Each morning for the past few days, I have received an email detailing the day's itinerary for a crammed MLS All-Star week -- a mix of charity events, personal appearances, concerts and general face-painted good humor, with a game or two thrown in for good measure.
The item that is missing off all the itineraries, but should probably be included, is the publishing of annual cynical thought pieces about the value of the All-Star Game, which as far as I can tell are as much a part of the festivities as all those other phenomena.
The All-Star Game (Wednesday, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) is an easy target for the cynical. In a league that from its inception struggled to find the right balance between calorie-free spectacle and competition and which at various stages has had a cultural cringe about its relationship to both the other major sports in its own country and the European game, the idea of a prototypically American format featuring preseason European opposition should be the worst of all possible worlds.
The thing is, I love All-Star week for what it is rather than what it lacks. That could be the same unduly optimistic me talking that gets inappropriately excited about seeing vanishing spray show up at the World Cup, but it's true. More leagues should have such a week.
And that's the first key point: It is a week. The game itself is the centerpiece, and it's perfectly valid to question the competitive value of said game, even if that questioning quickly becomes an annually redundant exercise. To summarize the usual complaints: It tells us nothing reliable about the relative competitive merits of MLS and other leagues, it clogs an already cramped domestic schedule, the fan vote is skewed by brand recognition, etc.
True statements so far as they go. But the game is only one part of a week that, at its best, showcases a club's relationship to its city. (Note I say "at its best." It's not inevitable that All-Star weeks do this, but they create the conditions where the best venues can do so.)
Kansas City put on a great All-Star week last year. A concentrated program of events in the Power and Light District of the city anchored the festivities. If you have never been to Kansas City but saw footage of the mass of fans gathered in that packed open-air space during World Cup watch parties -- the same space was equally crammed during last year's All-Star week.
Last year also gave me the moment of watching Portland Timbers chairman Merritt Paulson deep in thought on a balcony above the throng at one particularly crammed party, gazing out at the standard being set for this year's celebrations.
As Kansas City was, Portland should be a great venue for All-Star week, in that the program has a genuine chance to reach true event status (as opposed to, say, New York's ability to swallow a Super Bowl without burping, which in turn doesn't give an MLS event much of a chance to truly register).
But the current and last All-Star cities, and the host teams in particular, also have in common a sense of dialogue between club and fans, particularly the millennials who are the most visible presence on the streets for the week's events.
MLS likes to tout the importance of a downtown location for its current wave of expansions (it was mooted as a possible deal breaker in Miami last week), but Kansas City's successful life in an out-of-town location indicates that just as important is a nuanced and open mutual understanding between club and fan base -- not necessarily one without friction but one that shows a mutual understanding of how the fans' presence can meaningfully activate a club.
On that score, the origins of Sporting KC's financial backing in the digital economy, and subsequent instinct toward fan feedback, rather than fear or disdain of it, was telling when it hosted All-Star week. The fans were much more than set dressing.
Portland has an almost unrivaled, theatrical game-day experience within the league that will doubtlessly be showcased this week, but it also has a fan base whose involvement transcends the 90 minutes of the game. The Timbers fans' relationship with the club's ownership isn't always easy, given Paulson's occasional take-no-prisoners PR style, but it feels like a three-dimensional one and at its best produces moments like the amazing coordinated show of support from fans and club for young Atticus Lane-Dupre's Make-a-Wish date last year.
You can't fake that sense of collective ownership of a project. At the Philadelphia All-Star Game in 2012, it was possible to experience the still thriving and growing supporter culture centered on the Sons of Ben, who virtually willed an expansion team into existence and rightfully used the week as an opportunity to celebrate themselves. Yet it was also possible to sense some of the malaise around the club, with the Peter Nowak project recently acrimoniously ended, and something of a disconnect between the fans and ownership. The club did its thing, the hardcore fans did their thing. To paraphrase a line from "Dead Poets Society," at moments it felt like "We're not cheering for you. We're cheering next to you."
There's another geographical element that makes All-Star week important. The United States and Canada are huge territories, and centerpiece occasions are strategically and ceremonially important. A lot of league business gets done here (a transfer deadline is looming, remember), including one-on-one deals being thrashed out, a procession of committees on such topics as concussion protocol and sponsor progress reports, and front-office networking and recruitment. If that sounds dry, it is, but it's also subtly important for the balance of power within the league.
Coverage from MLS All-Star 2014:
- Parker: Henry should be cherished
- McIntyre: Merits of the All-Star Game format
- Davis: 2014 MLS midseason awards
- Carlisle: MLS Power Rankings: Week 21
- McIntyre: Dempsey discusses U.S. future
- Marshall: Torres enjoying the limelight
- Carlisle: MLS midseason report cards
- Parker: Cynics wrong about All-Star Game
- McIntyre: Familiarity gives All-Stars the edge
It's a good thing to have a critical mass of stakeholders in one place at one time, in a way that's distinct from the more atomized gatherings for different aspects of league business that take place at MLS HQ in New York throughout the year. Having a structural element of the MLS program that shifts on an annual basis is important as the league grows and its identity develops. You could even argue that other countries and leagues, for whom power tends to consolidate and reinforce itself around capital cities, could benefit from such a rotation.
There's also the players' sense of ownership that matters.
Any formal recognition from fans and peers is a nice acknowledgment for a pro, even those whose achievements in the global game are up there with Thierry Henry's, for example, but All-Star week is one of the few places where certain high-profile players and league stalwarts get to mingle with each other.
Again, it's easy to be wary about the motivations of players whose commitment to "helping this league grow" is significantly eased by wage packets competitive to the going rate for players of their age or nationality. But it's equally true that, having committed to this ideal, for whatever reason, marquee players swiftly find themselves on the same weekly treadmill as the lowliest MLS journeyman -- in other words, traveling thousands of miles in and out of cities they never get to properly see and playing against opposing players whom they will next be nearest to when their flight paths happen to bring them close in midair.
It's hard for MLS players who have come from outside North America to get a true sense of the larger community they are a part of, especially when soccer is not the all-consuming cultural behemoth it is in other countries. The league's culture in the U.S. is fragmented -- intense in pockets, barely existent in others, with a limited media mirror held up to it -- but one benefit of an All-Star week for the engaged player is to swap experiences with fellow players in a way that doesn't otherwise present itself. To orientate themselves within the bigger picture.
It was telling to see an injured Tim Cahill show up for the game in Kansas City last summer, since he is one of the imports whose enthusiasm for the MLS project rings true, and he was one of the most visible players around the All-Star team hotel, interacting with fellow pros and fans as often as he could. Players aren't exempt from that sense of belonging to something larger than themselves that marks All-Star week. The league is still young enough that its stars count as a particular type of pioneer, and like many of the rest of us who will be there, many of them will enjoy the chance to offer a nod of shared experience to fellow travelers at one of the few mutual rest stops the league allows.
Ultimately, for all that the All-Star Game tends to be criticized, the error is often to look for meaning in all the wrong places. The most recent All-Star opposition, Manchester United, Chelsea, Roma and Bayern Munich, all have their American ambitions, but they are not the same ones as MLS has for itself and the game is not a true referendum on either.
If you're there, say hello, enjoy it for what it is, make friends, swap experiences and go back to following your teams. Personally, I draw the line at getting my face painted, but that's about as cynical as I can get on All-Star week.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, Grantland, The Guardian US and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @KidWeil.