MLS All-Star game a worthwhile quirk amid busy summer slate

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Peter Casey
Squeezed in among MLS matches, international competition and the European preseason, the annual showcase remains a special spectacle

CHICAGO — Few would blame Bastian Schweinsteiger if he didn't carry the fondest memories of the 2014 MLS All-Star game.

The league's annual midseason showcase, in which an All-Star squad faces a top European club in a glitzy exhibition, was held just 24 days after Germany lifted the World Cup trophy in Rio de Janeiro. Contractually obligated to cut short his post-World Cup vacation, Schweinsteiger flew in hours before the game and didn't come on for Bayern Munich until the 80th minute — then exited eight minutes later, the victim of a bruised ankle after a crunching challenge from All-Star midfielder Will Johnson.

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That tackle set off a storm, with manager Pep Guardiola famously refusing to shake the hand of All-Star coach Caleb Porter. Yet Schweinsteiger didn't dwell on the injury or the controversy. When he looks back at that event, another memory comes to mind: sitting on the bench alongside his brother, then-Bayern midfielder Tobias Schweinsteiger, and reveling in the fans' passion for the event.

Yes, it was a friendly. Bayern was still in preseason. The "home" team wasn't the beloved Timbers but a squad featuring big-name foes from across MLS. But the sell-out crowd relished the spectacle all the same.

"Actually there I fell in love with the MLS," Schweinsteiger said. "I could feel the atmosphere, the positive atmosphere in the stadium, the supporters. You could feel in the eyes of the people how much it means for them. I really enjoyed it a lot, and I actually said to my brother, 'Why not play once in the MLS?' So it started like this."

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While Schweinsteiger doesn't come from the American sporting culture, in which All-Star games are tradition, the prestige of the event wasn't lost in translation. It's why Schweinsteiger has embraced the opportunity to captain the MLS All-Stars against Real Madrid on Wednesday at Soldier Field, a few miles from where he now plies his trade for the Chicago Fire.

It's become something of a trope in MLS circles to downplay the All-Star game. Some argue it's a relic needlessly shoehorned into an already-busy summer slate, piling more mileage on the legs of MLS stars who would rather stay at home. Others make the case that the format is all wrong, with a return to the East vs. West setup perhaps preferable.

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For their part, the players involved seem to relish the occasion. Speak to the All-Stars tabbed for Wednesday's match and the narrative that the match is some sort of "chore" swiftly slips away.

"It's an exciting few days in every way," Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley said. "Just this idea, even for us as players, to have the opportunity to come and spend a few days with some of the other best players from around the league, to talk football, to get to know guys on a level you otherwise wouldn't be able to, it's enjoyable."

This summer, in particular, has put a spotlight on the congested schedule. Just a week has passed since the U.S. national team topped Jamaica in the Gold Cup final, and MLS play continued with a full docket this past weekend. For seven players — Tim Howard, Matt Hedges, Graham Zusi, Kellyn Acosta, Dax McCarty, Jozy Altidore and Bradley — linking up with the All-Star squad has meant suiting up for three different teams in an eight-day span.

Hectic? Sure. Problematic? That's a stretch.

"It's been a really crazy month, I'll say that," McCarty told Goal. "I think I've slept in my bed maybe twice the past month and a half. That comes with the territory of being a pro athlete, and I've enjoyed every minute of it."

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Even though the All-Stars' high-profile opposition is still in preseason, with star Cristiano Ronaldo resting after representing Portugal at the Confederations Cup, the match carries some weight for Madrid as well.

With three International Champions Cup matches in the books, this contest represents Los Blancos' final tune-up before they face Manchester United on Tuesday in the UEFA Super Cup to formally kick off their 2017-18 campaign.

In a team as stacked as Zinedine Zidane's squad, the competition for places is perpetual. Complacency, even in preseason, is a foreign concept.

"If you wear this shirt, you go out to win," Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos said. "It's the last game before the real season starts, the important games come, and our goal is to go to the next match with a good feeling. For this, it's important to win."

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The MLS All-Star game offers the same perks as its counterparts in other sports, as fans savor the opportunity to see fantasy soccer come to life. Tuesday's open training session at Soldier Field teased at that novelty, as Schweinsteiger joined Kaka and David Villa in a spirited 6v2 exercise for the ages. Where else would you be able to see icons from three different World Cup winners knock the ball around?

Although no one will mistake the All-Star game for a competitive match, the "us vs. them" format prevents the instrasquad scrimmage vibe that plagues the NBA, NFL and NHL events.

Sure, any result involving players who have only trained together for two days should be taken with a grain of salt. But whether you're a U.S. national team stalwart taking pride in the domestic circuit or a European star trying to prove you're not cashing in for an early retirement, the match provides a platform for MLS players to make a statement.

"We want to make it a special night for anybody who comes to the stadium and watches," Bradley said. "But we want to be sharp. We want to, on the night, represent ourselves and the league in a good way. Everybody will remember and understand that it's a friendly game still, but when you step on the field you play to win."

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