Commentary

“It’s worth it,” and other reflections on the All-Star Game

Photo: Peter Andrews 

There may be no event in sports stranger than the MLS All-Star Game.

It’s a game that means something totally different to each participant and each fan. In your average game, it’s pretty simple: you want your team to win.

Here, it gets a little bit complicated.

For the visiting European club, it’s a novelty and a tune-up. Exposed to one of America’s most foreign sporting concepts — what on earth is an “All Star game”? — and rabid fans who see their favorite team far too rarely, it is difficult to balance the requirements of a preseason tune-up match with those of an ostensibly significant event.

Arsenal clearly saw this as a chance for new blood to be transfused painlessly into the squad, with most of their world-class players still on vacation following international tournaments. Arsene Wenger praised the performances of debutants Granit Xhaka and Rob Holding. “It was an opportunity,” Wenger said, “for me to see many young players that we educate.”

For some of the MLS All-Stars, it’s a punishment, a mid-week cross-country star trek that brings with it media obligations, fan obligations, and the obligation to get into second gear for at least ten seconds before your private jet takes you back to New York. (I’m looking at you, Andrea Pirlo.) All of these annoyances make it difficult to generate genuine enthusiasm from a certain section of the squad.

But for others, it’s a just reward, a highlight in a season of ascendance, a rare chance to get to know players in the elite echelon in MLS and to strut their stuff on the world stage. At least, that’s how the Union’s Keegan Rosenberry and Andre Blake approached their first All-Star Game.

“Coming into it, I was really just looking to soak everything in and cherish the experience,” Rosenberry said after playing the first half and registering the most touches of any player on the MLS team. A rookie who many worried that the Union reached too high for in the SuperDraft, Rosenberry has earned national team speculation through his sterling performances, and he’s clearly eager to learn everything he can. After the match, Rosenberry said that he prioritized “the relationships I hope I can build going forward with some of these guys.

“Something as simple as seeing Kyle [Beckerman] on Sunday when we play RSL. Being in this circle and building a new network, that’s what I’m going to take away from this.”

Blake, who showed the quality that will likely lead him to Europe with a full-stretch save on a Mohamed El-neny cannon-blast, echoed Rosenberry. “Playing against world class players and playing with some world class players as well is a moment to cherish, and I’ll definitely hold on to this for the rest of my life.”

And then, there are the fans. For many sitting at home, the All-Star Game is an easy target for mockery, an excuse to roll out gifs of Kaka stumbling over the ball like he’s me during a Boalt Ballers intramural soccer game rather than Former FIFA World Player Of The Year Kaka. And I understand the sentiment. That gif is pretty damn funny.

The game has its other calamities and absurdities. One team is barely fit, the sound-barrier-breaking pace required to survive in the Premier League reduced to the approximate speed of the Wright Brothers’ aircraft. The other team has “trained” together maybe twice and, as a consequence, barely know each other’s names, let alone their preferred movements. And there are also the heart in mouth moments where it looks like a player has been injured in a friendly match, the most irritating injury possible. When Francis Coquelin went down writhing in pain, you could hear every Gooner in the building suddenly hold their breath. (He turned out to be okay.)

But this game, in all its awkwardness and occasional absurdity, is still more than a mere annoyance for the fans in attendance. At Avaya Stadium, approximately 70 percent of the fans were rooting for the MLS All-Stars, and 70 percent were rooting for Arsenal. How many matches can boast such a mathematically impossible balance of support?

On a midweek afternoon in the summer heat of San Jose, the stadium was packed to the rafters with excited fans in throwback Quakes uniforms, red and yellow Arsenal kits from every era of the storied club — and even one Nicklas Bendtner Denmark jersey (yes, guy, I saw you).

Part training exercise, part networking event, part party, part soccer game, But what I didn’t quite understand until I got there is how the All-Star Game is part pilgrimage — a chance for fans of a rarely seen foreign team to watch their boys live for the first time, to take selfies with Gunnersaurus and cheer Arsene Wenger off the team bus, to cheer loudly for the hapless Chris Wondolowski.

I think we forget sometimes, in an era where there is almost literally a soccer game available to watch 24 hours a day, when we can get every match on our phones as we walk through the world, that the live sports experience is important and worth protecting. There is a difference between seeing your heroes through a screen and seeing them in person, between watching a match with your cat and the Twitter app and with thousands of people with the exact same Ozil or Wondolowski jersey that you have.

I felt that difference on the ground at the All-Star Game. In the sweltering line to buy an overpriced scarf — the perfect accessory for a humid day — I met one person who told me he had flown all the way from Atlanta, just for this match, just to see his beloved Arsenal.

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” he told me. “I have to work on Saturday to make up for it. But it’s worth it.”

It’s worth it. And that’s why it endures.

The MLS All-Stars fell to Arsenal FC, 2-1, in front of a full house at San Jose’s Avaya Stadium. Joel Campbell scored on a penalty kick for Arsenal, but Didier Drogba evened the score at the stroke of halftime. Chuba Akpom completed a sweet Arsenal move with a tap-in in the 87th minute to earn the Premier League side its first victory of their 2016-17 preseason.

Andre Blake and Keegan Rosenberry played the first half. Neither are injured.

19 Comments

  1. Yea I don’t get all the hate on it. It’s not important, but it’s cool to see our all our star players on a team and see them have fun. Like they said it can provide networking opportunities and it gain MLSers international exposure. I think it’s cool and I hope it stays in the current format.

    • Pragmatist says:

      They are all useless, no matter the sport. But they are fun. As long as no one gets hurt, there is no issue with them.

    • My hate on it has been the absurd selection process, especially when Garber inserts the latest foreign dignitary who has hardly played a game for the league. I swore off it for good a couple of years ago, but relented to watch Dre & Keegan in the first half. They acquitted themselves quite nicely, I would say.

  2. i really enjoyed the atmosphere when it was here. hearing announcers say the format doesn’t have to change, i disagree. the broadcast shows Pirlo hopping in a taxi to the airport during the match. last night was worse than ’12 when Beckham plays, hops on a plane, flying to open the London Olympics. i’ll grant that exception.

    Pirlo has a league game 40 some hours later, 3 time zones away. they say it’s NYCFC restrictions on Yankee stadium. If you want the stars to play, you gotta make it worth it, and not threaten them with suspensions.

    i’ve also done NHL all stars too. the skills challenge the day before is fun. i really like their new format and think they could something similar in MLS.

  3. Union-asaurus says:

    Well that was a weird experience. The Gunners were my EPL team long before the Union came into existence so I would find myself rooting for one team or another at different times during the match. On the Arsenal side, we look a long way away from a title contender, but, hey, Rosenberry & Blake both looked good.

  4. I watched a bit…. It looked like most of the people in the arena were wearing Arsenal kits. Anyone else think that? Or is it just me?
    .
    I though the game had some fun moments. It wasn’t terrible.

  5. John P O'Donnell says:

    Shame most people can’t remember the little kid in them when this was a big deal. It’s a game for fun and the fans. It’s also a time for the players to give back to those fans. Sadly all you see is cynical people trying to make it into something it’s not. Probably the same people who love telling little kids there is no Santa.

  6. The announcers saying the NYCFC situation ‘wasn’t MLS fault that they had to play on Saturday…of course it is — don’t schedule NYCFC at home this weekend. I know schedules are complicated, but why not schedule as many of the teams in the same conference as the host city with home games that weekend against teams from teams from the other conference?

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