The last time San Jose hosted the MLS All-Star Game, there were 12 goals, 60 shots, players who re-entered after being substituted and sports bra goal celebrations by Jim Rooney and a bleach-blonde Landon Donovan. There was some entertainment value to that 2001 spectacle, but the 6-6 draw didn’t offer much that resembled genuine soccer.
If a pro sports league insists on interrupting its season to stage an all-star game, there needs to be some of both.
MLS will try to provide that Thursday evening when the event returns to the Bay Area, this time to the San Jose Earthquakes’ year-old venue, Avaya Stadium. The MLS All-Star team, featuring players selected by fans, commissioner Don Garber and Quakes coach Dom Kinnear, will face Arsenal in the 13th edition of the MLS-vs.-foreign-club format.
It isn’t an easy event to squeeze in. There are league games this weekend, the CONCACAF Champions League kicks off next week and Arsenal’s roster is incomplete owing to the recent conclusion of Euro 2016.
But MLS continues to stage the exhibition, and thanks to its increasing star power and some inevitable competitive juices, this all-star game offers a bit more than others.
So, if you’re going to check in on this friendly with a twist, you should keep on eye on the following:
The format works
There’s no perfect way to find that ideal combination of fun, which sports are allowed to be sometimes, and competition. But pitting a group of MLS players against a big-name foreign club is the closest any all-star game organizer has come to finding the formula.
As other leagues continue to hatch increasingly desperate gimmicks to entice people to watch—this year the NHL staged a three-on-three tournament, for example—the MLS All-Star Game looks like soccer, features opponents that make sense (we’re still trying to figure out what "Team Irvin" is) and appears to be a game that many participants want to win. There’s some defense, a bit of tackling and even the occasional sideline spat (see Porter vs. Guardiola). Scores are reasonable at 3.75 goals per game under the current format and few invitees bow out.
It matters as much as a game that doesn’t matter can matter. MLS players want to demonstrate their quality to a big-name opponent and a worldwide audience (the match will air in 166 countries), and once they start trying, an opponent hoping to avoid embarrassment usually finds another gear. Sometimes, soccer results.
“It’s a friendly game, but we obviously want to show how far our league has grown … and we want to show against a very good team like Arsenal that the level of play and the quality of players we have in this league is at a very high level,” New York Red Bulls midfielder Sacha Kljestan said Tuesday in San Jose. “I think we’ll put in a competitive effort. I think all of us as players have that fire inside us to win all the time, so it think we’ll give our best effort.”
The All-Stars have won eight of the 11 games against foreign opposition. The last defeat came in 2013 to AS Roma and one of the heaviest was a 5-2 loss to Manchester United in 2010. Kinnear, who coached that game as well, said there was a “sickening feeling” among the MLS players afterward.
“They’ve won the games most of the time. We know we face a very determined and motivated team,” Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger said. “We are Arsenal Football Club. We are under pressure every time to win the game. We play to win and we want to win as always with style and respecting our identity and values.”
An American on Arsenal
There are 13 Americans on the MLS All-Star team and one, 19-year-old Gedion Zelalem, on Arsenal. It’s fair to say that many U.S. fans will be paying more attention to the latter than any of the former.
It was big news when Zelalem, who was born in Berlin to Ethiopian parents and moved to the Washington, D.C., area 10 years ago, gained U.S. citizenship in 2014. He’s a creative midfielder who joined Arsenal’s academy in the spring of 2013 and could have represented the country of his birth or that of his parents—he played for Germany at the junior level—but he eventually opted for the U.S. and made his debut with the U-20 team in May 2015. At that time, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said, “He’s a special player. I think he’s already at a level that he can definitely play on the senior team.”
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But Zelalem wasn’t ready for Arsenal, which loaned him to Glasgow’s Rangers FC last summer.
A player ready for the U.S. senior team should have made an impact in the Scottish second division, but Zelalem’s form was indifferent and he spent time on the bench, ultimately appearing in 16 games without scoring a goal. He returned to Arsenal at the conclusion of the season.
“He might be a bit longer to mature because he is a little bit behind on the body structure," Wenger said Tuesday. "But I’m sure he will be a great player who matures maybe a bit slowly physically. But overall, I’m convinced that he’ll have a great career.”
Wenger said Zelalem will see the field at Avaya, which means U.S. fans will be able to check on his progress.
Elsewhere at Arsenal...
The build-up to Wenger’s record 21st season at Arsenal is going to start slowly thanks to a summer packed with international commitments. The excitement over seeing Zelalem will be mitigated by the absence of genuine all-stars Alexis Sánchez, Mesut Özil and Olivier Giroud, the club’s three leading scorers last season. Sánchez is extending his offseason and recovering from an ankle injury following Chile’s run to the Copa América Centenario title while Özil (Germany) and Giroud (France) recover from deep runs at Euro 2016.
Sánchez and Giroud combined to score 41 goals in 2015-16 and Özil had eight. The offense on Thursday will have to come from elsewhere.
Fans will get a look at England international Jack Wilshere, who missed most of last season after breaking his leg, as well as Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. New Swiss signing Granit Xhaka will be available, as well Costa Rican forward Joel Campbell, who has given the U.S. fits in international play.
There’s quality there, but as goalkeeper Petr Cech said Tuesday, Arsenal is just getting started.
“The players from the MLS All-Star team, they’re obviously in the middle of their seasons. They are fit—match fit—and they have the advantage,” he said. “For us, it’s always to challenging to play teams like that.”
All-Stars searching for chemistry
After lauding their fitness, Cech then referenced the All-Stars Achilles’ heel.
“I think it’s always a big question mark when you have a team that never played together and suddenly you have all the players coming for one or two days,” he said.
There’s barely any time, only one practice and liberal substitution rules. Somehow, through all of that, Kinnear has to find a combination or two that might get the job done.
He could go with raw star power, throwing the likes of David Villa, Sebastian Giovinco, Andrea Pirlo and Kaká on the field together and hoping their quality makes the difference.
Or he could look for partnerships and familiarity. Clint Dempsey, Chris Wondolowski, Darlington Nagbe, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman just spent six weeks training together with the U.S. national team, for example.
“When you’re with the All-Stars, it becomes a huge glut of the top players in our league,” Kinnear said.
If something isn't working, Kinnear will have plenty of leeway to change it. But it will be interesting to see who he deploys, how conservative they play and what sort of chemistry the All-Stars are able to establish.