Even when it comes to simple exhibitions Major League Soccer seems to brew up controversy. On a night where North America’s attention was in Kansas City, MLS’ was in Colorado. Yes prior to the United States-Panama match, MLS made a corporate decision to unveil their MLS XI for their Annual All-Star Game.
The idea of some person who has an MBA and believes in corporate synergy the idea at least made sense: Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey are All-Stars and they play for the U.S. Men’s National Team. Brilliant.
Then as MLS as often does they drop the mic and cause panic and anger among the supporters of MLS squads everywhere. On a night where the league was looking for attention it sure got it but for the wrong reasons.
On Monday night, MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced that as part of the MLS All Star Team that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard had been selected to the squad as his personal picks. Mic dropped, cue the wrath of MLS supporters everywhere.
A little history lesson: the MLS All-Star Game is a reminder of a time when MLS thought that American sports fans could not tolerate the foreign-ess of soccer. It also serves for those less cynical as a friendly between the best players in the league.
A match that once featured the best players from the Western Conference taking on the best of the Eastern Conference, the game now features the best of MLS taking on an international club. This year Tottenham Hotspur will join the likes of Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Real Madrid, Club America, and Chelsea. Think testimonial match except that the league actually believes the game matters.
Now one might at ask at this point why anyone would want to play such a match given the risk of injuries and that players are already being asked to play multiple club and international tournaments. The answer is that they don’t. Xabi Alonso and Bayern Munich would certainly argue this-given that the player sustained a disastrous injury in the 2014 All-Star Game.
MLS teams certainly acknowledge this with players often being selected and then declining the honor due to injury or “injury.” It should also be noted that players will receive a bonus even if they do not play in the match. This is a practice employed by squads in all North American sports. For as much as All-Starr Games are marketed as a can’t miss game many players certainly do.
So why does MLS continue this charade and why do teams even entertain the notion of this match? As always in football money plays a major reason. These teams are not coming to the United States for free. Fees have to be paid and shirts need to be sold.
That, coupled with a sold out Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Colorado and the game being televised live on ESPN, Sky Sports in the UK, and Eurovision all throughout the world, means massive dollars for both sides. It seems farcical that a match with as little on the line would be seen as so valuable. But in a time when the world is craving more soccer matches like this land on the football calendar.
All of this is well and good if the match itself is meant to be an exhibition. So why is it that Gerrard and Lampard’s inclusion ruffled so many feathers?
There some to be two ways of thinking when selecting an All-Star Game roster. The first is that players should be selected based off of merit that the players in the best form should be selected. This seems to be the point of consternation for some MLS supporters: neither Gerrard nor Lampard has played a match for their respective side.
What is also curious about their inclusion is that they were picked by Commissioner Don Garber, not by the fans. While the fans select the starting XI, a panel of scouts, players, writers, and coaches select the reserves. The Commissioner also has two picks which seems to be a conflict of interest.
The second line of thinking when selecting an All-Star roster is that selection should be based on who the most marketable players are. If this is an exhibition should the big names not be there? People attending this match are looking forward to the festivities, the chance to see their idols, and maybe get to watch them do a trick.
So why is it that Garber’s choices received such negative feedback. If one can split hairs, it seems that the negative blowback is geared towards Lampard. Gerrard, although he has only played one match for the Los Angeles Galaxy, seems to be generally interested in playing here and becoming a part of the league.
Any person that buys the supporters beer will generally be seen in a favourable light. Perhaps it is unfair but Lampard is the scapegoat for the dog and pony show that MLS and Manchester City put supporters through when he originally signed with New York City F.C., then apparently didn’t, and then apparently did.
What is also odd is that there were better candidates for these positions. If Garber wanted to choose a player that will sell tickets, why didn’t he choose Andrea Pirlo? Why did he not choose Sebastian Giovinco, the former Juventus striker who leads the league in goals for Toronto FC?
If the league wants to market the All-Star Game as a can’t miss game then it needs to decide how to treat it. If it is a marketing tool then by all means pick the big name stars and sell some t-shirts.
But if it wants to treat the match as a statement game, as a game that shows how much progress it has made in terms of development then it might want to select players that have actually played a match or two in MLS.
It cannot be both and to treat it as such is both to the detriment of the players, the supporters, and the league.