Skills Challenge

MLS All-Star Skills Challenge reminds us of our game's simple joys

LOS ANGELES – One word you tend to hear a lot during MLS All-Star weeks – especially this year, with Liga MX joining the mix – is espectáculo, or its English equivalent, “spectacle.”

We definitely got that in droves on Tuesday night, as a motley and at times captivating crew of MLS and Liga MX standouts treated a lively crowd at Banc of California Stadium to the MLS All-Star Skills Challenge presented by AT&T 5G, putting on an offbeat and infectiously joyous show, one that hopefully is well on its way to becoming an All-Star institution all over again.

This was all the fun of the All-Star experience with almost none of the deep thinking and heady analysis of border rivalry and strategic partnerships and intra-league synergy and so on. BoC’s breezy, palm-tree-lined setting, the downtown LA skyline in relief, provided a perfect backdrop for a made-for-TV caper on a carefree late-summer evening in Tinseltown.

Legends of the past like Cobi Jones and Jorge Campos provided elder counsel with a twinkle in their eyes. Current MLSers like Latif Blessing were spotted here and there in the stands, relaxing like fans for once. Toward the end of the affair, the pulsating speakers across the street in Exposition Park signaled the onset of the All-Star Concert presented by Heineken, featuring Kaytranada and Big Boi, a next stop for the most enterprising revelers.

We even got treated to a sudden cameo from Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, whose return from injury didn’t quite unfold in time for him to be on the pitch this week but didn’t prevent him from waving to the fans and chatting with the FS1 broadcast crew as spectators flocked to cheer – and jeer a bit, too, mostly by black-jersey-clad LAFC supporters.

Even the mockery felt good-natured on a night when everyone was just out to have a nice time and forget the worries that all too often stalk us lately.

Professional athletes are incredibly, often obsessively competitive, sometimes over the most mundane things like locker-room ping pong and crossbar challenges after training sessions. That drive to win anything and everything they’re involved in can lead to some excesses, but it’s also fundamental to why we love to watch them perform. Here we got the bright side of that dichotomy.

While you expect everyone on the pitch to be highly skilled, you can never be quite sure of what the individual players have got in store in the scenarios posed to them on Tuesday.

Lucas Zelarayan turned out to be a sniper in the target games. Orbelin Pineda just about chipped the lights out on the Touch Challenge presented by Old Spice. Andre Blake was a shot-stopping beast. Rogelio Funes Mori was a viciously clinical finisher in the Cross & Volley Challenge presented by AT&T 5G, as was Ricardo Pepi – at least until Tigres UANL’s (in)famous goalkeeping oddball Nahuel Guzman iced him with some shameless (and let's be honest, hilarious) gamesmanship that drew a tongue-in-cheek red card from Blake.

“It was very funny, it was entertaining, it had some competition,” said a beaming Guzman afterward. “We gave some joy to the fans, we made a great show, we had fun, we had a good time. Tomorrow it's going to be more serious; we are taking this with great responsibility, it's a unique event. ... So this is just to warm up.”

It felt that way in the stands, too. Fans clad in a rainbow of club jerseys from across the two leagues and beyond sipped on cheladas and tore into tacos and the many other culinary options at LAFC’s gorgeous home. Packs of hyperactive youth soccer players tore through the concourses in pursuit of the best view of the competition, while executives and VIPs from across the soccer landscapes of these two nations hobnobbed up in the suites.

As MLS old-timers can tell you, the Skills Challenge is an old idea made new again, a feature of the league’s early days placed into mothballs for quite some time before it was brought back to life in fine style at the 2019 ASG in Orlando. An upstart competition hungry for maturity and credibility felt the need for something more serious in those intervening years, and now has circled back to a place where it can confidently cut up a bit.

That’s a welcome evolution and a welcome break in these strange times. Wednesday’s match will dial up the intensity a bit, and then all the teams and players will head home to resume the heavy grind of league play, with weighty World Cup Qualifiers looming and a persistent pandemic still threatening our collective health.

But for one night, we all got to kick around in the backyard again.