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Aug 5, 2014

Players debate MLS All-Star format

Seattle Sounders forward Clint Dempsey looks ahead to Wednesday's MLS All-Star Game against Bayern Munich and suggests some changes he would like to see to the format.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- As they do every year around this time, arguments about the ideal format for Major League Soccer's All-Star Game resumed right on schedule in the Rose City, where the league's best face German titan Bayern Munich on Wednesday (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN).

U.S. national team captain Clint Dempsey wasted no time bringing the debate back to the forefront at Monday's prematch news conference, when he suggested that the league ought to revert to its old-school East-West setup, the one MLS employed in six of its first nine midsummer classics. Dempsey said that doing so would "reward more players," and it's hard to disagree with the Seattle Sounders forward when you consider that the league's second-leading scorer -- Sporting Kansas City striker Dom Dwyer -- was left off the original 23-man roster.

SKC striker Dom Dwyer was not on the original All-Star Game roster, but the MLS' second-leading scorer got a late invite after Jermain Defoe withdrew with an injury.

Dwyer was eventually extended an invite after fellow Englishman Jermain Defoe of Toronto FC was forced to withdraw because of a groin injury, and it must be noted that the league's collective bargaining agreement stipulates that 32 players are named All-Stars (and receive the resulting performance bonuses) even if they don't actually take part in the on-site festivities. But as long as MLS keeps inviting foreign teams, there's no question that a few deserving players will miss out on the chance to be recognized alongside their peers. Some argue that's a small price to pay for MLS to continue to present what commissioner Don Garber once called "the most competitive All-Star Game in pro sports."

While those East-West games may have been fun, competitive they were not; the last three editions ended with scorelines of 3-2 (2004), 6-6 (2001) and 9-4 (2000).

"I've seen it go from a very casual friendly game to a very meaningful real game," said Los Angeles Galaxy forward Landon Donovan, who is participating in his 14th consecutive All-Star Game. "If you're just going to go through the motions, you might as well stay home."

On Tuesday, MLS president Mark Abbott made it clear that the league had no intention of switching back.

"We think that this format works really well for us," Abbott said. "We think it brings a really cool dynamic to the game to be playing international competition."

And usually it has worked out well, not least this year. The deal with Bayern was signed months before Germany -- featuring six Bayern players, all of whom are contractually obligated to take the field Wednesday even though they will arrive in Portland just hours before kickoff -- hoisted the World Cup in Brazil on July 13. MLS got similarly lucky two years ago when it lined up English club Chelsea, which unexpectedly went on to win the Champions League.

Still, Abbott stopped short of saying the league would never go back to East-West.

"I rule nothing out as to what the All-Star Game format could be in the future," he said. "There's no specific plan to go to East-West, and there's no specific plan to change the format right now."

And even if Dempsey has a case, few of his teammates seemed to share his opinion.

"The East-and-West thing is fun, but these kind of games are fun as well, playing against players you'd normally never get a chance to," SKC midfielder Graham Zusi said.

Besides, All-Star games aren't just about the players.

"No disrespect to anyone, but I'm sure the fans in Portland also want to see Bayern Munich," Thierry Henry said. "It's a debate you can have."

Notes: After being overlooked originally, nobody is happier to be in Portland than Dwyer. "I felt that I just missed out, so I was a little bit disappointed," he said. "Then my phone rang at the weekend and I'm here. When I came in, guys on other teams were saying, 'You should have been here from the beginning.' It was genuine. That definitely felt good." Zusi was thrilled for his teammate: "I fully expected him to be on the team initially. He certainly deserved it. Justice was served."

Doug McIntyre

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. He has watched or attended almost every U.S. men's national team game since Paul Caligiuri's "shot heard 'round the world" and has covered the Yanks for The Mag since 2005. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.

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