MLS All-Star Game: As North American as … All-Star Games

Photographs by Jack Bell

By JACK BELL

downloadCHICAGO — The MLS All-Star Game is Wednesday night at Soldier Field against Real Madrid (kickoff  is at 9:08 p.m. Eastern; Fox Sports 1 goes on the air at 8:30, Univision Deportes at 8 p.m.), a club that has won two straight Champions League titles.

But first a bit of baseball trivia … Yes … baseball trivia. For four years — 1959, ’60, ’61 and ’62 — Major League Baseball played not one, but two all-star games. You can look it up. In the purist sense, we can call baseball’s so-called Midsummer Classic the granddaddy of all all-star games.

The National Basketball Association has one. The National Hockey League has one. The National Football League has one. And over the years, the N.H.L. has fiddled with the format, as has the N.F.L. The N.B.A. is perhaps the most entertaining, with a run-and-gun, high-scoring game that can be extremely entertaining as wonderful athletes put their offensive skills on display. A great advertisement for the game.

Along with format changes have come gimmicks — stuff like skills competitions, the home-run derby, 3-on-3 hockey.

Major League Soccer has always been striving to be accepted in the United States and Canada, the world’s game with a North American twist. Playoffs. All-star games. From its inception in 1996 up until 2004, for the most part MLS used the intra-league format, East vs. West (except in 2002 vs. the U.S. national team and 2003 vs. Chivas Guadalajara).

Since then, including Wednesday night’s match against Real Madrid, the top players in MLS have played a collection of European clubs — heavy on those from Britain (2005-12) before adding Italy (Roma 2013), Bayern Munich (2014) and now Madrid (with a two-year break for North London rivals Tottenham in 2015 and Arsenal last year). That’s 13 straight years.

It is fair to say that MLS is perhaps the only league in the soccer world with a midseason all-star game. The closest counterpart might be the many testimonial matches held for accomplished players.

The coming of Real Madrid is the first in a four-year contract between MLS and Relevent Sports, the organizer of the wildly successful International Champions Cup, which drew huge crowds to preseason exhibitions in the U.S. this summer.

So while it may seem like a forced creation in the soccer world, for U.S. fans and many MLS players, an all-star game is an accepted part of the landscape.

“For us as players, to spend time with others guys from around the league and to get to know them on a personal level is important,” Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley said on Tuesday.

Forget the fact that Bradley has spent many days and weeks with fellow MLS players during his time with the U.S. national team. But we quibble. During a news conference at Soldier Field, Bradley played the good soldier and MLS lobbyist.

“It is an amazing thing,” Bradley added. “We enjoy this and it’s a special night. For anyone to come and play in the game, you must be sharp and you’re representing the league in a good way. We’ll all remember being on the field and we’re here to win.

“What this is about is getting to play with other big players. To be in the spotlight … there’s nothing better. Yes, it’s been a tough stretch [with World Cup qualifying, the CONCACAF Gold Cup and league play], but this is what we love to do.”

It is no secret the match is an exhibition. It does enable league officials to come together in the middle of the season to press the flesh and discuss league issues (for example, owners might decide on Wednesday if a group led by David Beckham will be awarded a team in Miami). It also allows a league that is obsessed with its perceived place in the world of soccer to test its best players against international opposition.

To the teams that come to play, these games are an alien concept. Schweinsteiger was asked about adapting to a game that has no counterpart in other parts of the world, but didn’t quite grasp the question.

“Playing a team like Real Madrid means a lot for us, and for the people of Chicago,” he said. “Playing on the highest level with and against the best players, that’s what matters.

“Yes, it’s a friendly, but for me it’s always about winning. I don’t like to lose games. Real Madrid, for me, everyone wants to win against them. They are the best in Europe. If we win, then maybe we can look forward to winning the World Cup.”

That last crack was obviously a dig at a rather naive question Schweinsteiger was asked by a local Chicago journalist at his introductory news conference earlier this year.

He added about the game: “It’s a good idea, to be honest. When I came in 2014 with Bayern Munich to Portland I fell in love with MLS, with the atmosphere.”

Whatever the interpretation, it is clear that like the playoffs, MLS is not soon likely to do away with the all-star game. Some have suggested a doubleheader (East vs. West from MLS, twinned with a match between international clubs).

What is clear, however, is that MLS wants to be taken seriously and to play the world’s game, but with a distinctly North American twist. That’s fine, just as long as there aren’t two of them!


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