There was something distinctly different about this year's edition of the MLS All-Star game. From the opening whistle, one could almost be mistaken for forgetting the whole "All-Star" part. By the time the final whistle had blown, any notion of this match being a friendly had also gone out of the window. There was certainly an unexpected animosity between the two teams that boiled over into a postgame Pep Guardiola handshake snub of Caleb Porter.
Why the difference? For one the quality of MLS players has vastly improved, and it was obvious. The 2-1 result flattered the All Stars overall, full strength there is still little chance the league's best would beat a world class side like Munich. But when Guardiola said that this match was a good test for his team he absolutely meant it.
With a higher quality of play comes a better overall match. This was by far the most entertaining and competitive MLS All Star game to date. All of the goals were brilliantly taken, there were several master class displays of skill from both side and numerous spectacular saves. In the end, the narrative was far more compelling and organic than anything MLS could have hyperbolically fabricated.
Truthfully, this one seemed to play directly into the script writers hands. Bayern Munich looked overwhelmingly dominant to start the match, especially Robert Lewandowski. Anything that MLS did create was through the feet of Thierry Henry, who was given what was likely a final thank you by league faithful.
He was the only starter that MLS did not change at halftime. Instead, they let him start the second half before substituting him off and letting the crowd give him a personal standing ovation. It was class all around. That class never left the field, however, as the All-Stars scored two stunning goals: one a magnificent volley from Bradley Wright-Phillips and the other a fitting winner from Landon Donovan.
One of those aforementioned MLS starters was Michael Bradley, and because this is a Toronto FC site it is worth commenting on his performance quickly. There were many during this match who continuously warned everyone not to read anything into anything surrounding this match. For the most part that is true. It is certainly true of Bradley's performance: essentially he treated the All-Star game like an All-Star game, barely exerting himself. This is good news for TFC as he will be in decent form for this weekend's match with Columbus.
As for reading into anything at all about the MLS All-Star game, it certainly has its expiry date, in this current format at least. But the MLS All-Star game is one of the wrinkles in this league that makes it unique. Eventually, it would be more worth doing a West-East setup as was done in the past, but for now, the marketing and exposure MLS draws from this event makes it a necessity, one that makes much more sense than all the mid-season friendlies.
The impression that the aforementioned exposure leaves on the casual observer is only going to get better as time continues. Next year, the team will likely feature such notable global names as David Villa, Frank Lampard and Kaka. That is only the starting point, as the trend shows that several other notable names will be added to that mix.
It's not only the players that reflected well on MLS in this instance either. The city of Portland did a fantastic job of hosting this event, and truly have gone from expansion to becoming one of the best franchises in the league. Guardiola was quick to mention how fantastic the atmosphere was during the match. It truly was, displaying what is debatably the best crowd in the league.
Major League Soccer has also done a good job of using this match as a marketing tool, while they have the interest of potential new fans. The idea that the end of the transfer window co-exists with the game is brilliant. While it did not happen this season, it is likely to once again create a moment of magic like the Dempsey to MLS saga was during last year's edition. It is the perfect time for the league to talk about the calibre of names that are being linked with their clubs.
Optically there has always been a bit of concern surrounding this game, as it is seen by many as the kind of thing that truly makes MLS a mickey-mouse league. It is also to some degree an unnecessary risk for the league because if they lose it does not reflect well, especially if it is a trouncing like the 2010 and 2011 lopsided losses to Manchester United.
But if tonight's match reflects the calibre of matches that will be played in the future then the positives absolutely outweigh the negatives. At the end of the day, the MLS All-Star game is the most competitive of its type in North American sports. That in itself is a reason for continuing with it.
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