On this otherwise lovely Monday evening in July, an unfortunate thing happened. No, it wasn't the USA coming back to earn a point from their
sleepwalk final Gold Cup match against Panama. No, it wasn't Ryan O'Reilly being charged for adding a new drive-thru to a Lucan, ON Tim Horton's. No, it wasn't me spilling cookies-and-cream ice cream on my shirt during a walk at Fisherman's Wharf, though that one was pretty traumatic.
What, then, was so unfortunate it put wasting of precious Jackson's ice cream to shame? Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber announced the fan-voted players for the All-Star Game along with his two "Commissioner's Picks". Before you get too upset, don't worry - we can immediately put aside the fan-picked players, since they're hardly a surprise. Eight USMNT players (of course), the two biggest icons from this year's expansion markets (what a surprise!) and the token ballot-stuffed Seattle Sounders player (Obafemi Martins, courtesy of FIFA 15)? Yup, that sounds like a fan-voted team if ever I've heard one. So, what pushes this year's carnival of nonsense not just towards the brink but over it?
What the [expletive]. What. The. [expletive].
Where do I even begin with this?
Let's start with the very idea of this charade of a friendly. If I understand the mentality of this league and it's seemingly bottomless inferiority complex, the goal is become so notable and talent-laden that Major League Soccer is considered a top league by 2022. It stands to reason, then, that MLS would also want be to the most popular soccer product consumed in North America. So how, exactly, does importing well-known European (and one Mexican) teams make MLS more attractive to the North American television audience?
"Hey, everyone! Look at how great we are! By the way, here are our opponents which, in some cases, have a century of history and are worth more than every team in this league combined. Don't pay attention to them, though, or watch their games against other top-tier clubs, or be awed by the world-famous players they trot out to face us. Look at us and our salary-capped, domestically developed, still-evolving players instead! Hey, why aren't you looking at us?"
It's a self-defeating prospect even before the first fan-voted player is announced. You can argue that maybe this format would've worked in the early days of MLS, when getting one team of players who fit the "star" portion of "All-Star" would've been something of an ask, let alone two. Now? There's a whole partnership with another league. There are Residencies and Academies across the continent. There are twenty teams in Major League Soccer. You're telling me that you couldn't pull two field players from each team to make two compelling All-Star squads? I disagree. Here, let me take a crack at it:
|Chicago Fire||Jeff Larentowicz, Harry Shipp|
|Colorado Rapids||Vicente Sanchez, Gabriel Torres|
|Columbus Crew SC||Kei Kamara, Wil Trapp|
|D.C. United||Fabian Espindola, Perry Kitchen|
|FC Dallas||Fabian Castillo, Mauro Diaz|
|Houston Dynamo||Brad Davis, DaMarcus Beasley|
|LA Galaxy||Omar Gonzalez, Robbie Keane|
|Montreal Impact||Laurent Ciman, Ignacio Piatti|
|New England Revolution||Diego Fagundez, Andrew Farrell|
|New York City FC||Mix Diskerud, David Villa|
|New York Red Bulls||Roy Miller, Bradley Wright-Phillips|
|Orlando City SC||Kaká, Brek Shea|
|Philadelphia Union||Maurice Edu, Sheanon Williams|
|Portland Timbers||Maximiliano Urruti, Diego Valeri|
|Real Salt Lake||Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales|
|San Jose Earthquakes||Matias Perez Garcia, Chris Wondolowski|
|Seattle Sounders||Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins|
|Sporting Kansas City||Benny Feilhaber, Graham Zusi|
|Toronto FC||Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco|
|Vancouver Whitecaps||Matias Laba, Kendall Waston|
Add in four goalkeepers - off the top of my head, David Ousted, Nick Rimando, Bill Hamid and Luis Robles - and boom, you have a pair of 22-man rosters. Look at those names. Would that make a good showcase for the league? Boy howdy it would; Homegrown Players, USMNT regulars, fan favourites... and those are just the ones I picked. You've probably already thought of five obvious players I missed, or better substitutes to fill certain roles to make a more balanced side. That's good! My point is this: the league doesn't need to continue this counter-intuitive exercise of attempting to raise their exposure by raising another, much bigger club and league's exposure in the media markets they're trying to kick said bigger clubs and leagues out of.
This brings us to the real heat of the meat, the crux of my beef with this news item: for his two picks, Mr. Garber passed over all the domestic talent at his disposal to pick two marquee players that have yet to play a single competitive minute in this league. Let that sink in: the team that names itself after its alleged collection of the best league talent available - once again, it's the MLS All-Stars - will sport two players who, when chosen, had zero minutes of playing time in said league.
Look, I get it - this is all a marketing ploy right from square one. Promote the league, make some buzz, Marketing League Soccer, blah blah blah, sell some fancy jerseys, whatever. Even with all those conceits, this spectacle was still treated by those who organized in it and, more importantly, those who played for Team MLS as a serious competition - a measuring stick against their bigger cousins. Say what you will about this being a pointless friendly that detracts from a grueling league campaign (and goodness knows I've already said tons), by all accounts the players themselves want nothing more than to prove themselves and secure a win, to say nothing of the burning
inferiority complex desire that inhabits MLS HQ. Being selected as an All-Star carried with it a mark of pride and honour.
Try making that same argument now. To date, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard have done nothing to help their teams or this league on the field. Gerrard has only appeared for 45 minutes in a friendly. Lampard has spent a half-season not even under contract with NYCFC, which you could argue means he's had a negative impact on his team and this league without even playing a single minute. And these two people are worthy of being personally selected by the MLS Commissioner to a team of MLS stars that have at the very least won over the hearts of vote-happy league fans through exemplary on-field play? How? For comparison, here are the last sixteen years of players hand-selected to fill out the All-Star squad:
For consideration over your morning coffee: 16 years of Commissioner's Picks to the MLS All Star Game. pic.twitter.com/kUEbggIwQC— Dan Dickinson (@GothamistDan) July 14, 2015
I've been dancing around the point to provide context, so let's just put it out there: this year's picks are a pure, undiluted marketing shill for the league that tosses out the last facade of taking this glorified play-date seriously. Apparently, the mere existence of the All-Star game wasn't a loud enough trumpet or obnoxious enough billboard to promote MLS; now, any pretense of rewarding players for physical and/or technical accomplishment has been thrown out in favour of brazenly pimping out the hottest new things. We should probably just take it as fait accompli that next year's "Commissioner's Picks" will be Giovanni Dos Santos and and Javier Hernandez, furthering the pointlessness of this travelling dog-and-pony show.
Maybe I'd be less upset about this whole thing if Mr. Garber had picked domestic talent - or at least talent that is currently playing in his league. I can't honestly say I'd so much as bat an eyelash in dissent had, for example, Mix Diskerud and Sacha Kljestan been picked to join the squad. Heck, even Toronto's imported midfield duo of Sebastian Giovinco and Benoit Cheyrou deserve to be there on merit and have, y'know, played in the league. Selecting them would preserve what little dignity the MLS All-Star Game had in how it held its domestic participants in high regard.
But instead, Don Garber selected Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.
What a [expletive] joke.