All-star games and player drafts are North American sporting concepts, and it is questionable whether they have any real relevance in soccer.
Now, though, MLS is putting its reputation on the line by matching its all-star team against West Ham United. MLS probably could have found a more intriguing foe than West Ham, but the Hammers will have to do.
In any case, the MLS all-star game no longer follows the blueprint of other sports' all-star games. The event still is a feel-good exercise for the league and sponsors, but there is an edge to it because the game is competitive.
New England coach Steve Nicol understands very well this new concept of an all-star game. And this helps explain his player choices for Thursday's game in Toronto.
|2008 MLS All-Star Game|
MLS All-Stars vs. West Ham
BMO Field, Toronto
7 p.m. ET (ESPN, ESPN360.com)
There is little sentiment in Nicol's selections. Each was made with the thought of tactically outmanuevering West Ham United.
Other players might "deserve" to be all-stars, but only if we are thinking of this as a traditional all-star game -- that is, as an exhibition. But it's no longer that. And that's not a bad thing, except that many contracts have bonus clauses for all-star selection.
But this is another reason Nicol is well suited to coaching the MLS all-star team.
Nicol never had heard of all-star games or drafts before moving to the United States in 1999. He never thought about trading up in the draft, simply taking the best player available, from Pat Noonan to Clint Dempsey to Michael Parkhurst. Since getting into the technicalities of the draft, Nicol has not done any better.
Fortunately, Nicol is similarly unburdened by outdated concepts of an all-star contest. He is not influenced by agents pushing clients for all-star bonuses or a team's campaign to promote a player. Nicol is making purely tactical decisions.
As for those bonuses, Nicol's watchword is that winning solves all problems. Others have similar inclinations toward winning, but Nicol has been the best in MLS at devising tactics and keeping his teams fresh and motivated since taking over the Revolution in 2002.
If the MLS all-stars defeat West Ham United, everyone involved with the league will profit, eventually. And everyone will pay, in some way, for a poor MLS performance.
Nicol has made sure the MLSers are uniquely motivated and/or qualified to take on West Ham.
Who better than Juan Pablo Angel to go at an English team's defenders, especially with David Beckham crossing? Angel knows exactly who he is going against, and he has plenty to prove.
Jim Brennan at left back? Again, Brennan should know the Hammers because of his pre-MLS experience. And, late in the game, when West Ham is bound to be tiring (those players are, after all, in preseason training mode), Jonathan Bornstein will come in to run the wing. Canadians playing at home? A little extra inspiration for all.
The MLS all-star game was conceived as a celebration for the league. But it won't be much fun if the all-stars lose.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.