The MLS All-Star Game has become a signature event for Major League Soccer, but over the years it has become a bit less about showcasing the players who are actually performing the best at the time of the game.
Traditionally, All-Star Games feature the players who have earned their way into the game because of performance rather than reputation. The recent MLB All-Star Game was a good showcase of that, as it often is.
Unlike baseball's summer showcase, the MLS event is a bit less a talent showcase and more of a party where the hosts don't mind playing favorites, and big names earn invites even when they may not be performing up to par.
For starters, the all-star game features just one team of MLS players. Unlike the NFL, NBA or MLB, which put together competing teams made up of players from opposing conferences or leagues. MLS used to have that format, but changed it in 2005 to consist of a team of MLS stars against whichever foreign club could be secured as an opponent. In the dozen years since, we have seen the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid take part, and this year the game will feature Italian giant Juventus.
An argument could be made that the league has outgrown that format with the number of teams having doubled and the league boasting growing number of stars that could be chosen for such a match. The record-setting fan base in Atlanta would still fill Mercedes-Benz Stadium if the match was East versus West, and there would be plenty of star power for both sides to make it a memorable contest.
Setting aside the format aspect of the MLS All-Star Game discussion, the process to select players to play in the current format leaves plenty to be desired. Fans are allowed to vote on the first 11, a group of players that automatically make the all-star team, but don't necessarily start in the match. Atlanta's sizable fanbase did its part to stuff the ballot box, and succeeded in securing places for six Atlanta United players in the Fan XI (one of which — Darlington Nagbe — wound up having to miss out due to injury).
The rest of the squad is chosen by the coach of the team from the host market, which happens to be Atlanta United's Gerardo Martino (MLS commissioner Don Garber also gets to select two players, which are usually big star players or top young talents). MLS All-Star coaches have free rein to select any group of players they wish, and in the past we have seen coaches make choices based on personal preference and tactical necessity much more so than based on actual performance during the season in question. The idea is generally to try and build a group that can function well as a team, but some coaches have taken that premise a bit too far.
Martino's selections weren't the worst we have ever seen, but he had a few choices that probably wouldn't have made the cut if voting were made by a consensus of coaches. As a result, some very deserving candidates have been left off the list (at least for now, there are still two weekends worth of matches to be played before the MLS All-Star Game on August 1).
Here are the five players who Goal sees being the biggest snubs from the MLS All-Star Game:
MAXI MORALEZ, NYCFC
The New York City FC playmaker has been one of the very best players in the league through the first half of the season, compiling seven goals an 10 assists for an NYCFC squad one point out of first place in the Supporter's Shield race. He is one assist off the MLS lead, and has scored twice as many goals as any other player with double-digit assists.
Unfortunately for Moralez, all-star voters put both Miguel Almiron and Ezequiel Barco on the squad, and when Martino selected Valeri, it left no room for another playmaker. You have to think that Moralez would be the first player called upon if any of the aforementioned players (or commissioner's pick Sebastian Giovinco) is unable to play.
KEMAR LAWRENCE, New York Red Bulls
The lack of fullback selections, and total absence of natural left backs, makes it seem likely that Martino will deploy a three-man defense against Juventus, which makes sense given the strengths of the MLS talent pool. That said, it's a harsh exclusion for Lawrence, who has been the best left back in the league this year. The Jamaican speedster has not only maintained his stingy one-on-one defending, but he has also become more of an attacking threat for the Red Bulls.
To be fair to Martino, he did select two other Red Bulls defenders in Aaron Long and Michael Murillo, but the Red Bulls boast the best defense in the league and Lawrence has been a big reason for that.
SEBASTIAN BLANCO, Portland Timbers
The Portland Timbers are riding a league-best 11-match unbeaten streak and a big reason for their success has been the improved play of Blanco, who you can argue has outperformed teammate and reigning MLS MVP Valeri this season. Blanco has compiled five goals and six assists, numbers which don't do justice to the constant threat he has provided for the Timbers attack. He has helped prevent teams from keying in on Valeri, and has also improved his defensive contributions.
Unfortunately for Blanco, he was unlikely to be included along with Valeri, but there are few midfielders in the league who have been more effective than he has been so far this season.
MATT TURNER, New England Revolution
Reputation always plays a part in all-star selections, so being a breakout player in the middle of his first season as a pro starter probably isn't a good place to be in order to draw all-star game consideration. That being said, Turner has been outstanding for New England, and is currently looking like the front runner for MLS Goalkeeper of the Year honors. The 24-year-old should have ample time to play himself onto future all-star teams though, so don't feel too bad for him.
Brad Guzan was the fan's choice, and you can't really blame anybody for that pick even if he did benefit from Atlanta ballot-stuffing. Credit should go to Martino for selecting Zack Steffen, who is the same goalkeeper who helped eliminate Atlanta United from the playoffs a year ago.
ROLAND LAMAH, FC Dallas
FC Dallas is tied for the best points-per-game average and sits in first place in the West, yet managed just one player — Matt Hedges — on the all-star team. That's way too light. Martino should have found room for Lamah, who provides speed and versatility in the attack and who has been instrumental in FCD's impressive first half.
Other players who can be called all-star snubs include Diego Chara, Christian Penilla, Darwin Quintero, Reggie Cannon and Tyler Adams.