MLS All-Stars lose, but the real show comes at halftime

Thursday August 1st, 2013

Junior Tallo (left), Kevin Strootman and Roma ran circles around an overmatched MLS All-Star squad.
Charlie Riedel/AP

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Three thoughts from Wednesday night's MLS All-Star game in Kansas City, where AS Roma easily defeated the league select team, 3-1, and where a piece of news announced at halftime overshadowed everything else that happened inside Sporting Park.

Expansion Excitement: It was clear by the time MLS commissioner Don Garber sat down with ESPN at intermission that the game no longer was a competitive contest. Roma was picking the All-Stars apart and easily could have been ahead by more than a single goal. So what better way to take the spotlight off the host's poor performance than by dropping the biggest piece of MLS news in recent memory?

By the time Garber was finished speaking, the All-Star buzz was gone. MLS will expand by four more teams in time for the 2020 season (not including New York City FC, scheduled to enter the league as the 20th club in 2015), and just about all anyone wanted to talk about is where those teams will be.

"A lot of cities are interested," Garber told ESPN. "Expansion has been a big driver of the success of our league...Lots of new energy. We have got some work to do. Four more teams by the end of the decade."

MLS had only 12 clubs in 2006. Last season, the Montreal Impact became the 19th, and NYCFC owners Manchester City and the New York Yankees paid $100 million to join in two years.

The fact that Garber diminished the second 45 minutes of his own All-Star game by unveiling the bold plan at halftime wasn't the only interesting element of the announcement's timing. Both the league's collective bargaining agreement with the MLS Players Union and its broadcast contracts with ESPN and NBC conclude after the 2014 season. MLS now enters both re-negotiations from a position of strength. To the union, it's offering loads of new jobs. To potential TV partners, it can promise an expanding national footprint.

The clear frontrunner for the first of those four spots is Orlando City, which currently plays in the third-tier USL Pro league but is close to finalizing a stadium deal with local authorities that should make it a shoo-in. David Beckham, who has an option to buy in at a reduced rate (reportedly $25 million), has been focusing on Miami. Two teams in Florida will satisfy Garber's yearning for a presence in the Southeast.

The race for expansion slots three and four is wide open, and the knowledge that spots are so limited should drive up their value and raise the barrier to entry. Sacramento, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Atlanta, Oklahoma City, Ottawa, San Antonio and St. Louis have been mentioned as possibilities, and there will always be speculation about the reborn New York Cosmos, who are scheduled to begin play in the second-tier NASL next month.

Garber told ESPN that the league has "no plan whatsoever" to move any existing clubs and that he's not concerned with talent dilution or creating a league of an unwieldy size.

"We've got to do what we need to do to solve those [struggling] teams and then add new markets, so we can have new fans and new excitement," he said, before gesturing to the raucous crowd behind him at Sporting Park and saying, "Many people wanted to move this team [Sporting Kansas City] and this is a bright shining star in Major League Soccer."

He continued, "Getting player development going on at those academies, getting more fans, growing our footprint, raising the popularity and interest for our sport, which we need, as we go to try to achieve that goal of being one of the top leagues."

Expansion turned out to be the big story of All-Star Week, and it's sure to be a hot topic for the next six-plus years.

Don't Forget About the Game: The All-Stars were outscored for just the third time in 11 meetings with a foreign club. On Wednesday, the outcome was never in doubt. Roma took the lead in the fourth minute on a goal from Dutch midfielder Kevin Strootman and held MLS at bay until second-half stoppage time, when defender Omar Gonzalez scored on a 10-yard header.

In between, the disjointed All-Star squad was split open over and over by the guests from Italy. Looking every bit like a team that had practiced together only once, MLS had no answer for legendary midfielder Francesco Totti, who exposed the All-Stars with his remarkable vision and perfectly-timed passes. The hosts had difficulty picking up runners as well, and both game MVP Alessandro Florenzi and 20-year-old forward Junior Tallo broke free to score in the second half.

There was injury added to insult as well. Sporting midfielder Graham Zusi, a regular U.S. national team starter, left the field midway through the first half with a strained right quadriceps. The club said he was questionable for Saturday's game against the New York Red Bulls.

MLS has played with fire scheduling matches against potent international opposition, and on Wednesday it got singed.

Fun Format: Despite the loss, however, and despite Garber's halftime bombshell, the MLS All-Star game remains the best in sports. There have been occasional calls during the week to return to the East-West intramural format the league used to use, but those are both shortsighted and misguided. MLS players go up against each other every week, and returning to a format that features no novelty or incentive would reduce the All-Star game to the same lazy, anti-competitive walkthrough with which the NBA, NHL and NFL remain saddled.

It's fitting that the NFL on Wednesday announced its plans to remodel the Pro Bowl after the NHL's All-Star game, which features pre-selected captains picking teams rather than alignment by conference. The schoolyard selection might make for interesting TV for a year or two, but it won't change the product on the field. Both games will remain half-hearted scrimmages that mean nothing.

The All-Stars and Roma each wanted to win on Wednesday and fans had a genuine interest. The Cauldron, the supporters' section behind the north goal at Sporting Park, was in full voice for much of the match, cheering a team that was representing their league (and North American soccer) against a foreign foe. It's doubtful that an East-West affair would generate the same partisanship or territorial pride that kindles so much of the passion that soccer fans feel around the world. It's almost certain that we'd soon grow tired of 8-5 scorelines, sudden All-Star week injuries and a marquee multi-day event that lacked new storylines or any element of the unknown.

Is it too hard to make the All-Star team because there's only one? Too bad. Not everybody gets a trophy. Will MLS lose sometimes? Sure. That's sports. But the last thing the league should do is consider dumbing down its All-Star game, even if Wednesday's turned out to be anticlimactic.

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