The Major League Soccer All-Star Game isn’t quite like its American sports counterparts.
The winner won’t guarantee home-field advantage in the championship. There won’t be a player from each team on the roster. A skills competition won’t overshadow the game itself. The game (probably) won’t have a comedically high final score. Tackles will be sturdy. Referees will be busy. And defense will be played.
On Wednesday, fans at Sporting Park won’t be in for a glorified intramural game. Not with Italian club AS Roma continuing the league’s tradition of inviting a top-flight international club to challenge the MLS All-Stars. Roma will be the first team from Italy’s Serie A to participate after eight-straight years of British competition.
“The AT&T MLS All-Star Game is an interesting format,” Sporting Kansas City and MLS All-Star head coach Peter Vermes said. “I think it’s probably one of the most compelling in professional sports in the United States based on the fact that we’re taking the best of MLS and we’re actually participating against one of the best teams in the world. It’s an interesting format and one which I’m extremely excited to be a part of.”
While it’s still an exhibition and the result still doesn’t count, it creates a unique experience for the players and the fans. It’s more of a competition, less of a spectacle.
Both sides in the match have something to prove. For the players based in MLS, it’s a chance to prove themselves against top-flight opposition. For the team traveling to the U.S., it’s a chance to prepare for the upcoming season and enhance its global profile.
The unique format for the game also means the selection process is unique. It’s not a popularity contest. To compete against an actual team, the roster needs to have balance not often achieved in an All-Star Game.
The fans vote in 10 players for the Fan XI (with another, Montreal’s Marco Di Vaio winning a digital competition within the EA Sports video game FIFA 13). Those 11 players are available for the head coach to include his in game day roster. This year, Vermes selected every player from the Fan XI and filled out the rest of his roster based on team needs (such as the unglamorous positions of fullback and defensive midfielder) and club performance. With roster congestion and many players involved in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, Vermes will likely have to make several last-minute additions to his 20-man roster.
The league first experimented with international clubs in 2003, when the league’s best defeated Mexican side Chivas Guadalajara 3-1. In 2005, the British invasion began with eight straight years of English (and one Scottish) opponents: Fulham, Chelsea (twice), Everton, Celtic, West Ham United and Manchester United (twice).
Major League Soccer is 6-3 against foreign competition in the All-Star Game. With the exception of two lopsided losses to Manchester United in 2010 and 2011 (combined score 9-2), the matches have been fairly tight affairs.
Last year’s game was an exciting back-and-forth with Chelsea, with the MLS stars winning on a dramatic injury-time winner from former Kansas City forward Eddie Johnson. In that same game, Sporting Kansas City defender Aurelien Collin suffered a facial fracture while challenging for a header.
The format has drawn fan interest with eight of the nine matches at packed soccer-specific stadiums. The 2010 edition drew more than 70,000 fans to Houston’s Reliant Stadium to see Manchester United.