Forget about the common notion of an all-star break when pondering Wednesday's MLS All-Star Game. The clash between the MLS All-Stars and Manchester United creates an all-star burden.
Most people in Houston for the furtive midweek gathering will say all of the right things about the fourth consecutive MLS All-Star Game scheduled on a Wednesday or a Thursday. Most of the players will even mean it, particularly because they'll have a chance to play one of the world's largest clubs in front of a massive crowd on Wednesday night.
Underneath the surface of those statements lies a sobering truth. One of the league's most heralded events increases the strain on the clubs and their players without packing the punch necessary to justify it.
This year's glamor match affects almost every club in the league, though some teams will feel a disproportionate backlash because of their schedules and their representatives. Thirteen clubs will send at least one of their stars to Texas as they prepare for a match at the weekend and 11 of those teams will see their key figures log an extra midweek plane trip. Eight teams will weigh how their players will recover for their upcoming games after playing two matches in short succession, and two particularly unlucky teams – Los Angeles and Toronto FC – will take the field in CONCACAF Champions League matches on Tuesday and then promptly send representatives to Houston in time for Wednesday's game.
In order to make this considerable onus worthwhile, MLS must find a way to get mileage out of its marquee midseason event. Securing Manchester United to provide the opposition obviously goes some distance toward raising the profile of game, but it does not quite satisfy the balancing test required to make the current setup worthwhile and negate the need to clear out a weekend for the match.
The short lead time between the final MLS match of the weekend – Seattle's 2-1 victory over Colorado finished in the wee hours of Monday morning on the East Coast – and the Wednesday night kickoff gives all of the parties involved little time to generate buzz or get situated for the contest. United won't land in Houston until Monday afternoon after losing 2-1 in Kansas City on Sunday, while the MLS players won't arrive much earlier. After a training session on Tuesday night, the game looms on Wednesday. So much for the buildup.
In this age of the 24-hour news cycle, the key to fostering interest lies in constant repetition. The time frame ensures the participants will have little opportunity to talk about the match and entice people to watch it. United's participation will bridge the gap to some extent by drawing upon the English side's substantial American supporter base and enticing a few curious European soccer fans, but its presence won't entirely cure the problem this year or solve the conundrum if Barcelona or Real Madrid can't be secured for next year's contest.
Compressing the time frame also limits the league's ability to create atmosphere around one of its showcase events. While some people scoff at the ancillary events and the lavish parties surrounding all-star games in other sports, those frills cut to the very essence of what an all-star game should entail for its participants. Those free drinks and photo ops allow the players to let off some steam and secure another benefit – aside from the much-appreciated bonus checks and a chance to play against one of the world's most prominent clubs – for cluttering their schedules and, for the most part, excelling during the regular season.
The MLS All-Star Game, above all else, should showcase the very best the league has to offer on and off the field. In some ways, the ability for fans to see and discuss what the players do off the field at an all-star game is just as important as what they do on the field in a friendly against a team more focused on preparing for its own season. The peculiar demands of an all-star game require meshing characters with contests and personalities with performances.
Instead of finding a way to accommodate those external needs while creating an ample platform for one of its biggest matches of the season, MLS has settled for this uncomfortable median point of holding the match in midweek and relying on the result to drum up intrigue.
The compromise leaves the participants in a difficult spot. The two coaches involved with the All-Star process – Houston's Dominic Kinnear and Los Angeles' Bruce Arena – will have to devote resources away from their own team with matches ahead at the weekend, while head coach Arena additionally faces the unenviable task of trying to create a winning lineup and doling out playing time without raising the ire of coaches across the league. Players will have to cope with the extra travel, the extra game and the pressing concerns of their club coaches as they weigh how much energy to expend.
MLS decided four years ago to assume this midweek discomfort in order to free up another weekend for league play. With all of the tournaments on the calendar in this World Cup year, the league needs as many weekend dates as possible to give itself some scheduling flexibility. As some investor-operators would no doubt point out, freeing up another weekend also theoretically removes one of those money-draining midweek matches and replaces it with a weekend tilt likely to tempt more patrons through the turnstiles.
While those concerns and the admirable desire to keep teams on the one-match-a-week plan should not be easily dismissed, they do not dispose of this persnickety problem. The solution, however, appears rather simple.
If MLS wants to turn the All-Star Game into the event it seems to desire, it should treat it as an important priority and carve out a weekend to do it properly. If MLS would prefer to have the additional weekend for league play during the season, then it should either move the match to the offseason or shelve it entirely.
Instead of selecting either option, MLS has created a situation where its All-Star Game represents more of a burden than a benefit for its participants and the league as a whole.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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