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It's time to make the MLS All-Star Game weirder

The MLS All-Star Game format is stale, and the league should look to the NBA and TST for ways to breathe life into the game.

Courtesy Arsenal FC

This year’s MLS All-Star Game saw Arsenal FC drop a 5-0 thumping on the MLS All-Stars at Audi Field in Washington DC.

It was a ho-hum affair, with Arsenal leading after five minutes thanks to an impressive long-range Gabriel Jesus chip, and with the thrown-together MLS squad unable to display much chemistry or cause Arsenal many problems. 

“Forgettable” might be the best word for this year’s All-Star Game, and that’s not just New York City FC bias seeping through — even if it is easier to forget an All-Star Game that included no NYCFC players for the first time in club history. 

The game felt extra forgettable because it was all about Arsenal, and not about celebrating the best of what MLS has to offer, which is what All-Star Games are supposed to do for their respective leagues. 

The crowd was predominantly there to cheer for Arsenal, and their collection of high-priced international stars easily stole center stage even while operating in preseason mode. These are avoidable side effects of a worn-out MLS All-Star Game format that should be retired. 

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Ditch the glorified friendlies 

Yes, I say it’s time MLS gets back to hosting a self-contained, MLS-players-only All-Star Game. That sentiment seemed to bubble back up last night as MLS fans watched Arsenal pump goal after goal past Wayne Rooney’s All-Stars, and it’s a good start as far as returning the focus of the All-Star Game to the league that’s actually hosting the event. 

Yet just switching back to a best-of-the-Eastern Conference vs best-of-the-Western Conference game is not enough to fix what ails this All-Star Game, because it’s the same problem facing every major sports league’s All-Star Games. 

Viewers don’t want to tune in to simply watch the best players from a given league play a meaningless game against one another, often while operating under their peak athletic capabilities. The most recent NBA and MLB All-Star Games each set new record lows for TV viewership in the history of their respective events, continuing downward trends that likely can be doubly traced to the death of traditional television, and to the lack of interest in the usual approach to holding an All-Star Game. 

MLS should again set out to be a trailblazer and decide to get weird with its All-Star Game. Ditch the stale “midseason friendly match” format in exchange for something new. Anything new, really. 

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Turn to TST and the NBA

There are limitless possibilities for experimenting, and lessons and inspiration for future revamped MLS All-Star Games can easily be found across the American sporting landscape. Two sources of inspiration MLS should consider stealing drawing inspiration from: The 7×7 The Soccer Tournament (TST), and the NBA’s recent tweaks to its All-Star Game. 

Even as the NBA’s All-Star Game sinks to record-low viewership numbers, the league has tried to inject life into the event, giving it a “schoolyard pickup game” vibe by having designated captains hand-pick their teams from the pool of available All-Stars just moments before the actual game begins. The NBA also introduced the “Elam Ending” to its All-Star games in 2020, meaning the end of the game is decided with target scoring, and also means that every game ends on a game-winning shot. 

This endgame approach overlaps a bit with TST, the recent sensation of a 7×7 tournament with a $1 million prize won by Connecticut’s Newtown Pride. TST used “Target Score Time” to conclude its matches, which like the NBA ensured a game-winning goal decided proceedings. 

To me, the MLS All-Star Game is the ideal venue for ripping off TST and applying it to the 28 best players MLS can get together. Add some elements of the NBA’s approach to All-Star squad building, and put the power in the hands of the stars of MLS.

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The 2024 Messi Moment

Now also feels like an ideal time for some experimentation, as the 2024 All-Star Game is certain to include that most famous soccer player on the planet, Lionel Messi, and likely the many ex-Barcelona teammates coming out of the woodwork to join him at Inter Miami.

Come July of 2024, MLS should let Lionel Messi and another designated “MLS Captain” hand-pick their six teammates for 7×7 squads, then have them play a game in straight TST style, with rolling substitutions, no tackling, and the same timekeeping and target scoring dynamics in place to decide things in the end. 

This would make the All-Star Game much less of a proper 90-minute soccer match, but that kind of deviation is necessary to inject some life into what’s become a predictable and boring event. Since this would be a shorter, small-sided game, MLS could hold the Skills Challenge on the same night and turn it into one mega-event, rather than a strangely broken-up two-day procession. 

MLS players would get a chance to display differing sets of skills and in wholly unique types of games that their fans aren’t used to watching them play. It would breathe fresh life into an annual MLS ritual that feels like it’s falling behind the times.

This year’s All-Star Game with Arsenal was only available through AppleTV and MLS Season Pass, so television ratings are now a non-issue for MLS and its All-Star Game. Inside the bubble of on-demand streaming and with the Messi-curious eyes of the world likely to be tuned in for the 2024 version, MLS should lean in to the weird possibilities of a radically redesigned All-Star Game.

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