MLS All-Star Game – Ideas for Improvement
As I write this, I am basking in the glow of the City of Philadelphia being awarded the 2012 MLS All-Star Game. I will be able to go and watch the best players in our league do battle in a stadium that is about a half an hour from where I live. I will get to cheer for my favorite Union players as well as some of the men who make up our national team on my home field, and for that I am very thankful.
The MLS All-Star match is unlike any other sport’s all star game. Our best eleven matching up against one of the best clubs in the world. The last two years have seen the MLS All-Stars play against Manchester United. You wouldn’t see an NBA all-star team take on Beşiktaş of the Turkish Basketball League or an NHL all-star team take on Salavat Yulaev of the KHL, although the NHL used to play the Soviet Union’s national team back in the 1970′s. And to some extent, it’s helped spread the brand not only to England, but here at home as there are many people who root for Manchester United but don’t follow the MLS.
Speculation is high on this year’s opponent, with names of Europe’s richest and best clubs being bandied about, such as AC Milan, Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Barcelona, Real Madrid, FC Bayern München… and yes Manchester United (again). Something struck me though – where are the Latin American clubs? Why are we insistent on bringing in a club that’s on holiday when there are in form clubs right in our own backyard that we could bring in? Why are we even looking to bring in another club? If the MLS has improved the way the league office says it has, why not play our best players against one another? Here are some solutions (and I take no credit for these as I’m sure brighter people than myself have articulated these before):
- Bring in a Latin American team – Who wants to see the Man U guys who should be working on their tans (or their hairlines – right Mr. Rooney?) reassembling to play a non-competitive friendly against a team that’s been together about a week? And this goes for any European team, not just the royalty mentioned above. In July, they’ll all be on holiday and not exactly match fit. Let them rest. There are plenty of great teams in this hemisphere who are still playing. Why not bring in Brazilian club Santos, or Mexican Primera División champions UANL Tigres, or Deportivo Saprissa or América de Cali or Boca Juniors or any of the other world-class clubs from right here in the Americas?
The argument I hear most often against this is that it’s all about ratings and no one knows a Santos or Tigres or the other clubs, and I would strongly disagree with that. Perhaps Eurocentric fans who only know the EPL don’t know there are other teams outside of Europe. They don’t know a team like Chivas de Guadalajara or Boca Juniors until you point out that Javier “Chícharito” Hernández played at Chivas before Manchester United bought him, and Manchester City’s Carlos Tevez started at Argentina’s Boca Juniors before heading north and east. A team like Chivas or Boca might not get the ticket sales of an EPL squad, but so what? PPL Park holds at most 20,000. The Union sell almost that much every match. Well, what about tv rights? The match is already being broadcast to between 130 and 140 countries, but think about it – half of the world will be asleep while we play the game. Most Europeans are 5 hours ahead of us and will be asleep for a match that will start at around midnight on Thursday for them. The folks in Latin America are between 2 hours ahead and 3 hours behind Eastern Daylight Time – much more comfortable to catch a match that starts here between 6 PM and 8 PM here in Philadelphia.
The biggest benefit of this as I see it would be something the MLS has been trying to do for a few years now, and that’s reach out to the Hispanic communities here in the US. Bringing in Bimbo as a league sponsor has been huge, but there still seems to be a huge gap in the amount of Hispanic and non-Hispanic fans of the MLS. Bringing in a side from Latin America could help get some of these fans interested in our league here and more importantly, get some of these kids who play wanting to play for an MLS club. Of course every kid wants to play for Real Madrid or FC Barcelona or one of the Manchester clubs, but a lot of young kids in the US also want to play for Chivas or América or one of the great Argentine or Brazilian clubs. Tijuana, who play in Mexico’s Primera División often have camps in Southern California to recruit kids to join their youth academy and have partnered with the Orange County (California) Soccer Academy. Why not try and show these kids that our talent can hang with the big boys, and that playing for an MLS team isn’t just a retirement home for old Europeans but a dream for all kids to strive for?
- Bring in a Latin American all-star team – One of the arguments against bringing in an in-form team from Latin America is that if you put a team of guys who practice for about a week up against a high-powered machine like Boca Juniors or Chivas is that they’ll get destroyed and it’ll hurt our brand in the eyes of the Latin American and casual fans. And I agree to a point – getting blown out is never good, no matter who your opponent. So why not level the playing field a bit? Why not get with the FMF (Federación Mexicana de Fútbol Asociación – Mexican soccer’s governing body) and have them assemble an all-star team of their own? There could be a home-and-away series of friendlies that would have two groups of guys who have only been together for about a week battle it out. One game could be in Chester and the other in Tijuana or Mexico City or Guadalajara. This would benefit both the FMF and the MLS as fans on both sides of the border would get a first hand glimpse of the other’s best talent.
- Have an all-MLS All-Star Game – Why not let our star power shine on it’s own and have two opposing squads of MLS players go at it? You could do East vs. West or perhaps do like the NHL used to do and have the US and Canada play the rest of the world. I think this would be the most entertaining of all of the scenarios, however I get that not many people would watch this because we aren’t there yet. We’re not as talent-rich as the EPL or the Primera División or many other leagues, and we don’t really have the star power for that to work with a national audience, much less an audience halfway around the world. But the MLS should not give up on this option – even if they just set a goal to reach this level of depth of talent and star power.
Again I am really looking forward to this, no matter who we play. Yes, even if it’s Man U. again. But I wish Commissioner Garber and the league would at least consider these ideas. We need to stop looking west to Europe for everything soccer related and start looking south instead. There’s plenty of great soccer right here in our own back yard.