All-Star Victory Step in Right Direction towards Change

The best of MLS defeated the best club in Europe, but it’s still time to move on from this format
by Herb Scribner   |   Thursday, July 26, 2012

2012 MLS All-Star Game (MLS vs Chelsea) - Philadelphia

The losing streak is over.

The Major League Soccer All-Star Team has won its first match in its last four tries with a 3-2 result over the current champion of Europe, Chelsea.

Don’t go to the parade just yet. This is only a small, some may even say meaningless, step for the MLS.

When the score was 2-1 in favor of Chelsea, after Chris Wondolowski’s excellent strike from a Thierry Henry cross, and John Terry and Frank Lampard’s respective goals for Chelsea, I started worrying that this column would turn into another negative poke at the MLS and how the All-Star Game negatively impacts the league. I still feel that way, despite the 3-2 score, but I can say that MLS is beginning to move in the right direction.

The truth is, despite how many people say this game is pointless, stupid and a waste of time, MLS needed a win here. It needed to show that its best players were no longer secondary to a single European club, no matter how victorious. It had to prove that its best 23 players were better than the 15th – 23rd guy on a foreign team. It needed to show the casual fans, that it is still trying to win over daily, that its best can compete with the big boys. And because of Eddie Johnson’s 91st minute goal, MLS can hold its head high knowing it beat the best in Europe. The history books will surely note that

So it’s clearly a positive step for the league, at least image-wise. Another loss would have yet again hammered home the fact that the league’s top players are nowhere near the quality of players in the EPL or La Liga. This isn’t the case with the victory. Instead, we’re being shown the MLS’s best are somewhat comparable to the best in club of European football.

Yes Chelsea is in pre-season and not match-fit yet, but then again MLS All-Star teams are put together in  less than 100 hours and asked to work as a unit. Most of CFC have played together for years. Both negatives equals a push. Neither MLS nor foreign club have that advantage. Neither does MLS for home field advantage, as quite a few Blues fans were in Philly supporting their favorite club. Again, neither MLS nor superclub invitee have advantage.

OK it wasn’t ideal. Undoubtedly a 7-0 or 9-0 decision would have given MLS a huge boost. But it’s a win, and that’s what is important for everyone who wants to see MLS grow. It shows that at least the league’s top players and its play is beginning to see increases in tactical and technical development, and that these top European clubs are no longer guaranteed victories.

Good job, MLS. Claps all around.

But, like every player on that field, you’ve still got a lot of work to do Major League Soccer.

We all understand why MLS wants to do these types of games. After all, clubs akin to Chelsea or Manchester United are global marketing giants and more brands these days than clubs. Their names alone are going to draw crowds everywhere they spend their pre-season. North American sports fans and your casual family of four have heard of these clubs and are willing to pay the big bucks to go and see them when they come to town. It makes sense on MLS’s part as a business to want these clubs to face the Beckhams, the Henrys and the Donovans of the league. It’s marketable versus marketable. Tickets will sell, money will be made and that’ll be that.

But MLS has reached a point where it should no longer need the top European clubs in order to earn some cash. MLS should and could sell itself. It’s time that the league looks at different options.

The casual fan will attend the All-Star Game no matter who plays because the general American fans love events. Events are easy sells, season tickets are a lot harder to market and sell, especially for lackluster franchises. But if you promote the game and market it like other All-Star Games in North America, perhaps the seats would still fill without having the enticement or financial burden of bringing in the big European clubs.

It’s tremendous that the MLS got the victory last night. It shows if not reaffirms to the general public in the USA, Canada and worldwide what most MLS diehards already know – this league is on the way up, and that it isn’t going to keep taking a backseat to big clubs in its own All-Star Game by keeping the losing streak going.

But again these All-Stars vs. Random-Top-European-Club-Pulled-Out-Of-A-Hat games need to stop. Whether MLS wins or loses, its current All-Star setup, despite being tried and tested, is one that the league needs to dump and move on from in order to grow further. They need to try something new and see just how much fanbase is out there.

These are essential years for the growth of MLS. There’s no new expansion plans yet, nothing big regarding soccer specific stadiums, nothing like that on the docket. These are the years where the league will need to develop its skill, wider marketing appeal and its business strategy. It’s a time where the league has an opportunity to try new things.

And they should start with the All-Star Game. Unlike the many folks out there saying it should be dropped all together, I say the league should keep it. The vast majority of fans dig an All-Star Game. It’s got a majestic appeal that many other games don’t. It’s a great idea, don’t get rid of it, just tweak it a bit.

East vs. West

This is the easiest solution as MLS is already split up into those two conferences. It could be a nice change of pace, especially since we haven’t seen that since 2004, to see the two sides clash. It’ll put the focus on the league more than anything else, and make potential viewers see just how fun the MLS can really be.

The East versus West format could actually sell out most MLS sized soccer specific stadiums. AS Roma and Liverpool packed Fenway Park from wall-to-Green Monster on the same day as the ASG and Wrigley and Yankee Stadiums can do similarly, so could an East versus West game in one of our fancy MLS boutique stadiums. In the current MLS player pool, we have up and coming players from America and Canada, we have national team players from the majority of CONCACAF nations, we have players about to move to Europe and we even have the old recognizable DPs. There are 36 to 46 of these players that could be named, and enough of them are known enough to pull in fans. It also rewards enough players where most clubs, fans and players wouldn’t feel too despondent if they missed out like Columbus felt in recent years.

It’s a format similar to the baseball All-Star Game, which was recently voted as one of the best professional all-star games in the country. It pits the best from one conference against the best of the other. Fans in North America dig this, they really do.

American MLS vs. Foreign MLS

This is what the NHL formerly did and MLS experimented with in the early years too. You’d see players who have been in MLS for the majority of their career take on Beckham, Henry, Rafa Marquez and other players who came to MLS in recent years. That’s certainly a way to have that wow and punch-factor of a European side, but at the same time, keep it all MLS players, increase the exposure to league players and save the large appearance fees needed by foreign clubs.

Move it to the weekend and add watchable periphery events

All-Star Games are, and should be, a spectacle. MLB has a homerun derby, the NFL has a skills competition, the NBA – who are masters of the spectacle – has a whole Saturday evening designed around slam dunks, three point shooting, passing, celebrity games and other events. MLS could easily look into this as well.

Add in a freestyle competition for the best MLS players on the ball. A futsal or seven-a-side celebrity game with the likes of noted footy fans like Kobe Bryant, Chad Ochocinco, Leonardo DiCaprio and dare I say Justin Beiber who have all been seen at MLS games anyway. Even a rookie game that placed the Academy kids versus the kids drafted could potentially be both fun to watch, and a debate starter for the way we develop youth players in North America.

Basically, there’s a lot of different ways the MLS can go from here. There’s a great list of options for the All-Star Game. It’s definitely time to switch things up.

MLS, you just got a major victory. You ended a losing streak and defeated the Champions League winners Chelsea. It’s a nice way to ride that style of All-Star Game off into the sunset.

It’s a good closing chapter. It is now time to break out the creative juices, notebooks and pens to start writing that new ASG chapter.

Herb SCRIBNER

Nationality:
USA
College:
UMass Amherst
Club Domestic:
RSL
Club Foreign:
FC Barcelona
SN managing editor and award-winning journalist, Herb has always been known as "The Soccer Guy" wherever he goes. He's a leftback in most outdoor and indoor leagues. He also writes for Deseret News National.
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