The presence of Manchester United as the opponent for tonight’s MLS All-Star Game is obviously a coup for the league in terms of publicity and credibility, but it also points up something about the format of the game that sets it apart from every other U.S. pro sports league’s midseason showcase: The MLS All-Star Game is actually worth watching.
Let’s break it down:
NBA and NHL All-Star Games: These are little more than overhyped exhibitions, where matador defense is the order of the day and scores are ridiculously inflated. Even diehard fans have little use for these gaudy spectacles anymore, preferring instead to focus on the skills competitions at each event, which are at least entertaining and feature genuine competition—except when they’re rigged.
NFL Pro Bowl: Do you know anyone who watches this beachside vacation for the NFL’s elite? Did you even know they changed the format this year, relocating the game from Hawaii to Florida and scheduling it for the dead week before the Super Bowl? … No? … See what we mean? Seriously, C-Span is more entertaining on an average day than the Pro Bowl.
Major League Baseball: This one has lost a considerable amount of luster since the introduction of interleague play in 1997. Before then, the MLB All-Star Game was an opportunity to see players matched up against opponents they wouldn’t ordinarily face, except possibly in the World Series. Interleague play put the kibosh on that novelty. In 2003, the league decided that home-field advantage in the World Series would go to the league that won the All-Star Game, thereby increasing players’ incentive to win the game—theoretically anyway. But the truth is the players consider it an unfair way to determine home-field advantage for the championship of the sport, and would like to see it removed. All of this leaves you with an event that is essentially meaningless, yet has a disproportionate effect on the outcome of the season. It’s as confused as the expression usually found on Bud Selig’s face.
MLS All-Star Game: In 2005, when Major League Soccer started inviting European clubs to play in its All-Star Game, the league’s showcase jumped to the head of the all-star class in North American pro sports, and it’s not even close. The game provides an opportunity for U.S.-based stars to test themselves against the best players in the world, who, in turn, do not want to get embarrassed by guys toiling in a fledgling league in the less-than-soccer-mad United States. The result is a lively, competitive game that has more edge than an exhibition, and more attacking flair than your average rugged regular-season game. It’s also a chance for U.S. fans to see a brand-name team like Manchester United—with Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nani and Dimitar Berbatov—in action.
As we said, MLS players will be fired up for this one: no player needs extra incentive when taking on Manchester United. But there are other motivators for them as well: y0u never know who could be watching; impress against the best tonight, and it could lead to a career upturn. Then there’s the matter of protecting the MLS All-Stars’ unbeaten record since 2005 against top-flight European sides, including Chelsea, Celtic and Everton.
But Man U comes into this one motivated as well: they’ll be licking their wounds after Sunday’s embarrassing loss to a shorthanded Kansas City team, and their preseason preparations are gaining momentum. This is the fourth game of their U.S. tour, and they should be rounding into form.
We’re calling for a 2-2 draw.
Enjoy the game. It’s on ESPN2 at 8:30 tonight.