Sunday, February 25, 2018
Sports

MLS has a winner in its All-Star Game format. Export it

A weeklong celebration of American soccer culminated Thursday in San Jose where MLS' elite players faced popular English club Arsenal FC in the annual summer All-Star Game.

The idea of midseason stoppage time might seem a bit homespun for the likes of Arsenal and some of Major League Soccer's famous international imports who once tread on the fields of Europe's storied leagues.

But it doesn't sound hokey to David Villa, the New York City striker who is a picture of soccer royalty.

"In Europe, they need to copy this game for the country and for the supporters," said a forward who led Spain to victories in the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2008.

Villa, 34, won a Champions League title with Barcelona FC and has won Spain's La Liga championships with Barca and Real Madrid.

It's not as if Villa — who has scored a record 59 goals for Spain — needs acknowledgment. But MLS' current scoring leader with 13 goals sees value in exporting American branding overseas. He let his imagination rise above the Avaya Stadium overhead this week when asked about the possibilities for La Liga.

Having the stars of rivals Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and others congregate for one game sounded like a savory tapas to Villa.

"Why not?" he asked.

Why not, indeed.

Arsenal players also endorsed the introduction of an All-Star Game to the English Premier League.

"It would be very interesting to have one in England," Gunners goalkeeper Petr Cech said. "But there are already so many games."

European soccer is a hamster wheel of matches. Arsenal plays in the EPL, the FA Cup and League Cup, and, if all goes well, the Champions League. In reality, there's no room on the calendar for another game. The team also saw 14 of its players represent their countries in major summer competitions this year.

The American landscape was empty when MLS launched 20 years ago. In the first seven years, the league mostly followed a traditional U.S. pro sports path of East vs. West games. It took a detour starting in 2002 by having a league-wide team play the U.S. national squad.

Then MLS officials settled on a winning formula in 2003 with famous Mexican club Chivas de Guadalajara playing the All-stars.

For the past 11 years, the league has recruited big-time European clubs to use the game as a preseason tuneup. The All-Stars owned a two-game winning streak with victories over Bayern Munich and Tottenham Hotspur before Thursday night.

The MLS players entered the stadium in top fitness whereas the Gunners are preparing for the Aug. 14 EPL opener against Liverpool FC. The seasons might be out of sync, but it doesn't lessen the significance.

"We want to win every time we step on the field," said San Jose Earthquakes goalkeeper David Bingham, who made his first All-Star appearance.

The ESPN nationally televised broadcast provides the league a chance to showcase its worth among the world's best leagues. Major League Soccer has dealt with perception issues at home and abroad despite steadily growing its fan base and opening in new markets.

Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger rejected the notion that the game is a gussied up dog-and-pony show like an NBA All-Star Game.

Arsenal's biggest names — Alex Sanchez of Chile, Mesut Ozil of Germany and Olivier Giroud of France — were given extended breaks after the Copa America and Euro 2016 tournaments. But new acquisition Granit Xhaka of Switzerland made his debut Thursday.

All-Star coach Dominic Kinnear had plenty of big names to counter the Gunners, including Kaka, Didier Drogba, Andrea Pirlo and Clint Dempsey.

"It's incredible not just because of the stadiums and academies and the TV, but obviously the names that are being attracted to come play here," the Earthquakes coach said. "I think the David Beckham trickle-down effect is a big reason for that."

Putting it another way, MLS looks vastly different than in 2001, the last time the All-Star Game was held in San Jose.

The magnitude wasn't lost on Chicago Fire rookie Brandon Vincent, who in December helped Stanford win a national championship. The sturdy fullback recalled watching many of his All-Star teammates on live streams while at Stanford.

"I'm at a loss for words sometimes," Vincent said. "When you're growing up you dream of the big lights. All of a sudden you walk into it and it's kind of shocking and amazing all at the same time."

— San Jose Mercury News (TNS)

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