By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 23, 2015) US Soccer Players - MLS Commissioner Don Garber did little to hide the obvious truth of the All-Star Game when he named Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard to the roster. Namely, that the event is nothing more than a marketing ploy masquerading as a soccer match.
Since that’s clearly the case and there’s no longer any pretense on the part of MLS, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the format of the game.
Right now, MLS does deliver the biggest names it has. "Biggest names" doesn’t necessarily mean "best players" but that's part of the point. Garber’s picks are about the name power of Gerrard and Lampard. While they are both talented players with fantastic resumes, to call them two of the league’s “best” feels premature.
Yet for MLS, it sort of makes sense. Playing a foreign club puts a different spin on the All-Star Game. MLS knows the other team isn't necessarily going to risk its marquee talents on the relative honor of lifting the All-Star Game trophy. There's an opportunity for MLS to make a point about itself, even if putting a selection of your league's best players up against a foreign club probably makes enough of a point already. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work in MLS's favor.
Two years in a row, Manchester United prompted hand-wringing over the future of the game because they so completely took apart teams made of up Major League Soccer’s top players. Does it make good business sense to roll out what is supposed to be the best you can offer only to see them crushed by a team still in first gear?
The possibility of a format change is rolling around the internet thanks to an unnamed MLS figure tweeting a since-deleted hint that a new type of All-Star Game might be coming. It’s all rumor at this point, but it does bring up discussion of the game’s future.
A return to the original East vs West format seems unlikely, but would probably produce the most entertaining soccer. In the old days, defense normally took a back seat in those MLS only affairs. From 2001 to 2003, the East v. West version of the All-Star Game average 12 goals per contest.
Defense is a job that demands discipline and organization, two things that don’t traditionally come together over a few days of training with a varied group of players. In other words, defense isn’t what All-Star Games are supposed to be about. It works for the NHL and NBA, two leagues that have no problem putting on offense-heavy exhibitions of their sports when it comes time to go through the all-star routing.
No disrespect meant to those players who make their living preventing goals, but it’s not defense that makes for fun, watchable exhibitions. Fans wants goals. MLS can’t change the laws of the game to bring about more scoring, so why not name a team rich in the attacking talent it has spent so much money acquiring in recent years and letting them loose in a game that should be about exactly that?
If East vs West isn’t coming back, there might be a few other options available. Like the NHL and NFL, MLS could move to the “fantasy” model by selecting two captains (now, wouldn’t Gerrard and Lampard be interesting candidates?) who could select from the group of All-Stars to build their respective teams.
That particular wrinkle brought new life to the hockey and football contests at a time when interest in them was waning. If two leagues with so much more tradition can make a new take on the game work, there’s no reason to think MLS couldn’t as well. With the wealth of top-end talent now plying their trade in Major League Soccer, a game with a “pickup” feel could be among the most entertaining in history.
The idea of an MLS All-Star team taking on a team made up of the best of Liga MX also makes sense. A showdown between the best players from the region’s two biggest leagues could do wonders for Major League Soccer’s profile among Liga MX fans. There are problems, of course. The Liga MX Apertura starts right around the All-Star Game, pushing the advantage toward MLS for better or worse.
What's clear is that the current format is stale. MLS prides itself for its vision of the future, so tweaking something completely in their control should be a good thing. What MLS can't do is let the All-Star Game stagnate. We're close to that already.
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