Chelsea. Real Madrid. Juventus. What do these clubs have in common?
Besides being some of the most storied clubs in world soccer, they’ve all had the honor and privilege of playing in the MLS All-Star Game. MLS first began inviting European clubs to play in the All-Star Game in 2005, when Taylor Twellman and Jeff Cunningham led the league’s finest to a 4-1 victory over English club Fulham F.C. The game was a hit with fans, and the league switched the All-Star Game from a more traditional East-versus-West format to a yearly friendly against popular European teams.
As MLS continued to grow, so did the scope of the All-Star Game. In 2010, over 70,000 fans packed Houston’s Reliant Stadium to watch Manchester United take on the All-Stars. Four years later, Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola infamously refused to shake All-Star coach Caleb Porter’s hand after the German champions fell to goals from Bradley Wright-Phillips and Landon Donovan.
This year, it was only fitting that the All-Star Game was held in Atlanta. The Big Peach ticked all of MLS’s boxes for All-Star host: sparkling new stadium, rabid fanbase, and enough touristy things to do to keep casual fans occupied for just under a week. Atlanta United has been one of the league’s best teams since beginning play in 2017, and perhaps more importantly, they play an exciting, attacking brand of soccer. It was a match made in heaven.
The entertainment began far before the All-Stars took on Serie A titleholders Juventus. Appearances from Waka Flocka Flame, endless FIFA tournaments, and the Homegrown Game –a unique opportunity for the league’s most promising young talents to make their mark– preceded a tasty matchup between the All-Stars and the Old Lady. Although the match itself only saw two goals, including one from Atlanta’s own Josef Martinez, there was no shortage of action throughout. Fans watching at home could hear All-Star goalkeeper Brad Guzan’s every reaction as he wore a mic while playing. Ezequiel Barco, Alberth Elis, and Diego Valeri all came close to scoring for the All-Stars, but Juventus held firm, winning in a penalty kick shootout after regulation ended 1-1.
Many MLS fans contend that the league is ready to go back to the “traditional” All-Star format of conference versus conference. Indeed, the NFL, MLB, and NBA all employ this tried-and-true method, and the NHL’s version of the All-Star game is only marginally different. However, those leagues lack true international competition. Imagine the best baseball players in the world facing the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in the Midsummer Classic. It just wouldn’t be the same. And, of course, there’s the simple issue of money: if the on-field product isn’t in high demand, the effort won’t be profitable. Casual American soccer fans might pay to see Chicharito and Robert Lewandowski score goals for fun, but the league doesn’t yet have the cache to charge people an exorbitant price to watch Ignacio Piatti dribble past Matt Hedges (both, by the way, have been two of the best players in MLS over the last few seasons). MLS might reach that point some day, but for now, it makes more fiscal sense to invite European opponents to play.
The All-Star Game, like anything else in sports, exists to entertain. Atlanta’s vibrant culture and incredible atmosphere, as well as the game itself, perfectly encapsulated the current state of the beautiful game in the United States: fun, quirky, and somewhat unpredictable. Even in a match that had no real consequences, the All-Stars represented the league well, playing with a flair and gusto that All-Star games in other sports tend to lack. And there’s no doubt that the MLS front office has done a wonderful job of marketing the All-Star Game to a more casual audience, with initiatives to engage the larger community with non-soccer events such as concerts and other opportunities for MLS fans across the country to interact with one another. The success of MLS’s summer showcase is a good omen for what should be an immensely exciting second half of the season.