Posted by: mdegeorge | July 28, 2011

A Major League All-Star Conundrum

After a second straight season in which the Major League Soccer all-stars have been drubbed by Manchester United, the debate has inevitably begun as to whether these showcases are still beneficial for the league.

The MLS – which doesn’t stand for Manchester Leaves ’em Splattered – is doing as well as it ever has in its two decades of existence, drawing a fan base all its own. The league is sustained not just by the high-priced designated players at the ends of their careers that it strives to attract, but also by home-grown young talent and foreign players mostly from the Western Hemisphere very much in their primes. The league has developed a class of stars that is able to sustain the league’s popularity, growing markets that remain small but boast intensely loyal fanbases.

Is the dominance by Ryan Giggs and his Manchester United mates over the MLS All-Stars helping build the sport in the States? (Courtesy of Creative Commons.)

When it comes to an all-star game, a stadium like Red Bull Arena, which seats 25,000, could easily be filled by fans of just the best in the MLS. There are plenty to choose from as the league continues to expand, making the East vs. West format all the more enticing. After all, a match against international opponents limits the number of MLS’s best that can see the field, and most of those that aren’t named David Beckham and playing against the team that made them famous are limited to 45 minutes of less. The E-W format allows more of the players the fans vote in to see time on the pitcher and is a more representative contest to showcase the league.

An All-MLS All-Star game also provides a more competitive match, with both teams similarly disadvantaged by the lack of playing time. Instead of what appears like a compulsory demolition by one of the big teams, the two teams of MLS’s best that are similarly disadvantaged by a lack of practice time together could play each other more evenly. It would produce a more even and entertaining game than a glorified Man U training session.

But the MLS All-Star extravaganza is, and probably will remain for the foreseeable future, more a demonstration of the sport than the league. An E-W game would fill the stands, but it would do so with less ease than a marquee opponent like Manchester United provides. It would also suffer in the television ratings. I, for one, am much more likely to tune in knowing that I get a sneak peak at the preseason training habits of a major European club.

The name of the game in the States remains growing the brand and the sport; placing the best of MLS next to the best of the world in clubs like Man U. I’d venture to say that a majority of the fans interested in the All-Star tilt are not only because the major European club is involved, but they also likely came to MLS after being a fan of a major European club like Man U to begin with.

The MLS vs. The World notion doesn’t need an overhaul; it just needs a tweak. Maybe a team like Manchester United is proving to be too far above the level of the league, producing back to back lopsided results (4-0 Wednesday, 5-2 last year). It may be a sufficiently entertaining though less intimidating EPL team like Everton – who the 2009 All-Stars lost to on penalty kicks after a 1-1 finish – or a marketable team from another league such as Italy that may be a more suitable opponent for the league. The search for opposition is tricky, as most teams that are probably on the MLS’s level don’t make the trip across the Atlantic, while those that do are, like Man U, far superior. The answer might lie in a team like Inter or Milan, teams willing to make the voyage overseas on a regular basis. A better balance between players testing themselves and actually being able to deliver some kind of result should be struck.

For now, though, the MLS All-Star format is fine the way it is. The final score is less important than the final effect the game has for the league and the sport in the States.

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