Precious little flexibility exists within the crowded MLS calendar. There is meager latitude for frivolity, scant opportunity to distract from the task at hand. The constant growth of the league amplifies the demands on clubs and players to churn through the 34-game season and march toward the playoffs in some semblance of order.
The continued willingness to distract from those proceedings for a couple of days and stage the MLS All-Star Game reflects its enduring value from a broader perspective. There are no points awarded or tangible measures gained from fielding a select team against a foreign side, but the merit of gathering key figures together for a high-profile encounter to generate buzz and interest persists nevertheless.
The buildup to the match against Bayern Munich on Wednesday provides MLS with a chance to highlight its progress and showcase its stars. It is still a necessary and vital endeavor for a league still craving a broader foothold. This event offers an opportunity to attract attention during the summer months and sell the fare to a wider audience tempted to sample this one off-tie.
It is a showcase first and foremost with much of the value stemming from fielding a team stocked with big stars from across the league. The sight of Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry all wearing the same jersey provides an evident reminder of the talent on display every week. The emphasis on U.S. national team players this year – seven out of the 10 MLS representatives in Brazil are in the frame to feature after Omar Gonzalez withdrew over the weekend – supplies yet another component in the wake of the World Cup success on these shores.
This game offers MLS a chance to build on the momentum generated by that tournament and make further inroads during the second half of the season. MLS thrives on measured and steady strides on and off the field, but the influx of talent over the past year and the lavish spending required to obtain it increases the impetus to accelerate the progress. There is a platform in place now to draft upon the interest generated earlier in the summer and seize upon those gains.
Bayern Munich joins the lengthy list of prominent clubs booked for this spectacle and lends its cachet, its precocious American winger Julian Green and its raft of World Cup winners to the efforts this year. This match, in truth, represents a deviation from the standard preseason preparations. It is all pomp and circumstance at a time when Pep Guardiola wants to integrate the core of his side back into the fold after the summer exertions and tweak the team accordingly for its Bundesliga defense. The desire to participate stems from a similar urgency to build the brand with willing American consumers.
In order to accomplish the feat, both sides will need to conjure a spectacle worthy of attention. It is certainly not beyond this collection of players or the enticing setting at Providence Park. The backdrop of a capacity crowd in this lively, old ground will provide the sort of atmosphere worthy of such an event. It is down to both teams to make the best use of it.
The actual outcome — barring some sort of one-sided affair — matters far less than the march toward the night itself. The next few days present a chance to discuss the future of the league, gather representatives from every club together to discuss instant and potential issues, muster some momentum to carry everything forward for the next few months and reward partners and sponsors for their continued support.
It may appear a frustrating and unnecessary distraction for a league that sometimes struggles to attach meaning to its regular-season matches, but this exercise remains an important component of its fabric. The proceedings constitute an ideal opening to espouse the virtues of the league to a wider audience and provide a temporary hub for activities usually dispersed across two countries.
MLS is still at the point where it must do all it can to command attention and provide a reason for people to follow the league. The All-Star Game remains one of the most accessible and enticing methods of accomplishing those feats. It is harder and harder to squeeze it into the season now, but its value warrants its continued inclusion for the foreseeable future.