Many North American professional sports leagues do all-star games. The MLS version is something of an outlier, though, walking a fine line between showcase and showdown, especially now that the Liga MX All-Stars are the opposition.
That was a leading topic as MLS All-Stars Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Walker Zimmerman and their leader for this year’s edition, Minnesota United FC head coach Adrian Heath, addressed the media in their Monday press conference before Wednesday’s 2022 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target at Allianz Field (8:30 pm ET | ESPN, Univision in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada).
“Judging off of last year, it's a competitive atmosphere,” said Nashville SC’s Zimmerman, who is making his third career ASG trip. “The game is not something that you see in a typical all-star game, whether it’s the NBA, baseball – it’s very competitive.
“Having it last year in LA, fans were all behind it, it was passionate and then we won it in a PK shootout. So now we're looking to run it back, and it's a great game with certainly a high level of competition. And again, you don't see that all the time in an all-star game.”
Heath echoed that angle, noting that the intensity of these elite pros is not something that can easily be switched off.
“The reason these guys are where they are, is because that's their nature. I guarantee you these two,” he said, nodding towards Hernandez and Zimmerman on his left, “have had that competitive nature since they were this big, and started playing the game. That's why they've made the careers that they've made.”
Wednesday’s spectacle marks the second edition of the MLS vs. Liga MX format, which runs parallel to the two leagues’ growing ties on and off the pitch.
While a good time was had by all at the 2021 duel at LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium, one prominent development since then figures to crank up the stakes a bit: The Seattle Sounders’ conquest of the 2022 Concacaf Champions League, breaking Mexico’s longstanding stranglehold on that competition and elevating an MLS team to North America’s top club honor for the first time since 2000 (and booking a FIFA Club World Cup spot).
“Being from Europe, and coming here 13 years ago, I've seen – I’ve been on the outside and watched it. I think this is the closest MLS has ever been to Liga MX,” said Heath, an Englishman who moved Stateside to coach in Austin, Orlando and now Minnesota after a distinguished playing career in his homeland.
“Thirteen years ago when I arrived, the gap was pretty big. But it's been continually closed and closed with the investment that the clubs have put in,” he added. “It's only good that it's getting closer and I think long term, actually this will be good for Liga MX as well. The fact that the US are getting closer and the leagues are getting bigger, buying more players, competing now for the same players to buy, I think it's only good to have the competition.”
Add in the US men’s national team’s ongoing string of success against El Tri in Concacaf Nations League, Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying action, and the plot thickens further.
“Yeah, there are some results that have been a consequence of how the MLS is improving over the years,” said Chicharito, himself the subject of a simmering drama about his prospects for a Qatar 2022 return to Gerardo "Tata" Martino's program. “Like I said it in so many interviews, I think both leagues need to learn from each other, because they both have a lot of positive things, and other ones that they need to improve, obviously. But yeah, we're going to go Wednesday and try to win.
“It’s going to be a competitive game, like Walker said, and hopefully, we can go and win. That's why we're in this league, to help and to give everything that we can on and off the field so this league can keep improving day by day.”
In a nod to the decades of heated rivalry between the United States and Mexico at the international level, the LA Galaxy star admitted that it feels “surreal” to be an El Tri icon now representing MLS. While emphasizing that the players approach this as a work event to be taken seriously, one in which they’re representing an entire league, Hernandez also hastened to downplay the simplistic storylines of antagonism that are easy to paint on occasions like this.
“We need to be in more of a gray area,” said the Chivas Guadalajara product. “We need to take the best out of each league, we need to take the best out of things and not stay in this narrative of like, heroes and guilty persons, and white and black, et cetera, et cetera. We need to be more positive to have the narrative on, of course, competing-wise on Wednesday; we’re getting the Skill Challenge that we’re going to do tomorrow, and we’re going to try to win … these type of events are going to help us both keep growing.”
And how will Heath set up his attacker-heavy squad to give the best possible account of themselves once the whistle blows in St. Paul, following up 2021's victory? Zimmerman hopes to glimpse some magic when this gathering of MLS’s top talents hits the pitch.
“In our first little meeting here, coach was basically saying, you know, we have 10 No. 10s. Maybe we'll just go out with all of them on the field,” deadpanned the center back. “Which would be really fun for me to watch, actually, I'd love to see. Maybe we could switch positions at some point tomorrow. We'll see what happens.
“But no, it's so fun to be able to watch these guys live and in training and especially when we take the field Wednesday together, so much talent. I hope that they'll all gel on the field, creative minds, creative feet. I mean, there should be some pretty special connections that take place on the field.”