A Worthy Sacrifice: The MLS All-Star Game

Just recently, I published a blog entry that touched on tradition.

There aren’t many events in American sports more traditional than the yearly All-Star Game.

On the off-chance that anybody needs this explaining, this annual showcase involves gathering top names from around the respective league and having them take part in a suitably glitzy, bedazzled exhibition game.

Usually, the format will see two All-Star teams representing the traditional Eastern and Western Conferences. Major League Soccer too, started this way.

The problem was, it was the mid-nineties and with all due respect, MLS was in it’s embryonic stages and not especially good. While a couple of the early incarnations had a bit of razzmatazz and drew decent attendances, interest in the match waned in future years.

They played with the set-up a bit, trying among other things, MLS USA (featuring Americans, shockingly) vs MLS Terminators (featuring cyborg dopplegangers of the MLS USA roster)… okay, it was an MLS International, or World or somesuch, which featured MLS players who weren’t American.

These didn’t set the pulses racing any more than the regular approach (I’m not even sure the Terminator effort would have worked… though a robotic Killer Alexi Lalas may have been amusing) until they hit on the idea of “MLS All-Stars vs Guest”.

What this basically entailed was hosting a high-profile foreign team (or in a pinch, Spurs), usually in their preseason.  Suddenly, MLS All-Stars were rubbing shoulders with the Man Uniteds, Real Madrids and less glamourously, the Celtics of this world.  More importantly, the profile of the guests made people turn up.

This year it was Arsenal and they won 2-1. Not a bad result really, given that it was an elite Premiership team versus a mishmash of MLS players.  Kudos to MLS A-S scorer Didier Drogba, for scoring with a technique best described as “Will you JUST – GET – IN – THE GOAL… !!!!”.

A sold out Avaya Stadium provided San Jose residents with a rare opportunity to see some of MLS’s top talent on display (had to get that one in).  All hunky-dorey, eh?

Actually in my opinion, no.  No it bloody well isn’t.

As I said before: tradition is usually a good thing.  The A-S tradition is generally to be respected and celebrated.  However, there’s one reason why I just can’t get behind the MLS version: fixture congestion.

I’ve been accused by some of being an MLS apologist. Now to put that in perspective, those making the assertion tend to be of the mindset that (I sh*t you not) MLS and USSF are somehow violating human and civil rights by not having promotion and relegation, operating as a single entity and employing Nigel De Jong.

The accusation isn’t entirely fair.  I’m actually quite critical of certain aspects of the league.  The opaque rules, mysterious allocation money and Don Garber’s insistence on making the ludicrous claim that MLS will be a top league by 2022, are just a few bones of contention.

Then again, the Premiership telling the rest of English football to reconfigure their youth development rules if they want to receive any of their spare change, is a bigger beef in my humble opinion.

Anyhoo, the All-Star Game. My issue is this:  MLS runs a very tight, very particular seasonal schedule.  The league starts in March.  The regular season ends late October.  Playoffs run through November with the MLS Cup usually being held in early December.  I defend this because the reasons make sense: weather in certain locations is a problem during the winter and domestic soccer has enough trouble winning the hearts and minds of the American public without having to compete with the meaty parts of the NFL, NBA and MLB seasons.

As a result, MLS has a tendency to play through FIFA dates, overlap with World Cups and find itself out of sync with more common transfer windows and the CONCACAF Champions League schedule.

All issues, all necessary evils.

Then of course, there’s the tendency to host touring preseason European giants in money-spinning friendlies.  I guess that’s another necessary evil but one I’m less willing to entirely make peace with.

This leads us nicely back to the All-Star game.  Not only is it another friendly with zero competitive value, it also involves gathering a jumble of players who don’t normally play together and shipping them to whichever City and State is hosting the event.  This occurs about five days or so ahead of time, so the coach can give them half a chance of performing like a team and not a bunch of individuals playing a professional pick-up game.

With such a congested schedule, flanked by a longer-than-average off-season, if there is one thing MLS can ill-afford, it’s for players from around the league to dedicate the best part of a week to a pointless exhibition game.

I get that other events occur alongside this.  There’s Garber’s state of the league ramblings and the Supporter’s Summit.  Plus there’s the gate receipts.

Well here’s an alternative: scrap the All-Star Game, rearrange the US Open Cup (currently in it’s Semi-Final phase) so that the final of that competition is played on the A-S date and gets some much-needed attention and ensure a packed-house by having two Global Megaclubs play one of their highly-anticipated US-based friendlies in a double header.

You get your big event, the fans get their big teams, MLS most likely gets to showcase a couple of teams in an actual competitive game (unless NASL stops blowing hot air and starts being competitive with the incumbent D1) and you get to have your conferences and meet-n-greets.

Meanwhile, you’ve potentially just opened up one or two valuable match-days for the league itself.

So as I’ve said: Tradition is generally a good thing but the MLS All-Star Game is one we could benefit from not observing.


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