ORLANDO, Fla. — The Major League Soccer All-Stars wandered around the Exploria Stadium locker room after Wednesday’s 3-0 loss to Atletico Madrid in search of as many signatures as possible for jerseys, name plates and other items to commemorate the event.
The game itself will not be mentioned much because of the final result, but the experience as a whole allowed the league’s best players to be around each other for four days.
The latest edition of the All-Star Game also served as a reminder as to how much talent there is spread across the league.
Four years ago when the MLS All-Stars last beat an European opponent, Kaka and David Villa were the only international superstars in the starting lineup.
On Wednesday, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Carlos Vela, Wayne Rooney and Nani featured in James O’Connor’s XI and the reinforcements included Josef Martinez, Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez, Diego Rossi, Jonathan Dos Santos and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
It is clear the level of talent across the league is growing, and with the additions of established superstars and burgeoning young players from around the world, the idea of going back to an Eastern Conference versus Western Conference All-Star Game was thrown around.
“Absolutely. I hope so,” San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski said. “I definitely understand the whole idea and science behind (the current format). You have to be able to get it out there, get it across the world and get it as many interested and I know that this (format) does this.”
“But having the East versus West we can start having the talent and skill out there to be entertaining enough,” Wondolowski said. “It’s a little bit different when guys are only playing 45 minutes, or 30 minutes. It takes away from that, but at the same time, tackles were flying, guys don’t want to lose and they are competitive. Hopefully it can be a little more of a fun game.”
Figuring out what is best for the All-Star Game is difficult because of the draw European teams bring.
“We brought in Atletico Madrid,” Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. “They filled the stands and the fans loved it. When I did the East vs. West it was in a football stadium, Spartan Stadium.”
“Will we go back to that? I don’t know, but this is a good event for fans and look at this locker room and it’s what the fans probably want,” Rimando said.
The last East versus West All-Star Game was played in 2004, and it was used for five prior events as well, while the current model has been in place since 2005.
Of course, this is a much different league now, but in order to make the switch, the players think some motivation has to be added to the event.
“I think if you put something on the line. Maybe the MLS Cup, or who knows? But if you put something on the line, a nice kitty, you going to get a good performance,” Rimando said.
“Whenever you put something on the line, guys are going to fight a little bit harder, be a little bit more organized,” Rimando said. “But when you go into friendly games, nobody wants to get hurt and that’s the good thing about tonight. You have a lot of guys back home, coaches, GMs that are in the ear of these coaches that still have a season to play.”
“We were throwing ideas around,” Wondolowski said. “I like the idea of whoever gets the top seed out of the East or West get to host MLS Cup, kind of like the World Series. That way it still means something.”
While it is a good idea in theory, Major League Baseball did away with awarding the winner of their All-Star Game home-field advantage in the World Series.
If that was implemented, there could be some cases where zero players from the conference winners are on the All-Star team. For example in 2015, the Portland Timbers had zero All-Stars and went on to win MLS Cup
Los Angeles FC would not have had that problem since it boasted four All-Stars, but first-place Eastern Conference Philadelphia only had Andre Blake on Wednesday’s roster.
Given the limitations to All-Star Game roster size, the amount of teams in the league and the ability to put the best players on the field, there are always going to be teams without representation that could go on a late surge and host MLS Cup.
Smaller adjustments could also be made to the current format in order to make it easier on the players. More time between games around the All-Star Game could be considered.
Some players took part in games on Saturday, flew to Orlando on Sunday and in some cases did not train until Tuesday before playing on Wednesday and now most of them are going back to their clubs to play on Saturday.
“I just think it’s a bit tough,” Wondolowski said. “We had a game Saturday and then another game this coming Saturday. Trying to balance that all and have a competitive team and try to get the most out of guys, but it’s just a friendly. Maybe if there was some more time in between, or we build a bye week in, you could give a little more.”
Even though MLS has not won since 2015, bringing over popular European clubs still carries value in the eyes of the players, and maybe if some of those travel tweaks were made, the games could carry a bit more excitement and allow participants to be fresher to take on squads that have played together for a long period and have spent close to a month in preseason with each other.
“I think either way you would have success,” FC Dallas midfielder Paxton Pomykal said. “I know other sports play East versus West and we play versus one of the top teams in the world. I kind of like the format the way it is right now.”
“I have no problem playing against those teams coming over,” Blake said. “It’s a different challenge and it’s actually a bunch of MLS stars coming together to see how quickly we can jell to play against a team that’s been together for a while so that’s a challenge which I don’t mind taking.”