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MLS All-Star format here to stay

Major League Soccer stumbled upon the current all-star success the same way we all discover truly important and fascinating things in life: utterly and completely by accident.

Looking to jazz up all-star happenings a few years back, hoping to amplify declining media interest and perhaps muster a bit more global cred, league officials invited Chivas de Guadalajara for a set-to against the MLS best and brightest.

It worked. Fans packed the ground, MLS prevailed and league leaders made plans to keep the party going.

A young league that still gets some things right and some wrong had struck a gusher.

The only risk was in the competition itself, in potentially denting MLS credibility; the young operation couldn't afford to get shellacked in these high-profile meetings.

Now, five such encounters later, the Ws accruing nicely, the format and event can be called nothing but a howling success. Players enjoy it. Fans fancy it. It fills media blocks that are rarely designated for MLS. And a diverse selection of opponents going forward will ensure even broader global exposure for MLS and the league's burgeoning supply of nifty venues and young talent.

Major League Soccer has something special going here. The chiefs and deciders have struck a difficult balance: they've nicely married an all-star feel with a truly competitive spirit. A win over West Ham might not mean anything in the bigger picture. Still, you get cool points for stepping lively against an EPL side.

The MLS All-Stars compete with a little chip on their shoulder -- which isn't a bad thing. It's part of the reason for that swell 5-0 mark versus foreign foe. Major League Soccer, just 13 years old, a Johnny-come-lately in global soccer, will habitually feel the need to reinforce its standing.

It's the little brother who will always work harder, who wants to prove he can take a punch, when invited into big brother's games. David Beckham might not have much to prove individually now, but he feels protective of the league and wants to do his part in bracing its image. That's why he copped to a few butterflies before Thursday's kickoff. Imagine that, from a fellow who captained England in a World Cup.

So the trick going forward will be to manage the enterprise so as not to tip the balance. If MLS gets too protective of the streak, too concerned with winning the night instead of winning over the fans, then the personnel selections and schemes will become overly tactical. And that will quickly erode what helps make this event special.

But for now it's all systems go -- which isn't always the case with all-star events. A steady decline in NHL All-Star viewership has left hockey officials on the lookout for ways to spruce up its showcase. The NBA All-Star event maintains a strong presence nationally, but seems a bit tired. TV ratings dropped again this year, the fifth consecutive decline.

Football, the gridiron and helmeted variety, is far and away our national sports leader. And yet the NFL's Pro Bowl never has caught the country's imagination. It plays out as an annual after-thought.

All of that is to say that all-star events are hardly slam dunks. That's why MLS can and should feel great about what it's created.

Given such success, the quality of opposition will likely improve, which could act as an accelerant in managers' natural inclination to become overly tactical. If everyone isn't careful here, one day a bunch of MLS nervous Nellies will emerge from the all-star tunnel, too tense to put on a show teeming with flash and dash, too cautious to take risks.

That would be a real shame. The stars who traipse through our little soccer constellation are seldom so splendidly aligned. So the idea really isn't to win, but to try to win with style and panache. It's for the fans to ooh and ah, and stare in fascination as the blue chippers put together something truly special during 90 minutes.

Look at Steve Nicol's starting 11 this year, an assembly that actually looked like a real team. Isn't that the point? Well, yes and no.

Starting Cuauhtemoc Blanco, a midfield playmaker now, at forward alongside Kenny Cooper, gave the MLS its best chance to win on Thursday. It also meant that MLS leading scorer Landon Donovan and Juan Pablo Angel, the league's classiest forward when healthy, didn't start. They both came on at halftime, so no real worries there. Nicol found balance.

But Nicol is particularly good at what he does. Can the next guy similarly hit the sweet spot in terms of balance?

Best way to illustrate the point: Juan Toja.

Toja is not the dynamo of 2007. He's not bad, but a slightly deflated season has hardly been all-star caliber. Plenty of soccer scribes noted the slight to more deserving midfielders, such as Dave van den Bergh, Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Javier Morales.

But Nicol is no fool. He looked at the list of all-star midfielders and knew that Shalrie Joseph, workhorse that he is, couldn't provide defensive cover for everybody. For guys like Christian Gomez, Blanco and Beckham, "defense" is not in their job descriptions.

So, Nicol made a tough call and tapped Toja, whom he could trust as another midfield ball-winner. And Nicol especially needed that presence on the left, in front of attack-minded Jonathan Bornstein.

It was a tactical bull's-eye, and the night proved so. Still, it came at the expense of fellows having better campaigns. Fair? Maybe, maybe not. But the trade off is this:

MLS 3, West Ham United 2. BMO Field was rocking, and the Canadian fans were soon happily off to lift pints of Molson or Labatts or whatever they lift to celebrate "Ws" around festive and historic Exposition Place.

A virtually limitless supply of disparate opponents will help keep things fresh in this format. League leaders are wooing Real Madrid for next year's night inside the new Utah venue. How about an Italian Serie A side one year? Or, Boca Juniors anyone?

Plus, the players' excitement and enjoyment factor with this format also keeps things fresh and frosty. They regarded the old format, which once produced a ridiculous 6-6 draw, as silly as the rest of us.

If they had played East vs. West in Toronto last Thursday, none of us would still be talking or writing about it.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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