By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Aug 23, 2021) US Soccer Players – The MLS All-Star Game returns this week after the pandemic forced the league to scrap it in 2020. While this game in the middle of the season may seem typically American to many around the globe, it’s an established part of pro sports in the United States and Canada. That’s due to the deep history of all-star games in the two countries’ pro sports leagues. That doesn’t mean that it’s been straightforward for Major League Soccer.
Last season, MLS was ready for the latest reset. Instead of MLS vs MLS like the early years or MLS vs foreign club like the recent editions, it was MLS vs Liga MX. Two all-star teams from the two biggest domestic leagues in Concacaf. Delayed by a year, that’s what is on the schedule for Wednesday at Banc of California Stadium. It’s a novel concept for an all-star game, building on the ongoing rivalry between the US and Mexico at national team level. The twist, of course, is that El Tri players in MLS will play for MLS.
While the All-Star Game is a glorified friendly, expect fireworks in this one. It’s a situation that could quickly turn a friendly in theory into a game that counts on the field. For MLS, that’s the key to unlocking greater enthusiasm about the league.
MLS has used the foreign club as opponent version of the All-Star Game as a barometer to gauge the league’s mainstream appeal. It’s a marketing exercise, something the organizers have never shied away from. The game itself can’t really gauge such a thing, but it can measure a moment in time. MLS switched the format in 2005, beating Fulham and then Chelsea the next season. Sure, they were preseason games for the English clubs, but MLS used it to make a bigger statement.
Those results mattered to MLS and the players. The league doesn’t need to emulate Europe. Instead, it needs to build something uniquely American. The MLS All-Star Game is certainly part of that, and here are three reasons why it counts.
The shift to international competition has helped the league gain global exposure. Soccer fans who would have never otherwise seen the league as a product get to do just that at least once a year. That has been the biggest reason why this game matters.
This time around, North America’s two top domestic leagues meet in a new setting. It’s not clubs playing clubs or the MLS All-Stars against a Liga MX giant. While it’s true that the Concacaf Champions League and the Leagues Cup show Liga MX’s overall supremacy, this is something new.
MLS vs Liga MX in an all-star setting could also be another step toward that widely reported and speculated about merger between the two leagues. Highlight speculation here, since there’s no clear public path to getting from rumors to a proposal with a timeline. Regardless, a larger audience of TV viewers will get to see MLS at least for one evening, and that’s a great thing for the league.
Another very American aspect of All-Star Game festivities is the skills competition. MLS borrowed that as well, discontinuing it in 2001 before finally bringing it back in 2018
Part of the problem for MLS is that a made-for-TV spectacle requires that it be on television. That wasn’t a given, pushing the focus to the game itself.
This year’s edition takes place on Tuesday night on FS1, will feature the much-heralded shooting challenge. Players will shoot at targets posted around a goal in an inflated version of the National Hockey League’s accuracy contest. It will also feature the touch challenge, which the league website describes this way: “Players will have to collect and control balls coming at them from different angles in order to set themselves up to score points.”
Finally, the skills competition will have a cross and volley challenge, one for passing and another for players who have to attempt to hit the crossbar. While leaning on the NHL and NBA specifically, what MLS is creating here is unique to soccer. The same was certainly true back in the goalie wars and soccer tennis era, something MLS should’ve never abandoned.
A long season, intermingled with friendlies and international matches, could use a break. For the vast majority of the players, the next few days will provide a much-needed breather. It’s certainly worth pointing out that any all-star game obligates a league’s best players, but getting most of the squad some rest could change things when the schedule resumes.
It’s true that making the All-Star Game roster is a big part of a MLS player’s resume, but a break right before the playoff march is very important for teams as we enter the fall. MLS starting the season later than expected and the international breaks compact the schedule for some teams. September and October aren’t easy going for them as the conference tables begin to shake out.
MLS returns midway through rivalry week with some tasty encounters. LAFC takes on the Los Angeles Galaxy this Saturday in El Traffico, and Colorado plays Sporting KC with 2nd-place on the line. In the Eastern Conference, NYCFC hosts the New England Revolution while Philadelphia is at DC.
It’s worth mentioning that some US sports fans have soured on all-star games in general. That’s left leagues scrambling for solutions to keep fans engaged. Most often, the format is boring and too predictable. That doesn’t necessarily hold in MLS. When it works, the All-Star Game is more than a glorified friendly. It’s a part of American and Canadian soccer culture now involving Mexico. That could quickly turn into something special.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- 5 USMNT players to watch in Europe in 2021-22
- Q&A: Gianluca Busio
- The Cup Winners’ Cup still resonates in Europe
- Preview: 2021 Gold Cup semifinals
Grpahic courtesy of Major League Soccer