Major League Soccer's All-Star Game needs a new look
That Arsenal's squad for this week's MLS All-Star game is missing a host of key players gives further credence to the idea that, after 20 years, the league's showpiece summer occasion has become little more than a distraction right in the middle of what is supposed to be the ramp-up to the most competitive portion of the season.
A shift in format 11 years ago has robbed the game of any legitimate sort of competition, leaving behind nothing but a friendly featuring a visiting foreign club and there are multiple problems with the current MLS All-Stars vs. preseason mode European squad format.
The first is the name power of the opposing squad; while this year it is Arsenal and its famous brand taking on the MLS team in San Jose on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN), in years past the game has featured such "powerhouses" as Celtic, Fulham, and Everton.
But even when some of the European continent's bigger teams make the transatlantic voyage, their squads are often dominated by reserves, unknown youngsters and faded stars. That's exactly the case this year with the Gunners.
After a busy international summer, the list of players manager Arsene Wenger has at his disposal is woefully bereft of the team's most famous names. Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny have all been rested, while Per Mertesacker pulled out on Monday with an injury.
No offense to David Ospina, who was excellent in net for Colombia at Copa America Centenario, but it's a commentary on the state of the Arsenal team for the All-Star Game when his name is highlighted in an MLS press release. Ospina isn't even Arsenal's first-choice keeper; that role is filled by Petr Cech (the first name mentioned in the release, and though he's a big name, he's still a goalkeeper).
Other notable names listed for effect were the now-injured Mertesacker, as well as Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Gedion Zelalem, the last of whom makes the cut because he's a young American prospect. None, though, can measure up to those who are missing. Indeed, none of the English players are even regular starters for Arsenal.
There are two debates to be had around the All-Star Game: One is whether it should be played at all and the second concerns what format it should take.
If the game is still needed to help boost the league's profile, it might be time to take a hard look at the way it's presented. Not only are visiting foreign teams often lacking their stars, but it is worth wondering if it's wise for MLS to continue to set up its players as second billing in its own event.
Fixing that particular problem wouldn't be difficult. MLS could simply go back to the original format, pitting the Eastern Conference's best against the best from the Western Conference. Such a game would put more of the growing talent of the league on display, even if it wouldn't grab the attention of some Euro-focused American soccer fans.
Alternatively, a previously used format could be also brought back, with a team of Americans facing off against a select side of foreign players.
Another possible wrinkle would be the "fantasy/playground" concept, where the captains or honorary coaches of each team pick a side from a group of selected all-stars. The NWSL has adopted the idea, after both the NHL and NFL chose to spice up their respective all-star contests with this intriguing process.
As MLS continues to grow and improve, the juice of the All-Star Game in its current format becomes less and less worth the squeeze. Players no doubt appreciate the recognition, and many have contract bonuses based on their selection, but playing for pride against a famous club like Arsenal, no matter who lines up wearing their jersey, still fits the narrative of MLS as an up-and-coming league with something to prove.
The negatives are getting ever closer to outweighing the positives. MLS coaches don't like sending their best players away to play in a game that doesn't matter, especially since it risks their health. If the league is going to let the All-Star Game undermine its competition, it at least needs to make it worth the effort.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.