MLS All-Star fan vote shows that the league is moving forward
When Major League Soccer announced the 2016 Fan XI for the league's All-Star Game against English powerhouse Arsenal on Thursday, the list included international superstars David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, Didier Drogba, Kaká and Giovani dos Santos. It also included a couple of surprises, especially Philadelphia Union rookie Keegan Rosenberry.
What the 11-man list did not include, however, were the names Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley or Jozy Altidore. None of those players could earn enough votes from the fans to break into the first XI, probably not the scenario Don Garber envisioned when that trio returned to the league in big-money, major media attention moves not so long ago.
There are mitigating factors, of course. Altidore's injury left him out of the voting entirely. Dempsey eventually made the All-Star roster, and it's fair to think that Bradley would have as well were he not missing in action because of a knee sprain picked up during the Copa America third-place match. But still, the Fan XI is less about performance and more about stardom. It's essentially a popularity contest.
Injured or underperforming athletes routinely top the vote in the NBA and MLB, gaining entry based on name recognition alone. In that light, it's not the best look that Dempsey and Bradley sat sixth and seventh, respectively, just hours before voting closed. These players, the backbone of the U.S. national team squad, were supposed to come back and grab the league by the throat, helping to grow MLS as they expanded their own profiles. If All-Star voting is any indication, they've failed on this front.
There's also a hint of something else here, the idea that American players are less important to the success of MLS than we might believe.
"There is a discerning American soccer public out there and an MLS fanbase that knows what good soccer is and knows what good soccer players look like," Fox soccer analyst Alexi Lalas said. "They just want to see good soccer players; whether they are American or not is, to a certain extent, less relevant than it has been in the past."
One of MLS's greatest and growing strengths is its vibrant fan culture and active supporter groups -- at least most of the time. Those 1,000, or 5,000, or 15,000 die-hards for each team represent the exciting future of the league, a time in which an organization is part of the fabric of its city's sporting culture. That's what makes the inclusion of Rosenberry both exciting and interesting. In a vacuum, there's no way that the rookie, who is having an excellent season but has little name recognition outside the Philadelphia Union faithful, would earn a Fan XI spot. But in the grand tradition of All-Star Game voting shenanigans, the Sons of Ben mobilized and elevated Rosenberry into the top spot.
That Rosenberry is American matters less than that he's a local kid from Harrisburg, just as Andre Blake's Jamaican heritage isn't as important as his status as a former No. 1 SuperDraft pick and, therefore, a player whom Union supporters watched develop. They feel invested in Blake and so they voted for him, regardless of his nation of origin.
"There's a certain amount of pride that fans and supporters groups take in this whole Homegrown-type of situation," Lalas said. "That doesn't necessarily mean 'American' but it's 'one of ours.' The ability to see that player grow, evolve and come to fruition. There's an ownership that MLS fans have when one of theirs is successful. They want to reward that, and on the big stage."
This is also a sign that there's a chance to become the next American superstar (or, perhaps, the first). Bradley and Dempsey haven't captivated attention the way they might have but neither is the type of big personality who would enjoy doing the work necessary to do so. Their stardom was always going to be a byproduct of their on-field success, rather than something they manufactured from witty interviews or by letting the world into their off-field selves. And that's fine; it's their lives, after all. But combine the relative void in USMNT star power with the MLS fans' obsession of youth and there's a massive opportunity.
"I think MLS is more ripe for a younger, emerging star to grab hold of the mantle than it is for a returning, aging American star," Lalas said. "That's a call to action for the next group of American stars. That's the Gyasi Zardeses, the Jordan Morrises. If I was them, I would be looking at it as an opportunity, a changing of the guard."
For all the press that aging international stars like Andrea Pirlo (who replaced Dempsey as the league's top selling jersey), David Villa, Didier Drogba and Kaká earn, the league's way forward is through its youth movement. It's creating stars from players like Rosenberry and Blake, along with Zardes and Morris, and others others such as Kekuta Manneh, Cyle Larin, Lucas Melano, Brandon Vincent and Jesse Gonzalez.
If the next generation of popular MLS players happen to be American, great. If not, that's too bad, but it's not solely the league's responsibility to improve the United States national team.
Returning to MLS certainly hasn't raised the profile of big American stars in a way that the league and U.S. Soccer hoped, but that's not to say those moves were a complete failure. Perhaps instead the fact that Bradley and Dempsey aren't automatic All-Star selections for fans is a demonstration of how the domestic first division continues to make slow progress.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.