The MLS All-Star Game has gone through a curious series of rebranding shape-shifts that’ve often left the spectacle feeling like more of a bizarrely arbitrary afterthought. It began in the typical American way, the league splitting the teams into an East and a West for two years until, in an odd spasm of decision-making, the league pitted its American players against its international players in 1998. It lasted one year.
The number of times the game has switched formats in the ensuing decade was dizzying. MLS went back to the East/West format for the next three years before switching to the All-Star format for the 2002 and 2003 seasons. For whatever it’s worth, MLS won both games, cannibalizing on a USMNT side in 2002 and dropping Guadalajara in 2003.
Finally, we went back to the East/West format one more time in 2004 before going back to the All-Star format for good in 2005. Got that?
In the nine MLS All-Star Games since, a selection of MLS players have played Manchester United and Chelsea twice, Fulham, Celtic, West Ham, Everton and Roma. Bayern Munich is bringing its historic team Stateside this summer for No. 10. Casual diversions, all. An “Us Versus Them” game that’s always felt vaguely like an unnecessary defense of the league’s vitality. A relic of a bygone era.
And it’s time it ended.
To begin with, the idea of an All-Star game is more than a little superfluous, and it’s becoming less and less vogue as a concept every year. NFL players largely detest the Pro Bowl, and its fans view it as an amusing event to ignore. The NBA All-Star Game and its surrounding events have gradually lost momentum since their heyday in the Jordan Era of the 90s. Major League Baseball attached bizarre World Series implications to its All-Star Game just to force people to watch. The resentment was and is not insignificant.
But those leagues are internally focused. They possess the talent to flip the spotlight inward for a weekend to showcase exactly why it is you care. They’re simply better than everyone else, and a weekend of talent gluttony is simply its byproduct. Whether or not you watch, it makes a kind of sense.
MLS, for all its charms, is clearly not in the same place, which begot the “MLS versus The World” formula. Try as MLS might to split the narrative between the best of MLS and “Great Team X” (West Ham… jokes) smacks of a gnawing need to be globally relevant. Problem is, I don’t think MLS as a whole feels this way – as though the league needs to play the world’s best teams to steal a sliver of their shine. In fact, I think it often goes the other way. For the first time, the league and its fans are beginning to see themselves through their own prism, which then makes these All-Star games all the more strange. As though the league is attempting to prove itself to a group of people who aren’t paying attention.
So abolish the game. European teams can still have their international tours Stateside, but cut an All-Star team out of the equation and let their “branding” efforts attach themselves to something else. It only makes MLS look like it’s feeding into European Giant X and its attempt to monopolize a growing American fan base. MLS can stand on its own.
So what to do instead? Here’s an idea.
— Anthony Galante (@AntwonGalante) April 28, 2014
This is not, as you might think, a case of following the leader merely to do it. You wouldn’t switch to a European method of irrigation because it’s more efficient than yours, and then earnestly deflect criticism that you’re switching just to be a European doppelgänger, would you? You’re switching because the foreign approach makes more sense, is more efficient and makes you better. American exceptionalism has its charms, but the inability to see past your methods to sensical ones from other shores is not among them.
Now, the issue of public relations tangles the legs. A sad truth. I make these suggestions outside the bounds of monetary reality, but we know far more matters here. The guest format is essentially born from a PR 101 classroom. The first iteration in 2002 was organized with the USMNT on the heels of its successful World Cup campaign to capitalize on its swelling popularity. It had little to do with anything else. These European teams swing through the U.S. on summer jags all the time, and MLS is desperate to capture the swing votes that watch European leagues but largely ignore MLS. Forcing them into environments where they get both seems like an easy conduit.
Thing is, a contrived All-Star game isn’t the thing to do it. One has to wonder what MLS has to gain from these games aside from the obvious web spun onto a press packet that Bayern Munich Was Here Once. Wins don’t generate positive buzz (so-and-so was in mid-summer form, it’s meaningless, look at the broader lens, etc) and losses have an even more deleterious effect.
Every league has to molt, so yes, it’s time to nix the MLS All-Star Game. The thing has run its course.