By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Aug 25, 2021) US Soccer Players – Major League Soccer’s annual showcase of talent made a bit of a deviation this year. Originally planned to debut last season but postponed due to the pandemic, on Wednesday we get our first MLS vs Liga MX All-Star Game. It brings to an end the league’s 15-year stretch of pitting the MLS All-Stars against a European club. The revamp is part of a broader attempt to once again try and tap into the sizable Mexico and Liga MX fanbase.
The MLS vs Liga MX showdown seems like a solid idea, perhaps now more than ever. There are quite a few top-level Mexican players on MLS rosters. The chance to put them in front of Liga MX fans both in person and on television screens across North America is a unique way to bring in those audiences. It seems like a good idea, but the realities of a soccer season means that it isn’t going to plan.
Major League Soccer’s two biggest Mexican stars are the LA Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and LAFC’s Carlos Vela. In a perfect scenario, they’d be starting together in front of the hometown fans. Instead, both players are unavailable due to injuries. Chicharito is finishing off his recovery while Vela picked up a slight injury in LAFC’s last game. Courtesy of league rules intended to prevent players from bypassing the All-Star Game, both are now ineligible for the next league game. Unfortunately, that’s the LA derby between the Galaxy and LAFC. The luster is off two matchups built around star players.
While injuries happen, this shows how perilous it is to plan events with specific players in mind. Showcasing players only works if the players involved are indeed available to perform. Since injuries are a part of the game, there is always a chance that plans built on specific players will fizzle out.
MLS doesn’t get the game it wanted, but the league’s commitment to the idea will hardly waver. The All-Star Game is part of the landscape, regardless of signs that it might not be all that important. It’s not the middle of the season. It’s not necessarily a worthwhile break considering the September international window opens next week. Teams losing players will be scrambling for cover. Even at its best, the All-Star Game tends to raise questions about purpose from a soccer perspective. Then it’s quickly forgotten as the season moves on.
In the bigger picture, MLS is adding another component to strengthen the link with Liga MX. It’s a marketing opportunity as well as potentially competitive. The more familiarity the leagues have with each other could create a new median for MLS. That could push the level of competition in the Concacaf Champions League alongside continuing to fuel merger rumors. As long as this represents an opportunity, MLS and Liga MX should want this new version of the All-Star Game. Though it’s always nice when the home league wins, it’s not crucial.
MLS has long gotten past the novelty of trying to bring over big-name Mexican talents in the hope of appealing to a broader fanbase. Now, established Mexican players consider MLS as a legitimate destination. Those players make moves to teams outside of large Mexican markets like Los Angeles or Chicago. Just one of those players, Inter Miami’s Rodolfo Pizarro, made it onto the MLS All-Star Game roster. Of course, Liga MX itself is not entirely representative of Mexico as 11 of the 23 Liga MX All-Stars are Mexican.
With Vela and Hernandez, the game could have been more entertaining. Both certainly are among the league’s best 11 players. They also speak to the level of Mexican players in MLS right now. It’s a league of choice in an era where MLS no longer plays up that particular talking point. That, in and of itself, is a sign of growth.
Keeping that in mind, what we don’t learn about the league’s best players this time out may not be all that important. The All-Star team gets one practice and the bonding exercise that can be the Skills Challenge. Then it’s 90 minutes before returning to club duty. The best All-Star moments normally ends up being about entertainment as much as anything else. A creative goal celebration can linger for longer than the goal it celebrates. That’s what happens in low-stakes soccer, and it’s part of the point of an All-Star Game.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Graphic courtesy of Major League Soccer