How important are all-star appearances in professional sports? It’s a question that is often asked when comparing players. In Major League Soccer, these appearances mean less than any other American professional sports league.
Since 2005, MLS has used its all-star game as a promotional event to market the league to soccer fans who exclusively watch the four big European leagues in England, Spain, Italy, and Germany. With the all-stars often facing off against some of the biggest clubs in the world, the game is seen by more than just MLS fans, but also by those that often ignore America’s domestic league. With fans voting on the MLS All-Star Game starters, this leads to the most well-known players representing the league rather than the players that performed the best over the first half of the season.
The draw of fans that exclusively follow the European leagues and the U.S. Men’s National Team has led to most fans selecting players that made their name overseas or have played for the USMNT. This year, for example, five players (Tim Howard, Greg Garza, Graham Zusi, Damarcus Beasley, and Michael Bradley) were selected by the fans to start while four others (Bastian Schweinsteiger, Kaká, David Villa, and Sebastian Giovinco) made their names in Europe. The only two players outside of this trend that were voted on by the fans were Atlanta’s Miguel Almiron and Chicago’s Nemanja Nikolic.
That’s not to say that some of these players don’t deserve the accolade. Villa is currently second in the league with 12 goals for New York City FC, a well-deserved selection to the game. But Orlando City’s Kaká has spent much of the season injured or coming off the bench for Jason Kreis. He’s only taken part in 13 of the team’s 20 regular-season games and has only started in nine. Statistically, he has only recorded three goals and four assists. He leads the Lions in no statistical categories.
While voting in starters for the all-star game is commonplace in American sports, MLS’ all-star appearances deteriorated even further in 2015 with the implementation of the commissioner’s picks. After fans didn’t vote into the game Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, MLS Commissioner Don Garber put both on the team that year, despite the fact that both players had recently joined the league and neither had made an appearance for their new clubs. How can a player be an all-star when they haven’t even played yet?
If the league was to use the game to honor its best players rather than as a promotional event for those that ignore the league, there would be a better representation of the most qualified players based on this year’s play. They could do this by going back to the Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference format that was used in the league’s early years. While fans may still vote for former European players and USMNT players as starters, there would be many more spots open to include the players that earned a spot through their play this season.
Due to the league’s lacking television ratings and the fact that a large portion of this country’s soccer fans refuse to grow the sport in America by supporting their domestic league, the current format is unlikely to change anytime soon. The result will be that very deserving players will continue to be supplanted by less deserving but more familiar names. That will be on display again next month in Chicago when the MLS “All-Stars” take on Real Madrid.