BY JASON DAVIS
By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 22, 2019) US Soccer Players – The MLS All-Star Game isn’t so much an institution as it is a traveling circus. Though some version of the game has been around since 1996, very little about it has been constant. Major League Soccer has seen fit to mold the All-Star Game and its surrounding festivities into various forms to better serve the purposes of expanding its reach among soccer fans and potential soccer fans in America.
The latest evolution of the All-Star Game arrives in 2020. At an event at LA’s Banc of California Stadium on Wednesday, MLS commissioner Don Garber and Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla announced that the opponent at the 2020 MLS All-Star Game will be a Liga MX All-Star team. No close observer of either league found that news surprising.
MLS and Liga MX are even now pulling closer together, choosing to cooperate on several initiatives. The pair launched the Leagues Cup in 2019, a competition pitting MLS and Liga MX teams against one another outside of the Concacaf-run environs of the Champions League.
The hasty launch of the Leagues Cup and the announcement that the 2020 version of that tournament will be much bigger speaks to the impatience on the part of both leagues to make collaborative business ventures work. The logic for each is easy enough to follow. MLS gains more attention from the fans of the league with the highest television ratings in the country. Liga MLS improves its English-language outreach and breaks out of a cocoon that typically holds it back in international venues.
The new format replaces the old format, which was the third different approach in the game’s history. The new American soccer league followed the other American sports upon its launch in 1996 with the midseason All-Star Game, choosing in those earliest days to pit players from within the League against one another in the classic “East vs West” format. That version made for some wild, goal-rich affairs. There was a stretch of All-Star Games from 1999 to 2001 that delivered an average of close to 12 goals-per-game.
The league went to an ad hoc “MLS vs Guest” format for two years from 2002 to 2003. They took the opportunity to build off the success of the USMNT in the 2002 World Cup with a game against the National Team that year. MLS followed that up with a match against Chivas in 2003 and a one-year return to the “East v. West” format in 2004. It wasn’t until 2005 that the game moved to its longest lasting and most recognizable form. Starting with Fulham that year, MLS invited a European club to face off against the All-Stars for 15 straight seasons.
All-Star Games were never a reasonable way to assess the quality of players in the league. Simply by holding the game, MLS opens itself up to exactly that. During the run of European opponents, MLS suffered no matter the result. Win, and it’s only because the visitors are in preseason form and running out teams that included trainees and benchwarmers. Lose, and it’s an indictment of the league. The All-Stars are supposed to be the best MLS has to offer, and the opponent is in, you guessed it, preseason form.
That should change, at least a little, with the move to the new business relationship-cum-competition with Liga MX. The import of a loss may be heightened because of the nature of the rivalry between the United States and Mexico. MLS has yet to knock the Mexican off their perch as the predominant club soccer power on the continent. Even an All-Star win could do wonders for the reputation of the league.
Liga MX will also be in preseason mode this summer. If they weren’t, this game might not be happening. Because of the summer break between Liga MX seasons, there could be complications. The lack of strong central control of the Mexican league might make for players who beg off of all-star duty or owners who refuse to allow their most prized players to go.
Rivalry is a powerful thing. The sense of pride Mexico has in its perceived superiority over MLS should also serve as a hedge against any player-availability shenanigans on the part of the Liga MX owners. Bonilla himself gave voice to the rivalry elements of the game in Los Angeles by declaring his league ready to play the role of poor houseguest.
“Now I want to make clear and say to all the fans in Mexico and the United States: We come to win,” he said. “We come to ruin the 25th-anniversary party. We come with the best we have, and we’re going to win.”
How intently Bonilla feels that sentiment is unclear. A bit of kayfabe on the part of the president wouldn’t be out of the question. Both leagues recognize the value in playing up the heat between the Americans and the Mexicans. As MLS well knows, rivalry is good for business.
If the Leagues Cup was the beginning of the new codified partnership between MLS and Liga MX, the new All-Star Game format is a natural step down the path. There are already rumors in the air of a more involved interleague schedule between the two leagues, perhaps even to the point of stretching the definition of each competition.
Alone, Liga MX and MLS are two reasonable successful leagues in part of the world usually ignored by the traditional soccer power bases in Europe and South America. North America may never be able to compete with either of those continents for the top club competition. It can give itself a fighting chance for a piece of the global pie by cooperating.
The 2020 All-Star Game will be little more competitive than most All-Star games, at least since the League went away from the “East v. West” format. It won’t otherwise be much more than another glitzy exhibition. Off the field, however, this All-Star Game is a landmark. MLS and Liga MX are just getting started.