SANDY, UT - MAY 7: Andy Williams #77 of Real Salt Lake and Nick LaBrocca #10 of Chivas USA fight for the ball during the first half of an MLS soccer game May 7, 2011 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
The MLS All-Star game takes place tonight (5:30 pm PST, ESPN2), and following the format of the past several years, the MLSers will be taking on Manchester United, who are a repeat opponent and beat the All-Stars last year 5-2. In addition to being the defending English Premier League champions and the UEFA Champions League runners-up, Manchester United has been laying waste to MLS sides in friendlies this month, defeating the New England Revolution 4-1, the Seattle Sounders 7-0 and the Chicago Fire 3-1.
With this general summary, I want to offer a few thoughts on the game, the Chivas players in it, and the merits of having an All-Star game at all.
I will definitely not be offering up any predictions on lineups. First, Manchester United is in preseason, so expect a combination of starters and reserves (and future loanees to Sunderland or whichever team is Ferguson's preferred team for his players to be loaned to this year). I think a lot of people are hoping Chicharito will be playing, but as he is actually an integral part of the team now, he may not be risked (also, he's only just returned to the team following a month of rest).
As for the MLS team? Forget it, I will not be making any predictions on the lineup. Hans Backe is the biggest coaching enigma in the league, and of course, he's in charge tonight. He famously doesn't like to substitute players with the Red Bulls, so he may run the starters ragged. Or it might all turn out like most All-star games. Who knows?
If there were any point to predicting a winner, it seems Manchester United is a safe bet, but it is an exhibition, so anything is possible, really. 0-0, 1-0, 3-2, 4-4, 7-0, all possible scores here. Not very insightful, I know, but predicting the outcome of an All-star game is a fool's errand.
Chivas USA participants: Pearce and LaBrocca
It is Heath Pearce's second straight selection to the MLS All-Star team in less than three full seasons in the league. Pearce is gaining recognition for his versatility in defense, as he has played his career before this year as a full back, mostly on the left, before starting this season as a right back. After Jimmy Conrad's injury, Pearce was moved to central defense for the first time in his career, and his performance in a new position has been impressive. He's played every minute for Chivas this season, and has been a huge acquisition for the Goats, who would probably be shipping many more goals without him. In addition, he takes care of most corner kicks and occasional free kicks, so his offensive contributions have also helped the team. Given his versatility, if Pearce gets playing time, it will most likely be as an outside back in the all-star game.
Nick LaBrocca has been picked for his first MLS All-Star team this season. After bouncing around with Colorado and Toronto, LaBrocca was traded to Chivas in March and has revitalized his career. One of the reasons for his success this season has been his position as a central attacking midfielder, in contrast to the wing and defensive midfield that he's played before coming to California. As a result of becoming the pivot point in Chivas' attack, he's scored six goals and has three assists on the season. For a team that has no stars, LaBrocca is a perfect star. In the all-star game, if LaBrocca sees playing time, it will likely be on the wing, and it will be interesting to see if he will have a chance to show some of his talents to a wider audience.
Is there any point to the MLS all-star game?
Some of the other MLS SB Nation blogs have been weighing in on this question in the past couple of days. It seems most of them hate the all-star game. Another says the all-star roster itself is bad. For my part, I am not necessarily interested in the game, but I don't hate the concept either. Like the playoffs and the lack of a promotion/relegation system in MLS, the all-star game is another U.S./Canadian anachronism (relative to the biggest European leagues, anyway). But while I agree that the all-star game suffers from many of the same problems that plague midseason friendlies (injury risk, fatigue, fixture congestion, lack of competitive spirit) I think the all-star game serves a slightly different purpose. It represents the youthful fantasy of seeing the best players in the league playing together as a super-team one night a year. It provides headlines and recognition for the players picked for the squad, which as we have seen with LaBrocca and Pearce, is providing deserved attention to good players. That being said, I think the many-headed hydra approach to picking the MLS all-stars is unwieldy and leads to confusion among everybody about how the all-stars should be picked. That is something that could probably stand to be simplified and fixed in future seasons.
And although I don't expect the all-star game to create new fans for MLS, it is a format that is easily recognizable for American/Canadian viewers. The general tension in the sport here today is between people who want to completely emulate the set-up in the major European leagues, and people who want MLS to look more like the other major professional leagues in North America. I could write a book about this tension (really) but I think for those who don't think the all-star game is true football/soccer, they shouldn't really worry too much about the all-star game. Unless an all-star from your team gets hurt, what's the big deal? As for bragging rights, yeah, I don't care at all about that. Mostly, I am indifferent about the game itself. Just like all all-star games in all sports, I am happy to see players from my team in them, but beyond that, not much to get worked up about.
What do you think? Are all-star games worthwhile in soccer? Do you care about this year's game? Leave a comment below!