By Dario Camacho - MIAMI, FL (July 13, 2012) US Soccer Players -- If there is a referendum on the state of Major League Soccer, it's the All-Star game. The yearly event is the pinnacle of the summer friendlies. The opponent, normally a European elite, swooping in for the weather, regaining match fitness, and selling lots of tickets to its American fans. The goal, MLS putting on a show. The current format has been described as the best setup that any of the major leagues in the US has for an All-Star game.
I happen to agree.
It's pure fantasy manifested in reality, at least for those truly invested in MLS. We always need a measuring stick for our League on the world pecking order, and with some caveats the All-Star game can do just that. How well MLS's best players can stand up to a team like Manchester United or Chelsea is always a fun little debate, a distraction from the harsh summer heat and the middling mid-season crawl that usually lulls us to sleep. The entertainment value is high, but at the same time so is the potential downside. Lose badly, and the conversation quickly shifts.
Remember what MLS commissioner Don Garber himself said last year after a highly anticipated game between Manchester United and a strong Sounders team. That game, if you recall, was a debacle. A black eye to the league after a 7-0 trouncing to a Seattle squad that was considered a really good team. As a whole, the game wasn't flattering, but looking at the details the score line wasn't as representative of how the whole thing went down.
Manchester United exploited one of the key weaknesses of any MLS team: depth. After the first half, and Seattle only down by one goal, Seattle coach Sigi Schmid explored the depths of his bench. That wholesale team swap only demonstrated that after the first eleven, even Seattle has a hard time maintaining quality. That's true at MLS level, and against Manchester United the difference was staggering.
After the game Don Garber put it directly, "Our view is that if we’re going to play these games, we ought to play to win." Fair enough, since any club owes it to the ticket-buying public to put on a show over the whole 90 minutes, not just the part of the game that suits them. There's no excuse for letting the visitors have that much of an advantage. The All-Stars didn't have any luck against Manchester United either, and they were promptly shown the door with a 4-nil blanking. Not necessarily the promotional billboard that MLS was looking for.
With that in mind, the All-Star team selection needs to be adjusted from its current machinations. If a friendly isn't a friendly, and it's something to be considered serious enough to win, then MLS has work to do.
A place to start would be eliminating the fan voting of the first eleven players. There is always a controversial spin to this and if stuffing the ballot isn’t synonymous with the first eleven, well one only need to look at this year's current selection with four teams fielding nine players selected by the fans. Honors aren't even, and once the step was made to not make the First XI the actual starting lineup the point of a fan vote was all but nullified.
Though the League is quick to make clear that the coach isn't obligated to select any of these players, their shouldn't even be a discussion. Let the coach selected to lead the All-Star team choose the entire squad. If the purpose of the All-Star team is to beat its European guest, then the creation of the team to fit the signature style of play of the coach should take precedence. That would mean in 2012 Ben Olsen given the freedom to create a team for a single game that plays to his strengths as a coach.
There is the down side of this format. Yes, there might be some players left out that deserve to be chosen to the team, but if the end result should be a win, then players will be left out. How well does a Will Bruin fit a Ben Olsen team? How about Danny Koevermans? Who needs to make way for a better strategic fit on the night? MLS already is required to name two complete All-Star squads to satisfy their collective bargaining agreement. It's well established that being an All-Star and playing in the All-Star Game can be separate things.
Any limits put in place on selecting the actual squad hamper the ability to field a competitive team. Though no one outside of the home market should want to see a coach stack a team with his own guys, the public pressure and the ire of the League should prevent that scenario. If MLS is in it to win it, make that the focus and select accordingly.
Garber's words after the Seattle disappointment still resonate. The All-Star Game is more than just another friendly. The result counts as a matter of this League's pride. Plan accordingly.
More from Dario Camacho: