By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 15, 2015) US Soccer Players – The MLS All-Star Game isn’t really about putting together an All-Star team. That’s been true for a long, long time. Perhaps for the whole history of the event. It’s never been more true than it is this week. Lots of people are angry about getting a stark reminder about just how true it is.
Not everyone readily recognizes that the All-Star Game isn’t really about soccer, at least in the competitive sense. It certainly isn’t meant to live up to some high-minded notion of the All-Star Game as a reward for the league’s best first-half performers.
If the All-Star Game delivered on its concept, every player involved in the game would be there based on the quality of his play through the opening half the season. But the All-Star Game isn’t only secondarily a showcase of the best performers. It’s primarily a showcase for stars. That’s regardless of whether or not those stars did anything to earn the “All Star” honor as fans traditionally understand it.
Putting the stars on the All-Star Game stage, with its national TV broadcast platform and big interest from sponsors, is much more important than giving an All-Star spot to a journeyman player who overachieved for 18 games. MLS certainly believes this. It’s why they chose once again to undermine any notion of merit driving All-Star selections with both of the ways it named players to the squad on Monday.
First was the Fan XI, a popularity contest that was never going to deliver anything close to a team made up of the best players in each positions. The formation used, a 3-4-3, undervalues defenders to the benefit of attacking players. That so many of the names on the attack-heavy list are American internationals should come as no surprise. Fans don’t have any responsibility to pick the “most deserving” players and rarely do when giving the option to pick names they know. The stars of MLS, within the MLS fan base, are recognizable names from the USMNT. The remainder of the names on the team are Designated Players of the “transcendent” variety. Players who made their fame in Europe before coming over. Again, no one should be surprised.
There’s no question that not everyone on the Fan XI should be there. There’s also no question that other MLS players are more deserving of the honor. As head coach of the team, Rapids boss Pablo Mastroeni will have the opportunity to “right” some of those obvious “wrongs.” He won’t fix them all, however, because no coach ever does. Stay tuned for more debate.
Then MLS commissioner Don Garber doubled down on the fan voting with his “Commissioner’s Picks.” Given two roster spots, Garber filled them with Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, a pair of English midfield stars who just arrived in MLS this summer. In fact, their arrival is so recent that neither of them has actually taken the field in a league game. The Commissioner had gone and given “All-Star” nods to players who didn’t deserve the honor.
Short of a discussion about missed bonuses – if such a thing exists in the contracts of players who might otherwise have been Garber’s picks – there’s even less to be surprised and up-in-arms over than with the chosen Fan XI.
Gerrard and Lampard are massive names arriving at a point when MLS is striving to move the needle both on national profile and TV ratings. Maximizing both is crucial to the future revenue of MLS. With that in mind, the presence of a former Liverpool hero and his ex-Chelsea rival in the All-Star team is a no-brainer. If an extra 50,000 homes tune into the gam – which, again, has never really been about the soccer played on the field – then Garber did his job. If he’d passed on the chance to tap those two Englishman for the game in Denver, you can be sure he would have heard from his bosses – the MLS Board of Governors, aka the investor/operators.
Call it a “conflict” if you’d like. A conflict between the integrity of the All-Star Game and the competing concern of marketing the league to America by whatever means are available. It’s not much of one in the end.
For the time being, the need to push the product will always win out. In fact, when it comes to the All-Star Game, it always has. Just because MLS couldn’t attract the Gerrards and Lampards of the world in distant pre-David Beckham past doesn’t mean the league wasn’t bending over backwards to make the game about drawing attention and servicing sponsors.
The All-Star Game has never had “integrity.” It once had squad lists better reflecting the first half of the season, but that was a matter of circumstance more than a tenet of the game itself. Picking the best players was easy when those were also the league’s only stars. Things changed.
For the time being, we’d do well to swallow our outrage and remember that the MLS All-Star Game isn’t really about putting together an all-star team. At least not an all-star team based on what’s happened this season.
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