First things first. I cannot write about the AT&T MLS All-Star Game without making one request up front. Please, all you analysts and pundits, spare us the cringe-worthy line that this game is in any way “important” for MLS and the way it’s perceived around the world. There, I said it.
It’s an exhibition, a celebration of the sport, a night to enjoy the beauty of the game, while hoping to see some great soccer, without really caring at all about the result. If the MLS All-Stars beat AS Roma, it doesn’t mean MLS has made any great statement about its growth or strength. And if Roma beat the MLS All-Stars, no American or Canadian fists should be pounded in anger.
Looking back, did the 3-2 MLS victory over Chelsea last year at PPL Park have any more of a lasting impact for the league than the 4-0 defeat to Manchester United at Red Bull Arena? We’ve been down this road before, not just with MLS All-Star games against international competition but also with friendlies against international competition. There are no statements to be made, no messages to send the world in victory, and no reasons to feel bad in defeat.
Enjoy the night.
Now, having written that, I do want it known that I want MLS coach Peter Vermes to play the game as straight-up as an All-Star coach can play a game. I think Vermes knows this without me writing it, but there’s no need to get silly and play two in the back or four up top. No need to play to the crowd at Sporting Park. Just put a team on the field that can play good, honest soccer.
When you make your player selections, take all things into account, not only who’s had a great first half to the 2013 season, but also who’s a guy you want to put on the field against Roma, to fill a specific role in the system you plan on using in the game. Yeah, you might catch some heat for a few of those picks, but that’s part of the deal in this process, and part of the fun.
I think the best way to go is with a “hybrid” form of team selection. Try to roughly pick the same amount of players who are deserving based on their 2013 peformance (for example, Mike Magee, Jack McInerney, Will Johnson) and those who are, basically, the guys you think are the best players in the league (maybe Landon Donovan enters the discussion here).
And make those selections with a team in mind. Because we want this to play like a real game, if that makes sense. We are going to need role players, not just ball wizards, on the field. Okay?
It’s going back a lot of years now so I’m not sure why I bring this up, but I railed against MLS players in the early days of the league turning the old East vs. West All-Star games into something akin to the old MTV Rock 'n Jock games. You remember the year when Jim Rooney and Donovan broke out the sports bras? Some thought it was funny. I did not laugh.
The league did the right thing by changing the format to its current MLS vs. an international club team -- permanently -- in 2005, when Fulham played the MLS All-Stars in Columbus.
The right tone was set. While these games were not going to played at full-speed in terms of tackles and fouls, they were going to be played with appropriate levels of intensity and spirit.
In turn, the AT&T MLS All-Star Game has turned into a good night of soccer, even if it’s not a statement of any kind. And I’d like to think we’re all good with that.