More than 20,000 filled the stands at Audi Field on Wednesday night. They wore their jerseys, sang their songs, greeted their favorite players and cheered every goal. And almost none of it had anything to do with the players the 2023 MLS All-Star Game was supposed to be celebrating.
When it was all over, Arsenal had beaten the MLS All-Stars 5-0 before a ground filled mostly with their own fans, prevailing by a scoreline that told the story fairly, even if the Gunners did score on all five shots on target.
The collection of the MLS’ best players had only two days to train together in Washington while also entertaining media obligations and even a White House visit. They were down four goals before registering their first and only shot deep in the second half.
Ultimately, after two years of playing entertaining matches against a team of LigaMX All-Stars, the resumption of the MLS vs. Europe All-Star concept that previously ran from 2005 to 2019 resulted in the All-Stars’ worst-ever defeat.
And as MLS All-Star manager Wayne Rooney rightly pointed out, this couldn’t have exactly been a surprise. Both Nottingham Forrest and Wolverhampton Wanderers lost by the same score to the Gunners last season, and those are two clubs who survived the best division on earth last year.
“We’re talking about one of the best teams in Europe,” Rooney said. “This could happen to any team when you’re playing against a team like Arsenal.”
Don’t get it wrong. As a general concept, the MLS All-Star Game continues to have value. It’s an important opportunity for the league’s staff and media to convene in a competition where geography and budgets make that much harder to do at other times than in a smaller European nation. And it’s a genuine representation of North American sports culture that most players seem to enjoy on some level.
“Listen. It’s a good event, it’s traditionally a big event over here,” Rooney insisted. “I think the difficulty you have is obviously the players coming in from different places and you have no time with them to do anything, and you try to make it a bit of fun, and try to let the players have a good experience.”
But whatever the league was aiming for when it launched this particular format, it’s hard to imagine that it’s coming to fruition anymore. Even the most basic concern of selling out the venue should be an afterthought in the next two years with Lionel Messi now in the MLS fold.
It’s not even entirely about the score of Wednesday’s game, given that MLS hasn’t always sustained lopsided defeats against European foes. While there were losses by three and four goals to Atletico Madrid and Manchester United, there have also been victories against Chelsea, Arsenal and Bayern Munich.
However, if there was an assumption those results would hook more American fans into MLS, there’s just no evidence of that. While TV ratings for MLS grew slightly in recent years before their move to Apple TV as a world-wide streaming partner, they also lagged behind the Premier League and Liga MX by margins larger than ever.
Fairly or not, the league took a lot of the blame for the U.S failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, a concept that was largely reinforced when a team based mostly of European-based players qualified for and performed reasonably well at the 2022 tournament. The notion that a good performance will pull Euro-only fans back into the fold is just fantasy. If the MLS plays well, it’s the excuse of a win over a team in preseason. If MLS plays poorly, then it’s an example of a gulf in quality.
The MLS vs. Liga MX format had a natural energy that was evident immediately, and then again on Wednesday night in taking stock of what was absent. We don’t know exactly why it ended — and it might have been out of Major League Soccer’s hands since it took the cooperation of another league to execute. But it was a spectacle played on even terms and with obvious reason to tune in for fans of both leagues. If there’s any way it can return, 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 fun,” said two-time MLS defender of the year Walker Zimmerman. “It’s about celebrating us as players, celebrating the league and the growth and ultimately trying to put together a fun product for the fans to enjoy. Unfortunately it’s tough as players when you show up. You kind of know what to expect, you’re put maybe in some different roles. Different positions, different tactics. And so there is a lot of transition moments. It is pretty open at times, and we saw that tonight.”