Before we reach opening kick of the first-ever clash between the MLS All-Stars and their Liga MX opposites, the bragging rights fight begins Tuesday with the All-Star Skills Challenge presented by AT&T 5G (9 pm ET | FS1, TUDN in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada).
These All-Stars have honed their skills over decades, from the backyard to the playground and all the way to the professional ranks. That means we're in for a treat when some of the finest technicians from both leagues get the All-Star Game party started.
With five different skill competitions on tap, the MLS and Liga MX stars will have plenty of opportunities to make grudge match memories for the fans on their side of the border. But which of these big-time players suit which challenges best? We've tackled that question by tabbing some favorites for each one.
The favorite: Lucas Zelarayan
In this challenge, one should never count out a player who's in scintillating direct free-kick form. Zelarayan fits that bill more than any other Skills Challenge participant by a good margin. Heck, he might even ask if they can give him a wall to shoot around.
The challenger: Rogelio Funes Mori
The Argentine-born marksman has been so deadly during his career in Liga MX that Mexico recently brought him into their national team set up. Having spent part of his youth in Arlington, Texas, and even spending time in the FC Dallas academy, Funes Mori will have added motivation to excel here.
Keep an eye out for: Raul Ruidiaz
The Seattle Sounders striker is red-hot right now, leads the Golden Boot presented by Audi race with 14 goals and won't have to deal with defenders draped all over him in this challenge.
The favorite: Ricardo Pepi
Perhaps something of a dark horse for this one but the FC Dallas homegrown has been lighting up MLS of late and is one of a number of technically proficient young players to come through MLS academies of late. When it comes to touch, the 18-year-old striker has what it takes to compete against the best.
The challenger: Rubens Sambueza
A decently-sized part of the Toluca winger's job involves taking down long balls in stride. Sambueza even shines for this skill in Liga MX, where great receiving touches are a nickel per dozen.
Keep an eye out for: Lucas Zelarayan
Another former Liga MX player with skills aplenty. Zelarayan has lit up MLS since his arrival and shown he is more than capable of taking the ball out of the air and stopping it stone dead before firing off a strike of pinpoint accuracy.
The favorite: Rogelio Funes Mori
The Monterrey goal monster hasn't just scored a number of dazzling volley goals in recent years. He's scored them from a variety of angles and methods.
The challenger: Raul Ruidiaz
Keep an eye out for: Ricardo Pepi
Were he available, Chicharito would have taken up this slot. He isn't fit, so I'll go out on a hunch-based limb here. We're yet to see Pepi uncork a full volley goal during an FC Dallas career that's only just begun. It just seems like his calm release, body control and presumed eagerness to show he belongs with all the vets in the Skills Challenge may result in some fantastic volleys.
The favorite: Orbelín Pineda
Most of this year's participants make their living somewhere along the front line, leaving the Cruz Azul star as the closest thing to a pick-a-long-pass specialist. It will be an upset if he doesn't take gold here.
The challenger: Lucas Zelarayan
Now that he drives the Columbus Crew attack, the Argentine maestro is more known for dribbling opponents dizzy and his long-range goal threat. But back in his Tigres days, he more often showed off a deft passing touch. Since the MLS side neglected to pick a dyed-in-the-wool midfield distributor type, Zelarayan may be their best hope in this challenge.
Keep an eye out for: Alexis Canelo
Though he's mostly known as a goalscorer, Canelo is the type of forward who's not shy about dropping deep to collect the ball. Because of this, fans often get to see his rather silky passing touch. He's my dark-horse pick here.
The favorite: Nani
After seeing what he did two years ago, would you bet against him? In case you need a reminder (Atletico Madrid fans can just skip it, I think)...
The challenger: Alexis Canelo
The Toluca forward is someone who understands that you don't need to blast every shot for power. As such, he's got a measured accuracy in his right boot that fits this challenge perfectly.
Keep an eye out for: Rodolfo Pizarro
The Miami midfielder hits a lofted ball, which is generally the method in this exercise, as well as anyone in the field. Pizarro is a sneaky threat here.