ATLANTA — Ah, All-Star week. That time of year when we get to watch a team of MLS star players take on some international powerhouse club, while the up-and-coming Homegrown stars play some major club’s youth team. It’s all a great time, and a great opportunity for MLS fans around the USA and Canada to congregate in one place.
However, it’s not nearly as fun as it could be, nor as fun as it should be. Let’s fix that, shall we?
But first, as is customary, a history lesson.
The All-Star Game has been an annual fixture of the MLS season since 1996. The first two years pitted East vs. West, akin to the other four major American sports leagues. For 1998, MLS adopted a USA vs. the World format, pitting two teams of league all-stars against each other; one comprising American players, the other foreign. The East vs. West format returned in 1999 (despite MLS adopting a third division, the Central Division for the 2000 and 2001 seasons) and continued until 2002, when MLS switched to the first All-Stars vs. guest format. That first game saw the MLS All-Stars taking on the U.S. men’s national team (though, considering full USA internationals Jason Kreis and Steve Ralston scored for MLS, I’m calling shenanigans). The first All-Stars vs. foreign club game was the 2003 edition, when the All-Stars hosted CD Guadalajara at the brand-new Home Depot Center. Following a one-off return to East vs. West in 2004, the All-Stars have taken on an international club in every subsequent game.
Why, exactly, am I so concerned with fun? Because throwing together the best and most popular players in a league or conference and seeing what they do together is just delightful. Want to see Zlatan, Tim Howard, Carlos Vela, Miguel Ibarra, and Diego Valeri as teammates on the field together? Hell yeah I do. It’s not going to be high-quality soccer, that’s a given. Great teams are great because of things like team chemistry and familiarity on the field. The All-Stars never have that, nor should it be expected. They’re there to go have fun together for our and their enjoyment. That’s beautiful.
So, here’s the first proposal: bring back the East vs. West All-Star Game. While it’s definitely fun watching our league’s best take on European giants, those invited clubs generally treat the game as part of preseason training. International superstars aren’t likely to push themselves too hard, as going down injured in what is essentially a preseason friendly could cost them a starting spot. It just doesn’t make sense for those teams to try and play with the same intensity as they would in league play. Meanwhile, the East vs. West games averaged nine goals scored per game, and players generally played out of their minds. That’s both more fun and more relevant to fans of MLS.
So, East vs. West. That’s one fix. Let’s also take that format and apply it to the Homegrown Game, where we get to see a full 90 minutes of pure homegrown talent. For one, it gets these young players in front of a lot of eyeballs, and for two, it’s a contextually relevant game both in terms of MLS experience and youth national team experience.
Onto the rest of All-Star week. Let’s bring in a skills competition. Why not? It’s always great fun watching NHL players do crazy stuff every year, and the Home Run Derby is a borderline religious experience in the Church of the Almighty Dong. And there are a number of relevant skills competitions we could have in the All-Star Game. Here are four ideas I have already:
1. The 35-yard shootout
Back in early MLS, games never ended in draws. If both sides were level after 90 minutes, games went to a shootout. Here’s a video so you can see what I mean:
Players started 35 yards from goal, and had five seconds to beat the goalkeeper. Keepers were able to come forward and defend, while kickers got to dribble up the field and prepare a shot. They’re wildly entertaining to watch even today. Compare these to the very similar shootouts in hockey. Let’s turn this into one of our skills. Take the starting ‘keeper from each conference’s All-Stars, and put them against maybe four or eight field players from the other conference. And if a defender or even a ‘keeper wants to give it a go, that’s even better. Hell, if Zlatan wants to play in goal and Luis Robles wants to try and score on him, let that happen. I’ve been — quite loudly — arguing for these shootouts to supplant penalty shootouts in MLS and the U.S. Open Cup for years. If that dream is to ever become a reality, we need more people to learn or remember just how great those 35-yard shootouts are.
2. Long-range bombs
We all love a ridiculous strike from midfield that flies over the ‘keeper’s head and into the back of the net. If we didn’t, those goals wouldn’t win Goal of the Week every time they happened. And if you think you don’t like those goals, watch this video right here:
That should change your mind. Ever wonder who’s the best at that? Well I certainly have. Let’s find out together. Get some great players to take the shot, and have a designated keeper and defender to try and keep it out of the net. Shooters stand from the long end of the half-way line, run up to the ball, and just blast that sucker at the goal. This would be MLS’ Home Run Derby.
3. Crossbar challenge
It seems like everyone’s doing one of these nowadays, so what the hell, welcome to the Skills Competition. If you’re unfamiliar, the crossbar challenge is a sort of free kick competition wherein the goal is to hit the crossbar instead of the back of the net. It’s a bit odd, and definitely confusing to watch if you don’t know what’s going on, but it’s also good fun. The players seem to enjoy it, too, and there are dozens of videos of prominent players giving it a go.
4. Trick shot challenge
Again, why not? Partially suggested by my friend Valerie, and definitely inspired by hockey. Let players try and score a goal in whatever ridiculous way they please. Props? Yes. Inviting whomever onto the field to assist? Yes. In the NHL, this turned into a big chaotic mess, and it was delightful. They’ve since introduced measures to restore normality in all the wrong ways, so let’s have their fun for them.
At this point, I think I’ve made enough of a case. MLS All-Star week could be way more weird and entertaining than it is currently, and in conclusion, I should be in charge. Thank you and goodnight.
Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.
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