KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Not long after the final whistle brought an end to the MLS All-Stars’ 3-1 loss to AS Roma at Sporting Park on Wednesday night, the numbers began to sink in. And even MLS backers could tell they aren’t good.
After getting humbled by Roma, the All-Stars have now lost three of the past four summer showcases, each one by a margin of at least two goals.
A thumping header from LA Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez during stoppage time saved the team from being shut out for the second time in three years, but it was a sobering and internationally televised reminder that a proven European team gearing up in preseason can sometimes get the best of a hastily built team of MLSers grinding through the dog days of summer.
Two of those results could be easily understood, considering the 2010 and 2011 editions of this game pitted the All-Stars against Manchester United. The Red Devils were merciless on those summer tours, trotting out their cavalcade of stars and rolling over their MLS foes by a combined score of 9-2 in back-to-back games, including a 4-0 romp in 2011 at Red Bull Arena.
But given Roma’s recent on-field woes heading into a new Serie A season and a perceived lack of star power outside of US midfielder Michael Bradley, World Cup veteran Daniele De Rossi and Roma icon Francesco Totti, a number of eager MLS backers expected a win for the All-Stars on Wednesday to follow up an upset of Chelsea last year in Philadelphia.
But what now? After another loss, is it time for MLS to save face, back away from its international All-Star format and revert to an in-house matchup that showcases the league’s best talent in a different way, either in the traditional East vs. West format or possibly North America vs. The World?
MLS players came away with mixed results on the topic in the aftermath on Wednesday, none more passionate than Thierry Henry, who logged 57 minutes in the third All-Star Game appearance of his MLS career.
“I like it, because what’s the beauty of playing East vs. West? Give me a reason for the league,” the New York Red Bulls striker said emphatically. “It’s exposure, that’s not good enough for you? Who will watch East vs. West in Europe? I’m telling you: no one. I was there before, and I didn’t watch the game.”
MLS has played the East-West format six times in the league’s history, most recently in 2004. The league has also has dabbled in other formats – the US All-Stars took on the World All-Stars in 1998 and then a combined All-Star squad played the US national team after the World Cup in 2002 – but none of those drew the international attention of the matches played since 2005, when the All-Stars began taking on foes like Fulham, Chelsea and Everton.
The attention exploded against Chelsea in Chicago shortly after the 2006 World Cup and then reached new heights in 2010, when the All-Stars took on Manchester United in front of more than 70,000 fans at Reliant Stadium in Houston. The league has scaled the event back to soccer-specific stadiums ever since and will do so again next year in Portland, but there’s still an international appeal to the current format some players can’t ignore.
“Right now I still think it’s about growing the brand and getting the fans involved,” said Houston Dynamo midfielder Brad Davis, who played in each of the team’s losses to Manchester United and started Wednesday night against Roma. “The exposure you can get by playing teams like Manchester United around the United States and in Europe. … How many European people are going to watch East vs. West? We might get it here in the States, but it’s still about the exposure.”
The counterargument is that MLS has grown by leaps and bounds since the current format was created back in 2005, adding five clubs in the past five years and watching Wednesday’s host club, Sporting Kansas City, undergo an expansion-like rebirth that’s given an old market very new blood.
Soccer-specific stadiums are regularly full in places where they never were before – Kansas City, Portland, Vancouver, Salt Lake City – and there could be more to come, if the league gets its way. MLS Commissioner Don Garber revealed at halftime Wednesday that the league will add four more teams by 2020, giving credence to the idea that the league might not need the international exposure it once did at the expense of a lopsided loss to a European side.
“I think without a doubt we can go back to East vs. West,” said Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman, a seven-time All-Star who left after the first half Wednesday. “Any stadium we put it in, it’s going to sell out, I really believe that now. And I think it could be fun, have a little break in the middle of the season, it would be just fine.”
San Jose Earthquakes striker Chris Wondolowski echoed a similar sentiment after he shrugged off the Roma loss.
“It’s a bit tough because the American culture is so result-driven,” Wondolowski said. “Anytime you play these teams, they’re expecting you to win. And it’s not easy, especially when we get thrown together so quickly.
“But I love the prestige of playing these elite teams and it’s a great honor to be out there, so I think it could go either way. I think we could fill stadiums and have a good show no matter what.”
All indications are that the format won’t change anytime soon, especially by the time Portland’s JELD-WEN Field plays host for the first time in 2014.
There’s also no reason to believe the league will scale the opponent back to ensure a win, especially after Timbers owner Merritt Paulson teased the media with playful references to Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid when Portland was announced as the host site earlier this year.
For now, it seems, the league will stick with the status quo and risk the lumps its stars took Wednesday, even if fans and players alike are curious if MLS might someday keep the All-Star Game all in the family.
“I think we could afford to do it,” said Portland Timbers captain Will Johnson, who played his second All-Star Game. “The fans of MLS are big enough now and we have enough groundwork laid to do that format, and I think it would be successful.
“I don’t have a problem with the current format,” he added. “But I’m not opposed to some changes, either.”