On Wednesday night, more over 20,000 people occupied the Audi Field seating area. They shouted for each goal, wore their favorite jerseys, chanted their favorite songs, and met their favorite players. And hardly any of it had anything to do with the athletes the MLS All-Star Game in 2023 was supposed to honor.
When it was all said and done, Arsenal had defeated the MLS All-Stars 5-0 in front of a stadium that was primarily made up of their own supporters, winning by a score that fairly represented the game’s outcome, even though the Gunners did score on all five of their shots on goal.
Only two days were available for the group of top MLS players to train together in Washington while simultaneously attending media events and even a White House visit. Before they fired their first and only shot of the second half, they trailed by four goals.
In a span of two years, the captivating showdowns against LigaMX All-Stars gave way to the revival of the MLS vs. Europe All-Star concept, which had a successful run from 2005 to 2019. However, the All-Stars’ triumphant streak came to a halt, facing their most devastating defeat ever.
As accurately highlighted by MLS All-Star manager Wayne Rooney, the outcome shouldn’t have come as a shock. Notably, both Nottingham Forest and Wolverhampton Wanderers suffered identical defeats to the Gunners in the previous season, and these are clubs that successfully navigated the highly competitive premier division last year.
Rooney stated, “We’re talking about one of the finest teams in Europe. When playing against a team like Arsenal, “this could happen to any team.”
Don’t get it wrong. The MLS All-Star Game is still important as a general idea. It’s a great chance for the league’s staff and reporters to get together in a place where it’s easier to do so because of distance and money than in a bigger European country. It’s a real part of North American sports culture, and most of the players seem to like it on some level.
“Listen. Rooney insisted, “It’s a good event, and it’s always a big deal over here.” “I think the hardest part is that the players come from all over and you don’t have much time to do anything with them. You try to make it fun and let the players have a good time.”
But whatever the league was hoping for when it came up with this model, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen now. With Lionel Messi in the MLS, even the most basic worry of selling out the venue should be an afterthought in the next two years.
Even the score of Wednesday’s game isn’t the whole point, since MLS hasn’t always lost to European teams by big margins. Even though they have lost to Atletico Madrid and Manchester United by three and four goals, they have also won against Chelsea, Arsenal, and Bayern Munich.
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But if you thought that those wins would get more American fans interested in MLS, there’s no proof of that. Even though MLS’s TV numbers have gone up a little bit in the last few years, before they started streaming on Apple TV around the world, they were still far behind the Premier League and Liga MX.
Whether it was fair or not, the league got a lot of the blame for the U.S. not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. This idea was mostly confirmed when a team with most players from Europe qualified for and did pretty well at the 2022 World Cup. The idea that a good show will get people who only watch in Europe to come back is just a fantasy. If the MLS plays well, they can point to a training win as proof. If MLS plays badly, it shows that there is a gap in ability.
The setup of MLS vs. Liga MX had a natural energy that was clear right away and again on Wednesday night when we looked at what wasn’t there. We don’t know for sure why it stopped, and it may not have been up to Major League Soccer since it needed the help of another league to happen. But it was a show that was fair for both teams and gave fans of both leagues a reason to watch. If it can come back in any way, it should.
If not, there has to be another way forward than this that is fairer for the team’s best players and for MLS fans.
“The emphasis is on having fun,” said Walker Zimmerman, who has won the MLS defender of the year award twice. “It’s about celebrating us as players, celebrating the league and its growth, and putting together something fun for the fans to enjoy,” he said. When you show up as a player, things are hard. You sort of know what to expect, though you might be put in different jobs. Different strategies for different situations. So, there are a lot of times when things change. It is sometimes pretty open, as we saw tonight.”