• The MLS All-Star Game in Atlanta provided plenty of action, a lot of hometown pride and a bit of validation for the game's format.
By Brian Straus
August 02, 2018

Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t really missed, and the unique MLS All-Star Game format apparently still has some legs. Even though Atlanta has been in the league for all of a year-and-a-half, and even though Juventus’s marquee summer purchase was training back in Italy, a sell-out crowd of 72,317 still turned out for Wednesday night’s exhibition at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It was the largest standalone crowd in the All-Star Game’s 23-year history (a couple have been part of a doubleheader), and the sixth-biggest crowd ever to show for an MLS event.

Those fans saw local hero Josef Martínez continue his golden boot form, a Juventus squad that still brought a few big names and a competitive match that ended in a 1-1 draw and a 5-3 penalty shootout triumph for the Italian champions.

Here are three thoughts on the evening.

All-Stars fall by the narrowest of margins

Zack Steffen came so close to reprising his shootout heroics from last October, but this time, the young Columbus Crew and USA star fell short by inches.

The 23-year-old goalkeeper saved two penalties nine months ago as his side stunned Atlanta United in the opening round of the MLS Cup playoffs. Back on the same artificial turf Wednesday, but this time representing the “hosts”, Steffen appeared spry and alert as the game went to the tiebreaker (there was no extra time).

Juve’s penalties were perfect, however.

Although Steffen got a hand to Grigoris Kastanos’s powerful shot, and then guessed correctly and came within a hair of Leandro Fernandes’s low bid, the Italians were ruthless from the spot. New York Red Bulls marksman Bradley Wright-Phillips hit the left post on the All-Stars’ fourth attempt, and that was enough to make the difference. It marked the league’s second-straight setback on penalties after falling to Real Madrid last summer.

The All-Stars had their chances to win during a frequently lively 90 minutes, however. Some of the best came during the second half, when the Houston Dynamo’s Alberth Elis and the Portland Timbers’ Diego Valeri (the reigning MLS MVP) each had a couple clear looks at goal. Atlanta’s Miguel Almirón had a good night orchestrating the MLS counterattack during the first half, and Sporting Kansas City’s Ilie Sánchez helped create some late chances with smart pressure. But it wasn’t enough against a Juventus side that had fielded several untested players and came to Atlanta without Ronaldo, Blaise Matuidi, Mario Mandzukic, Pauly Dybala, Juan Cuadrado, Douglas Costa and Gonzalo Higuaín (who’s off to AC Milan)—but still deployed the likes of Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, Emre Can, Medhi Benatia and Andrea Barzagli.

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The biggest star may have been Atlanta

From Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan doing color commentary while on the field, to Waka Flocka Flame joining ESPN’s announcers in the booth, Wednesday night was about a host city that, as MLS commissioner Don Garber said, has “raised the water level” for the league.

United is averaging a jaw-dropping 51,799 fans per game this season—that’s nearly double the league’s third-highest club, Toronto FC—and it's in first place overall by four points. Among Atlanta’s five local All-Stars, three were 25 or younger. One was Martínez, who was named the game’s MVP thanks to his 26th-minute equalizer. Juve’s Andrea Favilli had given the visitors the lead five minutes earlier, but MLS was quick to rebound. 

Following a bit of patient build-up, Almirón hit a cross that Martínez headed back into the path of Los Angeles FC’s Carlos Vela. The Mexican's blast was well saved by new Bianconeri No. 1 Wojciech Szczesny, but Montreal Impact talisman Ignacio Piatti stayed with the rebound and headed the ball back across the goal line. At the right post, the hustling Martínez came from well out of the play to beat two Juventus defenders to the ball. It was the first goal by a hometown All-Star since 2010.

“When you play a team like Juventus, a forward has to do what a forward has to do,” Martínez told ESPN following the game.

Martínez has been doing it all year. The Venezuelan, who came to Atlanta from Juve’s city rival, Torino, is on pace to shatter MLS’s regular-season scoring record. He’s got 24, leaving him only three shy of tying the mark with 11 games still to go.

“When you play against a big team you always want to do things right,” Martínez said this week. “Obviously, because of my past, I want to achieve what many times we couldn't achieve in Torino.”

He’s now on the verge of achieving something that’s never been done in MLS, and perhaps helping United reach a goal that’s been accomplished just once in the city of Atlanta, which counts the Braves’ 1995 World Series title as its only top-tier professional championship. From its won-loss record to the record-setting crowd, Atlanta United was in the spotlight Wednesday night.

United and Falcons owner Arthur Blank told ESPN during the game that he felt MLS would be successful in Georgia, “but not quite at that level.” Referring to the likes of Martínez and Almirón, he said there was “a philosophy of trying to build with younger, great players and having the best part of their careers being experienced in Atlanta. And Atlanta has come out. It’s beautiful to see.”

The league vs. club format still works

The All-Star format was a topic of conversation again this week, and on Wednesday, because people need to talk about something and nothing is ever good enough. A bit of additional scrutiny resulted from the decisions by David Villa (New York City FC) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (LA Galaxy) to skip events in Atlanta even though, thanks to a somewhat controversial MLS rule, staying home means sitting on their respective clubs’ benches next weekend.

Two 36-year-old vets opting out of flights and a mid-week friendly is no indictment, however. Athletes miss all-star games in every sport. But MLS’s version remains the one in which a greater number of players show up and seem to give something in the vicinity of an honest effort. There are lots of subs, sure. But the run of play between MLS men willing to try just hard enough to impress, and foreign stars who’ll try just hard enough to avoid embarrassment, is pretty competitive for a friendly. And it’s certainly way more competitive than the intramural, gimmick-filled walkthroughs other all-star games have become. No all-star game more closely resembles the actual sport than MLS’s.

The scores of the last half-dozen affairs between the All-Stars and a big European club have been 3-1, 2-1, 2-1, 2-1, 1-1, and 1-1. Those look like genuine soccer scores.

There doesn’t have to be an MLS All-Star Game. If it went away, there probably wouldn’t be much of an outcry. But if there’s going to be one (and there will be, since the league likes the event's trappings and the spotlight), don’t make a mockery of the sport or create a game so lacking in friction that people are forced to focus on the contrived playground picks that precede it, or what shade of neon Team Deion Xtreme is wearing. It’s baffling that anyone wants to return to the intramural format, which has rendered other all-star games almost unwatchable. In the old days of MLS, the East vs. West "showdown" produced matches in which nobody ran but that still somehow ended with scores like 6-4, 9-4, and 6-6.

MLS commissioner Don Garber said this week that he “doesn’t have an answer” about the future of the format.

“I know that if we’re going to embrace innovation, we can't just continue to do what we’re doing and expect it that it’ll always get better,” he said. “I personally like this idea that we bring in international opponents. But I also believe we’ve got enough star players that our league can stand on its own. So East-West might make sense. We need to make sure our players believe in it and engage in it in order for that to happen.”

The problem is that players avoid engaging in an intramural contest, even when they do decide to show. This is evident in every sport. And the instinct to change things for change’s sake is dangerous, even if Garber wants MLS to be considered innovative. Inviting a foreign club was innovative, and it’s still unique. There’s a slight competitive element, and both teams have an identity that means something. For that reason, the MLS All-Star Game stands alone.

One way to maintain that competitive element and continue to innovate has appeared to gain some traction—a match-up between the MLS All-Stars and a selection from Liga MX. It still would be a game that most participants want to win, or at least show well, and it would satisfy those calling for some kind of change. MLS and Liga MX are working closely on several projects, and a new wrinkle to the All-Star Game could be next.

“There’s no doubt that an All-Star Game with Liga MX would be fantastic,” Garber said. “I’d love to see that happen. When? I don't know. But I can’t imagine it won’t happen sometime in the future.”

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