With MLS maturing, it's time to return the All-Star Game to East vs. West
On Wednesday, Major League Soccer's best will line up against Real Madrid at Chicago's Soldier Field. It promises to be a star-studded affair with David Villa, Giovani Dos Santos, Kaka and others taking on Gareth Bale, Marcelo, Luka Modric, and the rest of Zinedine Zidane's European champions.
The match will be an exhibition, of course, but also a nice showcase for the league, a 90-minute stretch that could draw headlines around the globe. Playing a club with the international pedigree of Real Madrid, after all, will never be a bad thing.
Wednesday's game marks the 13th straight year in which the All-Star Game consisted of a group from MLS taking on an international club. It began with a 4-1 win over Fulham in 2005 and has featured Chelsea and Manchester United twice, along with Roma, Bayern Munich, Arsenal and a few other notable clubs. (The All-Stars vs. Guest format also occurred in 2002 and 2003, when the league's stars played the U.S. national team and Chivas de Guadalajara, respectively, before reverting to East vs. West for a year in 2004.)
Overall, the MLS vs. a popular European team has been a successful experiment. But after nearly a decade and a half, with the domestic league maturing, the time for the format to end is drawing near. In the near future, the MLS All-Star Game should feature only players from the league.
There were three major reasons for switching to the MLS vs. World format. One was to increase the level of competition. While All-Star Games in all sports leagues are inherently free-flowing exhibitions geared toward offense, the MLS All-Star Games at the turn of the millennium were spinning out of control. In 1999, the West won 6-4 followed by a 9-4 East win in 2000 and a 6-6 draw in 2001, highlighted by four goals from Landon Donovan.
Goals are fun; three straight games ticking into double digits, however, makes a mockery of the sport. That's somewhere between 300 and 400 percent more goals than teams scored per game during the regular season. Even the NBA All-Star Game, which critics deride for its lack of defense, sees only a 50-100 percent increase in scoring compared to regular-season action.
The second reason was to help MLS gain visibility around the world. An All-Star Game featuring a team such as Chelsea, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid will naturally draw more attention abroad than one in which players from the league face off against one another. It presented a way to show European audiences a stadium full of passionate fans to prove that Americans were interested in soccer.
Finally, in the early days of the league, MLS lacked the depth to field two full All-Star teams. With at least 18 players per side, that's three dozen guys earning a nod. In 2004, the last year of the East vs. West format, MLS had 10 teams, which means almost a third of each squad's starting lineup made the All-Star team. That's... a lot.
But MLS in 2017 is not the same as MLS in 2004 or even MLS in 2010. None of the reasons for continuing to bring in European teams are as compelling as they were five, 10 or 15 years ago.
From a competitive standpoint, playing a European giant is always going to be a tricky proposition. It's a no-win situation for the domestic league's team. If the MLS players prevail, as they have done in more than half the games in the past, it gets written off as an empty victory against a team on a preseason U.S. vacation. If they lose, the narrative is that MLS' strongest players aren't good enough to compete. If the MLS squad tries too hard, as it did during the 2014 match with Bayern Munich, the opposing coach and players get angry, and "Handshake-gate" ensues. No one needs that to happen again.
Two teams made up of MLS players would compete against each other, bringing an appropriate level of effort to the field, focusing on having a good time and bringing the viewing audience in as well. And if the occasional game ends 6-6 or 9-4, so what? As long as the goals are good, people won't complain.
Furthermore, MLS has enough talent to make two strong rosters. The 24 All-Stars this season represent only 12 teams, which means nearly half the league doesn't have anyone to root for. That's disappointing, and it's also the type of small thing that stymies growth. Fans might not watch one of MLS' signature events because they don't feel invested in the players. An easy fix for that problem is to have more All-Stars. Expanding to two teams of 18, or even 20, players would give more spots and get more fan bases involved.
Of the three reasons for playing a European squad, the visibility it would bring across the pond remains the most useful. The All-Star Game can be a good showcase for how the league is growing -- a sold-out Solider Field will make a strong impression -- and clubs like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich want to partake in the game as they try to build their brands in America.
But MLS could have it both ways. They could hold a double-header, for example, with an all-MLS All-Star Game and a friendly between two European teams on the same night. Or they could hold the games on consecutive nights, with soccer taking over the host city for a weekend.
If the logistics are too complicated or if there's a concern that the All-Star Game would be overshadowed by the friendly, what about bringing in a European squad to participate in a skills competition? Imagine Gareth Bale racing Kekuta Manneh, Keylor Navas and Tim Howard facing off in a shot-stopping competition, Sebastian Giovinco and Karim Benzema battling in some sort of finishing challenge. I'd tune in for that, and I imagine I'm not the only one.
MLS, now in its 22nd year, is growing up. It's time its All-Star Game does as well.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.