MLS and All-Star Game: In a league of growth, stagnation remains

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 01: MLS All-Stars forward Josef Martinez (17) celebrates his goal with MLS All-Stars midfielder Tyler Adams (2) and fans in action during the MLS All-Star game between the MLS All-Stars and Juventus FC on August 1, 2018 at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 01: MLS All-Stars forward Josef Martinez (17) celebrates his goal with MLS All-Stars midfielder Tyler Adams (2) and fans in action during the MLS All-Star game between the MLS All-Stars and Juventus FC on August 1, 2018 at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

MLS announced Thursday that this year’s All-Star Game opponent is Atletico Madrid. The news is exciting, but there’s room for skepticism; the league may be growing, but stagnation remains.

The All-Star Game is an exciting event each year. The festivities and events during the week are cause for excitement in both the host city and around the league. With the All-Star Game hosted by Atlanta last year, I got the chance to both attend the match and an event hosted in conjunction with the game. That year, it was the mighty Juventus. This time around, it will be hosted in Orlando, and the opponent is Atletico Madrid.

Yet, I can’t help but feel skeptical about this announcement. Not because Atletico Madrid is not an exciting team, because it certainly is. No, I feel skeptical because, at the end of the day, the All-Star Game is boring. It poses risks for players and teams. Those risks, and the negatives that come with the event, far outweigh the positives. The All-Star Game is another sign that Major League Soccer is not growing in the best way it can.

With the most recent expansion announcement, I touched on why expansion may not be a good thing for the league in the long term despite its positives in the short term. In a similar kind of way, though not quite in the same manner, the All-Star Game doesn’t necessarily hurt the league, it is certainly not doing much to help the league either.

Risk of injury

This point particular hits home with Atlanta United fans, who saw former left-back Greg Garza go down with a shoulder injury in the opening minutes of the 2017 All-Star Game against Real Madrid. That injury kept Garza out for a few weeks and took its toll on the rest of the season as Garza only played in six of thirteen possible matches to finish out the year.

Garza touched on that injury in an interview with MLS Multiplex last summer: “…don’t get injured like I did last year… [my experience] was, unfortunately, a bad luck experience…”

Teams run the risk of sending their players to the All-Star Game and returning with an injury. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has said multiple times “I am MLS,” skipped out on last year’s All-Star Game because the game was to be played on turf and he was still rehabbing a knee injury. Ibrahimovic missed the following league match, per MLS policy that any player missing the All-Star Game must miss their next MLS match.

While his knee was certainly the biggest reason for not participating in the game, it is not hard to read between the lines: the players don’t care about it. What does it say about the league that arguably their best player won’t participate in the game because it’s not important enough? Juventus is even one of Ibrahimovic’s former clubs, yet he chose not to play, a troubling sign for MLS.

The game is losing its shine

The last two All-Star Games ended 1-1, and, although both matches finished with penalty shootouts, the play was not super exciting. Both matches featured full team substitutions at halftime where more famous players were subbed off for their lesser-known teammates.

It is also important to remember what this match actually is: a friendly. The MLS players aren’t going to go all out for fear of injury. The opposing team isn’t going to go all out because they are in the middle of their preseason. And in some cases, the best players are left off the roster altogether.

This was apparent against Real Madrid in 2017 when Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t even travel with the team to Chicago and Luka Modric failed to make an appearance. In 2018, Juventus also left some of their best players behind, including Ronaldo again and Paulo Dybala. Although both players featured in the FIFA World Cup a few weeks prior, both their respective countries bounced out of the tournament in the Knockout Round, weeks before the tournament ended. The shine is quickly dimming.

Scouting opportunity

Playing in the All-Star Game against a club with a large presence on the global stage has its perks. Just ask Miguel Almiron, who recently starred for the MLS Cup-winning Atlanta United in 2017 and 2018. This past offseason he transferred to Premier League club Newcastle United for almost $30 million, a record for an outgoing MLS transfer. It was during the 2017 All-Star Game against Real Madrid in Chicago that Almiron’s play first popped up on Newcastle’s radar.

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Last year, both Alphonso Davies and Tyler Adams starred for MLS against Juventus in Atlanta. Davies transferred to Bundesliga giant Bayern Munich for almost $17 million while Adams moved across the Red Bull empire to RB Leipzig, another big Bundesliga club.

The All-Star Game is an opportunity for MLS players to test their skills against “some of the best players in the world” (even if the opposing team trots out a lot of reserve players). The positives of this aspect of the All-Star Game are important and cannot be understated.

This is also a significant change in the last two years compared to the All-Star Games before 2017. After the 2016 All-Star Game, none of the MLS players from that game transferred during the following offseason or 2017 season. The same applies for both 2015 and 2014. That speaks to the growing quality of the league. So, despite the negatives and seeming stagnation of an event, it is fun to see future European stars try their hand against giant European clubs.

Possible solution

Truthfully, I don’t have a solution, other than to suggest that MLS do what every other league around the world does: just announce a best-XI and that be the end of it. I understand the All-Star Game remains part of MLS because every other North American sport has it. But there is still a very valid question to be asked: What does the All-Star Game actually do for the league at this point?

Perhaps the most obvious answer to that question is that it draws in casual fans. But the truth is that even that is no longer accurate. Just look back at the 2017 All-Star Game in Chicago. Yes, the game drew a crowd of 61,428, which is fantastic attendance for any MLS related event. However, it seems to have done nothing for a city whose team barely attracts 12,000 people to its matches.

That would imply that most people came to see Real Madrid play. Of course, Real Madrid are going to bring in thousands of people seeing as they are one of, if not the biggest club in the world. But how many of those fans that came to see Real Madrid are going to Chicago Fire games or are paying any attention to MLS after the All-Star Game that year?

At this point, the casual MLS fan is fairly educated. Especially in Atlanta (last year’s host city), and especially in Orlando (this year’s host city). Let’s be honest, Orlando has had a tough first few years with no playoff appearances to show for it. Yet their stadium is almost always full. Why? It’s not because the team is playing well, it’s because their fans understand and care about soccer. And at the end of the day, most of that stadium will be full with Orlando fans, not casual ones from around the country.

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And that leaves a major problem for the All-Star game. It is an inherently American invention for a sport that is inherently unAmerican — and a league that is becomingly increasingly unAmerican. Major League Soccer is growing and improving, yes, but areas of stagnation remain, and the All-Star game is one of them.