player who never played in Liga MX — he left for Europe at age 16 in 2005 and joined LAFC in 2018 — opened the scoring by heading home Palacios' chipped pass in the seventh minute.
After conceding, Liga MX had the better of the first half, but failed to convert 10 shots while forcing five saves, one by Blake and four from Dayne St. Clair.
The connection between the soccer cultures of the USA and Mexico makes this all-star format all the more intriguing. U.S. international Paul Arriola — the FC Dallas winger who started his career with Tijuana Xolos — had an early second-half goal called back because the server, Brandon Vasquez — a Mexican-American who played in Xolos' youth program — had been offside.
Despite the slew of subs, both teams managed to continue cohesive buildups. Liga MX's subs included Mexican national team players Carlos Acevedo, Jesus Angulo, Kevin Alvarez and Antuna, who looked much sharper in real soccer than when he tried to volley balls into buckets. But Angulo fouled Carles Gil for a penalty kick that Raul Ruidiaz converted in the 73rd minute to make it 2-0.
The Liga MX fans tried to motivate their all-stars with the Si se puede ("yes you can") chant. Alavarez, the 23-year-old Pachuca defender, responded with a long-range golazo in the 84th minute. Both teams had a couple more chances before Dickerson blew the final whistle after four minutes of stoppage time.
A 2-1 win for MLS, the league that's figured out how to turn the all-star tradition into a genuinely competitive game.
Photos: USA Today Sports - Kirby Lee, Matt Blewett, Brad Rempel.