ORLANDO, Fla. — The debate rages every year at the MLS All-Star Game: Should the domestic league continue to pit its marquee players against a top international club team, the way it has every year since 2005, or go back to the Eastern Conference against Western Conference format that MLS used during its early days two decades ago?
On nights like Wednesday, when an All-Star squad featuring living legends like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney alongside top young American and Canadian players such as Paxton Pomykal and Mark-Anthony Kaye, dropped a 3-0 decision to perennial Champions League contender Atletico Madrid, it’s easy to think MLS ought to switch things up.
After all, the circuit has more than doubled in size since the last East-West match. There’s more than enough star power now, the thinking goes, to easily field two All-Star squads comprised entirely of the best MLS players.
There was support for both options in the home team’s locker room afterward.
“Did I enjoy East versus West? Yes,” said 40-year-old Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando, a six-time All-Star who has spent half his life as an MLS player. “I think that was a fantastic format but again, look, we brought Atletico Madrid here. These fans love that and they filled the stadium.
“This,” Rimando added, “Is what the fans probably wanted.”
Many of the players did, too.
“I’ve never been a part of anything like that,” Kaye, who at 24 has emerged as a key cog for runaway Supporters’ Shield leader LAFC this season, told Yahoo Sports. “It was a dream to be able to play against a top European powerhouse.”
Pomykal, a 19-year-old playmaker enjoying a breakout campaign for FC Dallas, his hometown club, shared a similar sentiment.
“I know other sports play East versus West,” said Pomykal, who also starred for the U.S. at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup earlier this summer. “But I kind of like the format the way it is right now. I enjoy playing against guys like that, and for all of us to come together and play as one team instead of being split into two.”
For the most part, MLS-against-the-world approach has been a smashing success. The All-Stars may have lost this match by a lopsided score at sold-out Exploria Stadium, but it was an outlier. Since 2012, the hosts have beaten Chelsea — the Champions League holders at the time — Tottenham and Bayern Munich, and tied Real Madrid and Juventus before losing on penalties.
“For me, it doesn’t show the difference between Europe and MLS,” said former Bayern captain and current Chicago Fire defender Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Wednesday marked the All-Stars’ largest defeat since losing 3-1 to Roma in 2013. And it was closer than the result would suggest. Despite having never played together before, the MLS team was able to dominate possession and create the majority of the chances over the final 45 minutes of the contest, even after Atleti manager Diego Simeone subbed in 11 new players with just over a half-hour to play. The visitors’ final two strikes didn’t come until the dying moments of the tilt.
“In the second half,” Simeone said, ”You saw a dynamic MLS team that could have hurt us.”
When all the pomp is stripped away, these are mere friendlies. And still they are always competitive. Those East-West affairs generally weren’t. The 2000 event finished 9-4. The following year, it ended 6-6. Other major North American Leagues such as the NBA and NHL have also moved away from the traditional setup in recent years, in part because the games looked nothing like the real thing. For MLS to even entertain the idea of reverting to conference-against-conference for its midsummer classic, it would first have to figure out how to make players defend.
“We were actually kind of throwing ideas around,” veteran San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski said. “I like the idea of whoever [wins between the] East or West, they get to host the MLS Cup. That way it still means something.”
Rimando, for his part, suggested a cash prize. In the current format, though, no added incentive is needed.
“To come here and represent MLS against one of the best teams in the world, you want to try and win and do the best you can,” Rooney said. “Certainly that’s how I felt, and from speaking to some of the players, I know they did.”
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