MLS All-Star Game missing Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic but remains vital to league's business
ATLANTA -- Three blocks from the hotel where most MLS All-Star festivities are taking place, a shop window displays a bootleg Cristiano Ronaldo jersey in Juventus' famous black and white.
The presence of the knockoff, as well as an expected crowd of over 70,000 fans for Wednesday night's match between the MLS All-Stars and Juventus (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), are the latest signs that the game of soccer has seeped into the pores of this city, one that is in the heart of SEC country.
Ronaldo isn't here, of course. No. 1 in ESPN's World Fame 100 only just began training with his new team back in Turin, along with the rest of club's contingent that took part in the knockout stages of the World Cup.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, No. 25 on our list of sport's most famous names, isn't here either. Shortly after the LA Galaxy forward scored a hat trick in a 4-3 win against Orlando City on Sunday, it was announced that he would skip the All-Star Game, even though by league rule it also means he will have to sit out Saturday's league tilt against the Colorado Rapids. The opportunity to get some rest -- and avoid a cross-country trip for a game on artificial turf -- was deemed to be enough of an inducement for the league's marquee player to stay home.
The decision couldn't have pleased MLS commissioner Don Garber, although he took the high road on Monday, stating, "I'm always disappointed when players decide not to come."
And so the two sides of the MLS All-Star Game coin were revealed. The match remains vitally important to the business wing of the league, as it is a time to connect with sponsors, potential investors and the broader soccer community.
On the field, it's a different story. The chance to play against a club with Juventus' pedigree -- even if it is missing its best players -- provides a jolt of adrenaline for the All-Stars. But in the bigger picture, to some, the game remains something of a nuisance for players and coaches alike. It takes place amid a packed summer schedule with the stretch run toward the playoffs looming. An injury in an exhibition game at this time of the season, like the one that felled Atlanta United defender Greg Garza last year, could have a significant impact on a team's championship hopes.
Atlanta United manager Tata Martino, who is managing the MLS All-Stars, said in Monday's news conference, "We have to make sure players arrive here in good condition and are also returning to their teams in good condition."
There are no easy solutions, even as Martino called for the game to be moved to a different time of year. One possibility is to move the game from midweek to the weekend and create a bigger run-up to the match, but that would rob the league's teams of getting a lucrative gate on a weekend night and push another game to midweek. There seems to be no easing of the fixture congestion that comes as overseas teams travel to North America for preseason games against MLS sides.
"I understand the challenges on playing the game this time of year, but it is our midseason break and it is a time when we're able to get an international opponent," said Garber during a charity event on Monday. "I will tell you that I've been in this business 35 years. All-Star Games have great value for fans and for leagues and for players and for partners. But there are always going to be challenges that you've got to work through and every league does."
In judging the merits of the MLS All-Star Game, sometimes it helps to have a long-term horizon, and Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst has precisely that view. Wednesday's match will mark the sixth time he's taken part in the event. His first was back in 2005, when he was with the New England Revolution. From his perspective, the All-Star Game today is unrecognizable from back then.
"There's just more people around, the buzz in the city, the opponent, everything just seems to be bigger," said Parkhurst. "Our team is better, it's got more talent than it did 10 years ago. It just seems like last year in Chicago, the whole city knew that the All-Star Game was going on. It was just a buzz. Same thing here this year. It just makes it fun."
Would the event have even more hype if both Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic were present? Without question. But that hasn't stopped Atlanta's denizens from embracing it. As MLS, the U.S. Soccer Foundation and Target unveiled a new soccer mini-pitch at Anderson Park, the connection to the local team was clear. The children on hand shouted "Martinez!" as Atlanta forward and MLS leading scorer Josef Martinez took part in the proceedings.
The crowd that attended the two open training sessions on Tuesday was a bit quiet compared with last year's event in Chicago, although in that instance the presence of Real Madrid created its usual frenzy. But as the players made their way from the locker room to the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and back, the gauntlet created by autograph-seeking fans contained plenty of enthusiasm, with countless fans calling out for Atlanta midfielder Ezequiel Barco. If Atlanta United's crowds are anything to go by, the atmosphere on Wednesday should be even more energized.
In many ways, the MLS All-Star Game is like the league itself. Both have plenty of imperfections, but continue to grow. A little more star power will help accelerate that process.