Wednesday night in St. Paul, Minnesota represented a showcase for the top talents from North America’s largest leagues, a lively international spectacle for fans of many stripes and a much-deserved close-up for the Twin Cities’ thriving soccer culture and the graceful venue at its heart.
"A great group of guys"
Above all, the MLS All-Star Game presented by Target provided a celebration, a gathering of luminaries both on and off the field that served as another milestone for an explosively-growing league, and a pleasant distraction before the 2022 season’s final sprint.
“The most pleasing thing was the competitive nature of all the guys,” said MLS All-Stars and Minnesota United FC coach Adrian Heath after his team’s 2-1 victory over their Liga MX counterparts at Allianz Field. “Everybody's actually, I think, enjoyed being with each other in the group. So the atmosphere in the dressing room is terrific. The guys have been an absolute pleasure to be around for the last two or three days.”
The honor of making this roster is one thing; the firsthand experience offers another level.
“A great group of guys here,” said Loons goalkeeper and All-Star MVP Dayne St. Clair. “Just seeing some guys off the field and being teammates with them, because sometimes when you’re playing against some guys, they’re a little bit different than when you’re teammates with them. So that’s been nice, and I’m sure they’d probably say the same about me.”
The MLS All-Star Game provides a change of pace for elite professionals accustomed to facing off as rivals in club play, a chance to work as teammates, to train and break bread together. This one, in particular, had a real family atmosphere, with children like Walker Zimmerman’s young son Tucker front and center.
The Englishman is now an MLS veteran, having led Orlando City SC into MLS before moving north to oversee a comparable project at MNUFC. He’s seen the growth and maturation of US and Canadian soccer, and spoke with pride of his club progressing along a similar journey, a story they and their supporters proudly shared with the rest of the league this week.
“The way that the club has shown itself,” said Heath, “I knew that people would turn up. I didn’t think that so many would turn up last night in the skills game, that speaks volumes. And then tonight, I knew the stadium would be full tonight.
“It's been a great way to showcase what the club is about. I’m so pleased for all the ownership and everything we've tried to do here, and it shows. Six years in, the club is now firmly on the map and I think that we can only get bigger and stronger and better.”
Mutual respect between leagues
Such links stretched across to the Liga MX side as well. The cut and thrust of the game itself, with heavy tackles, emotional reactions and other signs of full commitment from the players, revealed this to be an exhibition match with some stakes, some pride on the line.
But the nastiness of yore between the US and Mexican national teams, the bad blood that so enflamed past border matchups, has evolved into something closer to mutual respect and recognized commonalities.
“We had a great game. Like I said to the boys, this is a great experience, and especially because we got to meet and to know each other,” said Liga MX All-Stars and Atlas manager Diego Cocca, an Argentine who has coached across Latin America.
“Rivalry is good. We can grow. If you have a strong rival, you can grow, you can get better. And both leagues can grow like this. And I think that the barometer is going to be the Concacaf Champions League. We came here and we lost, they can go there [to Mexico] and they can lose. For example, at Estadio Jalisco, the result could be different.”
New fronts of competition between the two leagues loom large, like the upcoming 2022 Campeones Cup between Atlas and New York City FC, and next year’s launch of a dramatically expanded Leagues Cup. The hope is that broad, sustained, toe-to-toe competition between member clubs can expand on the spectacle served up by these last two All-Star meetings.
“MLS won today. We had many opportunities; we played very well. There was no big difference, there is no big gap between the leagues,” said Cocca. And those who’ve followed the region’s soccer scene for any length of time will recognize the quiet revolution represented in his words.