Major League Soccer finally has a new All-Star Game format, and it's about damn time.
The league announced on Wednesday that a team of MLS All-Stars will take on the best Liga MX has to offer in Los Angeles next summer in a new-look midsummer match-up. It's a long-awaited change for MLS as the league has finally found a way to balance this event's money-making capabilities with providing an event that is actually fun.
Like its other North American counterparts, MLS has long had All-Star festivities as a sort of midway point. It's a chance to break up the year with a little bit of fun while offering fans a chance at some fantasy match-ups. It began with East vs West and morphed into American vs. international but, at that time and with the league in that place, those games failed to meet the primary goal of drawing in the casual fan. All-Star Games are supposed to be events, not just matches, and there was nothing special about the early formats.
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In 2002, MLS changed things up by facing the U.S. men's national team. One year later, they took on Mexican powerhouse Chivas before returning to an East vs West format in 2004. By that point, it was clear that this wasn't working, and the league made a change.
Starting in 2005, the MLS All-Stars began taking on elite European sides, including Real Madrid, Arsenal, Juventus and Chelsea. The idea was to draw in a different type of fan, ones that identified more with the big-name Champions League stars than the ones playing stateside. In some ways, that worked, as the event's profile did grow and some massive crowds did turn out. But, with the league where it is now, this format rapidly became a detriment.
In those matches, the MLS All-Stars were placed in a no-win situation. If they won, they beat a European team in preseason form. The perception would be that a team of professional players in the middle of their season had beaten an experimental line-up, and the fact that those two teams were even on the same field was a sign of just how far MLS had to go.
But if they lost, it was much, much worse. It was a sign that even a team made up of the best players in MLS couldn't compete with just one European club team. The takeaway was that the best MLS had to offer wasn't even good enough to beat a European team's backups.
No matter the result, the look was that MLS was inferior and, if this league was to grow into the "league of choice" it so often says it wants to be, that needed to change.
Now, it has changed for the better. The new format brings in Liga MX as the Mexican league continues to develop a relationship with its northern neighbors. As a result, this kind of match-up feels like it has some kind of stakes, even if it is just a friendly.
For years, Liga MX has reigned as the top league in North America, but MLS has slowly closed that gap. Now, a one-off friendly between two made-up teams won't change that, but it does inject a little passion into it. Mexican fans will back their guys and MLS fans will back theirs. That adds a little bit of fun to it and, at the end of the day, that's what an All-Star Game is about.
Who doesn't want to see Andre Pierre-Gignac face off against some of the best defenders in MLS? Who wouldn't want to see Carlos Vela go up against some of his national team team-mates? Who is opposed to a Dos Santos brother on either side in a match where both leagues try to represent themselves as the best in the continent?
Like the Campeones Cup and Leagues Cup, this All-Star Game format won't answer many questions. It won't determine who is truly better or which players are more talented. But it will encourage the debate, and that's something much more valuable than a one-off friendly against European backups.
The most important part of all of this is enjoyment. An All-Star Game should be met with excitement, not apathy. It's supposed to represent a fantasy match-up, something out of the ordinary. This match will give us just that while doing away with a format that only encouraged negativity.
After years of trying, MLS has finally gotten it right.