As the MLS All-Star Game approaches, a familiar topic has sprung up in MLS circles across the country. The debate about whether the MLS All-Star Game should go back to a West vs East matchup as opposed to playing against a foreign team usually doesn’t last too long, but as an MLS fan I feel it’s worth mentioning and talking about. Although I personally believe that the novelty of all-star games has worn off, I do find that MLS has an advantage over the other sports leagues. The current format of the game brings out these advantages and it’s why I feel the current format should continue to be used.
The current format of having the MLS All-Stars play against a foreign team started in 2002 when the All-Stars played the USMNT. It is no coincidence that this format was used the year after the league folded behind closed doors. Executives had to do something to spark interest in the league not only domestically, but also internationally. Since then, a number of foreign teams have played in the All-Star game. Some of these include Manchester United, Chelsea, Roma, Bayern, and Chivas just to name a few. This is where the debate begins. Do we still need to use outside help to promote the league or are we stable enough to allow a West vs East game to return? Though it’s a valid question, I believe it’s the wrong one to ask. The correct one is how do we make it more watchable and enjoyable to the fans? All-Star games have long been an American tradition so I don’t believe scrapping it is an option. Therefore, how do we still keep it interesting? Baseball has made the choice to award home field advantage at the World Series to the league who wins the game. Football has pushed back their game after the Superbowl instead of the week before. MLS decided to invite some of the most popular teams in the world to play against their best players, but they also inadvertently tapped into the essence of the game and the desire of every soccer fan’s subconscious: defense!
Soccer is the only sport where running up the score cheapens the game and therefore, is highly discouraged. It is a stark contrast to any other sport where a high scoring affair makes the game more fun and exciting. However, this is the purpose of an all-star game. It caters to the fans by making it fun and exciting. It works well in basketball where high scores are an absolute must to make it watchable. The same can be said about football and baseball(the no-hitter or perfect game is the exception). Soccer, however, needs a low score to make it fun and exciting. The current All-Star format offers this by adding competitiveness to a game that lacks any sort of real meaning.
Before 2002, the All Star Game results looked like this:
With the exception of the first game, these scores seem to look more like baseball scores rather than soccer. In fact, should you tell a soccer fan that these are soccer scores, their assumption would be that it was a horrible game. And they would be absolutely correct. If you are inside this so-called soccer “circle” you would agree 100%. Now, fast forward to 2002 where the All-Star Game changed its format and you will see an immediate difference:
Soccer fans, whether they see it or not, crave defense and not offense. Why else would we watch a game that offers very little offense? It’s true that we crave goals, but we crave meaningful goals and not goals that run up the score. We need to see the struggle and effort it takes to score a single goal. It is why players and fans celebrate that goal like they just won the championship. A goal isn’t as common as a touchdown or an RBI or a basket made. Each one is celebrated so vigorously because it could very well be the game winner. Have you ever noticed that celebrations seem to diminish after a team scores 3 goals? From the fans, to the players, to the commentators, their excitement is now gone. The game is out of reach and not worth watching. The struggle is all but over. I tend to argue that a game that exceeds 5 goals is garbage. (4-2 score is the exception but only if the score was 2-2 at some point)
Since 2002 only 1 All-Star Game has exceeded my 5 goal rule. Before 2002 only 1 game did not exceed it. Keeping the current format makes for a much better game. The players from both teams are looking to win the game. One side has young players looking to impress their coach in the preseason. The other side suffers from an inferiority complex that comes from playing in MLS and is looking to not lose this game no matter how meaningless the game is. The result is a game that soccer fans can enjoy more than if it goes back to West vs East. For now, this is the better of the 2 formats. Let’s not fix what isn’t broken.