KANSAS CITY, Kan. – OK, All-Star haters, I hear your whining. And you’ve got a point.
Three losses in four years – by big score lines. Limited prep time, which leads to getting torn asunder by well-oiled, classy European club teams on warm summer evenings that are supposed to be meant for celebrating the growth and accomplishments of Major League Soccer rather than questioning why a team of the league’s best is getting throttled on national TV.
But this is why MLS is supposed to go back to the East vs. West format?
I hate to quibble with a guy like Kyle Beckerman, who actually plays in these things. (As opposed to me, in front of my computer with my fingers still greasy from my ninth pulled pork sandwich.) But that’s utter nonsense.
That the league has grown big enough to stand on its own has nothing to do with going back to the crusty old cliché format. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.
One of the biggest reasons as to why the MLS All-Stars have been getting beaten so soundly in these midsummer classics has everything to do with that point: European clubs take these games seriously because they respect MLS.
Back when this All-Star format became the norm a decade or so ago, these foreign clubs would come into town and treat the game with about as much importance as a friendly, say, in Jakarta against an Indonesian league Best XI. The result didn’t matter one bit as long as every single reserve player, academy kid and trialist got minutes.
That ended emphatically when Manchester United blew the doors off Houston’s Reliant Center in 2010, scoring five goals between minute 1 and minute 84. Sir Alex Ferguson gushed over how much progress MLS had made and how much better quality the players were. He recognized the talent and he recognized the potential.
It probably helped that his Red Devils were actually beaten in a friendly days earlier by Kansas City, but he enjoyed the experience enough to bring his team back the following year, saying how it was excellent preparation for his team ahead of the 2010-11 season (which ended, by the way, with a Premier League title and a runners-up finish in the Champions League – just saying).
Fast-forward to Wednesday night, and Michael Bradley said plenty for his old league, too. Of course he’ll always advocate for MLS, but he also talked about how he and his teammates knew the game would be a serious challenge for Roma because of the quality – he was the first to point out the All-Stars beat Chelsea last year.
Now, the bigger issue of how to stop these lopsided losses? The coaches and players repeat over and over again it’s not about the result. But if the eyes of the world (and especially fans of the visiting club) are transfixed on this game each year, you want to show well.
“If all’s we’re looking to do is to win a game, then easily you could set something up,” All-Star coach Peter Vermes said after Wednesday night’s 3-1 loss. “These are real games. These are real teams that come in here to play and sometimes results don’t go your way, but at the end – I still go back to it – I think it’s more than just the winning of the game. It’s really what the experience is for everyone who participates.”
There’s no quick answer to this one. Move the game to another part of the year when it’s less of a conflict? OK. Don’t schedule it three days after the final of a confederation tournament that has taken some of the league’s biggest stars away for three-plus weeks? Sure.
Taking an actual All-Star break so these players who have little time to get to know each other as teammates get more prep work in ahead of the big game? That, too. We could go on and on.
Killing the “us vs. them” format entirely? Not the answer. Ever.
Repeat this ad nausea, and do not forget it: MLS has the most unique, most fun All-Star format in North American sports. And it has to stay that way.
The NBA All-Star Game is a high-scoring hot-dog fest where the egos are higher-flying than the dunks. Major League Baseball’s version has home-field advantage for the World Series at stake – but that makes the final score more important than watching the actual game.
And the ridiculous tweaks the NFL and NHL have made to theirs? That speaks for itself.
This is where MLS sets itself apart. This is where MLS says “our product is different.” And most importantly, this is another place where MLS can keep making its statement that it’s serious about becoming one of the best leagues in the world in the near future.
Going back to East vs. West? That’s just living in the past.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.