Roster exclusivity keeps MLS All-Star Game unique, worthwhile
Why not Jack McInerney? He's the fourth-leading goal scorer in MLS, has the Philadelphia Union firmly in playoff contention and at 20 years of age could represent the finishing future of the U.S. national team.
Why not Landon Donovan? He's finding his groove for both club and country, has proven big-game chops and entered the season boasting a streak of 12 consecutive All-Star selections. He also remains American soccer's most recognizable player.
Why not Javier Morales? Real Salt Lake's classy Argentine playmaker pulls the strings for the league's best team and is tied for second in assists with eight.
Why didn't those talented players, among others, fail to make the team scheduled to face AS Roma on July 31 in Kansas City? Because only 20 can and it's that exclusivity, along with the accompanying stakes, that make MLS's All-Star game the most intriguing in sports.
As the league's talent pool deepens, the number of All-Star "snubs" will increase. As will calls for a return to an intramural, East-West format that offers more players their due. But there's nothing wrong with exclusivity. There always will be athletes on the outside looking in, whether it's a fourth-place finisher at the Olympics or school No. 69 on Selection Sunday. The MLS All-Star game isn't only a reward. It's competition. A unique spectacle results when a team representing the league faces a foreign club - an All-Star game that resembles the sport it's supposed to be celebrating and in which participants genuinely want to win.
"When I played in the All-Star game when it was East and West, it was more just entertainment -- two groups of five (players) going at each other in each half of the field and very little defending, to be honest," said Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes, who is responsible for selecting and managing this year's All-Star team.
"We realize entertainment is a big part of this business and we want to make sure we reward the fans and the players who are very deserving of this opportunity and the recognition that comes with it," Vermes said. "[But] my job is to put the best team on the field we can so we can win."
Vermes played in the 2000 game in Columbus, Ohio, where the Eastern Conference All-Stars beat the West, 9-4. It was barely soccer. Since the league began inviting foreign opposition in 2003 (with a break the following year), the matches have tightened up. MLS has gone 6-2-1 against the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Everton, with the goals-per-game average falling from an Xbox-like 8.25 in the intramural format to a real-world 3.89 when the league meets foreign opposition.
"The [MLS] guys who are here, whether they're foreign players or Americans, they want to prove this league can compete with everyone around the world," Vermes said Monday. "This is another opportunity to showcase their talents."
The result is so important MLS gives its All-Star coach the leeway to ignore the traditional fan vote that produces an initial list of 11 honorees. The league names 32 in all, but only 20 are given uniforms for the All-Star game itself. In the pursuit of a victory over Roma, Vermes could have looked past the voting and picked a team he thought could earn the right result.
Considering the ridiculous outcomes fan and media ballots often produce, the loophole makes sense. For a perfect example, look no further than the Professional Hockey Writers' Association's recent all-NHL selections, which feature right wing Alex Ovechkin on the first team and left wing Alex Ovechkin on the second.
Reputation, rather than recent performance, often carries the day. When an All-Star game is designed to merely honor and showcase the participants, that can be a problem. Sometimes a deserving younger player is prolific before he's popular.
But when the result matters, reputation can be a nice quality to have. It came from somewhere, after all, and the fans gave Vermes 11 men with big-game pedigree. He indicated Monday the experience of certain players, even if they're not lighting it up so far 2013, would be invaluable against Roma.
Vermes cited San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski as an example. Selected by fans, the reigning MLS MVP has scored only five goals this season and trails 15 others in the golden boot race.
"But you can't miss the fact that he's a tremendous goal scorer, he's scoring goals like crazy [for the U.S.] in the Gold Cup and is just a very good player and somebody you want on the field when you know the ball is in the box," Vermes said. "There's no doubt you need experience."
And so McInerney, who's in the mix in case Vermes needs an alternate because of injury or Gold Cup hangover, likely will have to wait for his first All-Star opportunity. Donovan's late start to the 2013 season may have played a role in being edged out for selection by the likes of Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City), Mike Magee (Chicago Fire) and Camilo Sanvezzo (Vancouver Whitecaps). But Vermes's need to construct a balanced team that plays actual soccer means talented attackers will be pushed out -- not because they're not good enough, but because space is limited and the opponent is a real team too.
Leaving quality players behind (three of MLS's top six goal scorers aren't going) is a reasonable price to pay for an All-Star game that's actually pretty fun to watch.
"A lot of players are deserving of this opportunity," Vermes said. "There are only 20 roster spots and I tried to round out the roster the best I could regarding the positions I needed."
Here's the 20-man All-Star team Vermes announced Monday. He acknowledged changes could be made as the match approaches in case a player gets hurt or someone playing in the Gold Cup bows out. The continental championship final is three days before MLS faces Roma in K.C.
Goalkeepers: Raúl Fernández (FC Dallas), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake).
Defenders: Corey Ashe (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Tony Beltran (Real Salt Lake), Aurélien Collin (Sporting Kansas City), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), DeAndre Yedlin* (Seattle Sounders).
Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Patrice Bernier (Montreal Impact), Tim Cahill* (New York Red Bulls), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Will Johnson (Portland Timbers), Mike Magee (Chicago Fire), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City).
Forwards: Marco Di Vaio (Montreal Impact), Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls), Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), Camilo Sanvezzo (Vancouver Whitecaps), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes).
Bold -- fan selection
Italic -- Vermes's selection
* - Commissioner's selection