Four easy steps to the ultimate American soccer summer spectacle
PHILADELPHIA -- Major League Soccer's All-Star Game format is no stranger to being tweaked, and even though the league has seemingly settled on a way to conduct its mid-summer classic, one final major overhaul is necessary.
That's not to say that MLS vs. [insert European power here] has been a failure. Box-office numbers would indicate a success for the unique event, and recent results aside, MLS has enjoyed some landmark results and memorable moments. But at its core, what is an All-Star Game ultimately about? A celebration of the sport in North America.
Professional baseball and basketball have embraced that notion, filling their All-Star breaks with fanfare, events and an atmosphere that makes fans flock to the city of choice and celebrate for multiple days. MLS, with its close working relationship with U.S. Soccer, doesn't come close to reaching its potential in that regard, and the lack of local buzz and fervor surrounding the 2012 showcase is rather conspicuous.
The league pits its strongest players against a team from Europe (one that is already playing other MLS clubs in summer friendlies, taking away from the significance of the All-Star matchup) in a spectacle that, to its credit, draws attention overseas and the eyes of casual soccer fans in North America. The game hardly accentuates how far the league has come, though, and what it has done for soccer growth on this continent.
MLS players are satisfied with the status quo, which is not the issue. Landon Donovan, who has played in his fair share of MLS All-Star events, said recently, "In the past, when it was East-West format, you didn't really take it all too seriously, and the game was sometimes fun, but false."
Real Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman is also on board with the current format but can see both sides of the coin.
"It's tough to say," Beckerman said. "Sometimes when it's East and West, it turns into just a party, and maybe that's what fans want, I'm not sure. I think fans enjoy watching Chelsea and getting to see, in this case, the European champions. There're some positives on both sides, and whatever they say, we'll show up and do it. [The current format] is cool, especially for the guys who have played in MLS their whole career, like myself. I enjoy the chance to play against the European champions, but then also it would be fun to have an East vs. West and get everybody who earned an All-Star call to get a game and not just some of the guys. It's a toss-up."
Reverting back to East vs. West is just scratching the surface of how to transform the MLS All-Star Game into an annual American soccer spectacle. Because of scheduling logistics, the league's yearning for international exposure and posturing for TV ratings, the following is a longshot to transpire down the road, but here is an idealistic, four-pronged approach to turning MLS All-Star week into a monumental summer celebration of soccer in North America, one that would happen in a single city over a three-day span:
The starting point to the crescendo begins with the lower levels and up-and-coming talent that is a part of U.S. Soccer. Whether it is the Under-17/18 U.S. Development Academy finals, a Generation adidas vs. Homegrown Players MLS game or even an NASL All-Stars vs. USL Pro All-Stars match, the American soccer showcase would not be complete without incorporating all facets of the U.S. Soccer pyramid. The "futures" concept has caught fire in other sports, and aside from U.S. national team players, what do most soccer fans really care about and love to debate about? The next generation of talent. Here's a chance to put it in the spotlight for all to see.
MLS is grown up. This isn't five or 10 years ago. There is real, marketable talent across league rosters. International scouting has improved, American talent is getting better and the league's overall quality is rising as a result. An MLS Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference matchup can offer plenty of entertainment value.
Wednesday's match against Chelsea will have 19 players represent 10 teams across the 19-team league, with no guarantee that all will play. That is hardly a showcase of the league's wealth of top talent, and there are plenty of All-Star worthy players who will be watching the game at home when they should be in uniform.
Thirty-two players already receive All-Star distinction per the league's collective bargaining agreement, with the non-game-day players being recognized with contract bonuses. Why not up the number to 36, have two squads of 18, with the managers of the previous year's conference winners earning coaching honors and put on a great show for fans of MLS to watch?
Nobody cares that not a lick of defense is played in the NBA's All-Star Game until the final five minutes of the fourth quarter and that the score ends up in the 130-120 range. All-Star competitions (baseball not withstanding) are meant to be meaningless fun for fans to see the most deserving players put their skills on display in a no-pressure atmosphere.
For those who may complain that the All-Star distinction will become diluted with such a move, that's a perfectly sound concern, but is expanding the number of All-Stars by four really making that much of a dent? Hardly.
Tying in the U.S. men's national team is essential to the ideal American soccer experience. The horribly timed August FIFA date is reportedly being done away with by UEFA but will still pertain to the United States, meaning that a CONCACAF or South American opponent is the likely summer matchup for years to come.
Whichever national team the United States is playing against, if the game is held at an MLS soccer-specific stadium, fans will pack the house. More than 30,000 turned out to see USA-Mexico at Lincoln Financial Field in August 2011, and more than 77,000 saw the USA play Brazil at MetLife Stadium (then New Meadowlands Stadium) in August 2010. The demand for the national team will always be there, which is the ultimate hook to making this whole celebration work. And with facing a European club opponent no longer a factor, pushing the MLS All-Star Game a few weeks forward is not that drastic of a measure to line it up with the FIFA international fixture date.
For players that overlap between the MLS All-Star team and U.S. national team, their allegiance would belong to Jurgen Klinsmann (or his successor as national team coach). Even if a handful of MLS players get called into the national team for the August friendly -- which must be their priority over the league -- there are still enough quality MLS players to put on a strong All-Star showcase the day before.
As long as the National Soccer Hall of Fame has no home and inductions remain a traveling show, there's no reason not to incorporate the annual induction ceremony into this U.S. Soccer extravaganza. Ever since the closing of the Oneonta, N.Y., facility in 2010, the ceremony has been held prior to a U.S. men's national team friendly, with the most recent one taking place at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., ahead of the United States' match against Brazil in front of a modest handful of reporters, spectators and family members.
When trying to cultivate a culture of a sport and a semblance of legacy and tradition, there is no better way to do that than commemorating a sport's history. With people associated with all levels of U.S. Soccer present for this three-day festival, the hard-working Hall of Fame inductees can get their proper due in front of an appreciative and worthy audience.
And there it is. The ultimate American soccer summer spectacle. As for a skills competition, along the lines of what the NBA does or baseball's home run derby, as much fun as it might be to see Marvell Wynne, Dominic Oduro and Andy Najar square off in a field-length dash, there's no need for anyone to pull a hamstring for entertainment's sake. Three games featuring the entire spectrum of U.S. Soccer is sufficient, with a nod to the past greats capping it all off.
Soccer always seems to perpetually be on the cusp of becoming the "next big thing" in this country. After gaining a foothold on the international stage, the time has come for MLS and U.S. Soccer to step out of Europe's shadow and for the various elements that make up the sport in this country to stand strong on a united front. On their own.