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Aug 3, 2006

All-Star in name only

I can sense the hate mail already. I'm really not looking forward to the angry posts on BigSoccer either.

However, why play a MLS All-Star game if there aren't any real MLS stars on display?

Let me get this out of the way. I love MLS. I love the league. I'm a supporter of the game.

I'll even take it a step further. Any player on MLS coach Peter Nowak's roster for this Saturday's game at Toyota Park would be a solid talent by which to build a MLS side around.

Even further, I will be watching the game.

But, it's just not an All-Star game. Where are the stars?

Well, there will be stars on display in Chicago, but they will be sporting the blue shirts of Chelsea.

Ahhh, I really can sense that hate mail filling up my inbox.

Perhaps we've been spoiled by past All-Star games.

Purists hate the game, and despise it as a meaningless waste of time, but there is little doubt that the game fulfills its purpose as a marketing tool and a showcase of the league. Whether it is a sold-out Giants Stadium to witness the first such game in 1996 or the six-six shootout in Spartan Stadium in 2001, the game has provided memories and headlines.

Every established star that has played in MLS has played in the event. Without fail, the MLS players in the game were a draw in and of themselves. They were legends and sportsmen who knew how to play and how to entertain.

Now, the event is somewhat blah. After last year's route of an anemic Fulham, the game is lacking the excitement and allure of games gone past. It's a difficult sell, and right now, it isn't the MLS All-Stars that the spectators will pay to see or tune into, but it is their opposition.

It's not that there is anything wrong with the players selected; indeed, they are truly the best of MLS. Perhaps, it is just a microcosm of the state of a league that lacks true stars to carry-on the torch of the marquee players who joined the league during its first years of existence.

Now, in 2006, MLS is a more balanced league and deeper then ever before. While the overall quality of play has risen, it is also true that the number of genuine stars has decreased. This has reflected in a league that lacks players of a true drawing power and reflects itself in the All-Star game of lesser quality.

The All-Star game is an intended celebration of MLS and the crème de la crème of the league. To me, it was always a welcome oasis in the midst of the sometimes tedious grind of a MLS season. The early days of the game were marked by truly spectacular players making truly spectacular plays. Now, the game seems sort of ordinary and run of the mill.

It used to be a special chance, to witness a Carlos Valderrama feeding balls to Jaime Moreno, or watching the aerobatic saves of Tim Howard off a Mauricio Cienfuegos shot or a Luis Hernandez effort. The games were a collection of talent and intrigue. The players made the game a sublime experience, far from the humdrum that the game has become.

For the past several seasons, the All-Star game has been fading and the popularity of the event proves the point. Even in Columbus, a venue that supported the event so well in the past, the 2005 game was far from a ticket-in-demand event. It took nothing short of Enron-esque juggling of the numbers to come to the announced attendance of over 23,000 on that day. The allure, the pull and the spectacle is gone, due in large part to the lack of stellar players to build the game around.

Simply put, how many MLS players are truly worthy of All-Star status? Too many players on the 2006 roster are hard-working types who lack the flair and excitement of many of the All-Stars of yesteryear. This new breed of "All-Star" might be effective in grinding out results at the MLS level, but lacks marketability. Indeed, MLS has a dearth of players to showcase at the highest level.

It can be argued that the lack of star power in MLS hurts the league both on and off the field. It is a dangerous balancing act. Very few would deny that through 10 years, MLS has improved as a league, from top to bottom. The general level of play has increased and that table of teams is now solid. Yet, the league lacks the marquee draws that were highlighted in the early years of the All-Star game. Through association, the midsummer jewel of the league, the All-Star game, has suffered.

For everything, there is a season, and perhaps the All-Star game's luster is a little less bright then years past. For now, MLS might have to endure some events marked by players more generic then the stars who entertained the sold-out Giants Stadium in 1996. In the long run, MLS will benefit by being a deeper, more solid league then the earlier incarnations that were dominated by a select few players who stood, in terms of skill, head and shoulders above their counterparts on the playing field. Nevertheless, as I tune in this Saturday to watch the game, a part of me will miss the headliners that used to suit up for this game.

Gone now are the stars whose flair and uncanny skills made every touch of the ball seem like a precursor to a great moment. Now, more practical and pragmatic, the All-Star Game lacks the air of greatness that it once held. Chelsea, by its very nature as the juggernaut of world soccer spending, will be star-studded. It is too bad that the starting eleven that they will be facing will be very ordinary, and lacking in true star power.

Maybe, next year's game truly will feature some stars and game-breakers, instead of just featuring the best of MLS. There is no denying that the league needs a new batch of stars. Until then, it just won't feel like a true All-Star game. For me, the All-Star game has faded.

Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer who covers U.S. Soccer and MLS for ESPNsoccernet and is the soccer editor for The New York City Sporting News. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com