Friday, November 28, 2014
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Does the Major League Soccer All-Star Game really matter?

I bet that headline got your attention, didn't it. The Major League Soccer community seems to go run the same gauntlet of angst and excitement every summer when the All-Star Game comes around.

Does the Major League Soccer All-Star Game really matter?

Thierry Henry (center) is one of the biggest names on this year´s MLS All-Star Team, which will face German powerhouse Bayern Munich on Wednesday at Providence Park (9:30 p.m., ESPN2, UniMás, TSN, RDS)
Thierry Henry (center) is one of the biggest names on this year's MLS All-Star Team, which will face German powerhouse Bayern Munich on Wednesday at Providence Park (9:30 p.m., ESPN2, UniMás, TSN, RDS)

PORTLAND, Ore. - I bet that headline got your attention, didn't it. 

The Major League Soccer community seems to go run the same gauntlet of angst and excitement every summer when the All-Star Game comes around. It's a big game, but the result is meaningless; it's a chance to match wits with a big European club, but a loss leads to carping about the league's inferiority. 

It's a tiresome debate, but it won't be going away any time soon. MLS' midsummer classic is unlike any other All-Star game in American sports, because no other league can infuse the same kind of international flavor. That brings a genuine competitive element to the MLS All-Star Game that the big four can't match. 

Sure, baseball uses its All-star Game to award home field in the World Series, but everyone knows how dumb it is. What MLS does is at least somewhat more intellectually honest. 

And let's make this clear: every All-Star Game, no matter the sport or league, is a contrived exhibition. Sometimes that can be a good thing. Sometimes, it's okay to have a little fun. 

In advance of Wednesday night's clash between the MLS All-Stars and Bayern Munich at Providence Park, I spent some time chatting with ESPN analyst Kasey Keller. The former U.S. national team goalkeeping stalwart was an All-Star in 2011, his last year as a pro.

Keller fully understands the fun part of the game, and he proved it three years ago. He was voted by fans as a starter in 2011 even though his Seattle Sounders had a CONCACAF Champions League game the night before the All-Stars faced Manchester United at Red Bull Arena.

Initially, MLS wasn't going to let him make the trip to New Jersey, but Keller genuinely wanted to go. It eventually got worked out, and he made a seven-minute cameo at the end of the game. It was fun for him, even though the All-Stars were on the wrong end of a 4-0 rout.

Keller also understands quite a bit about the opponent this year's MLS All-Stars will be facing. Before moving back to the U.S. to finish his career, he played for German club Borussia Mönchengladbach from 2005 to 2007. So he knows just how big a deal Bayern are at home and abroad.

Here's the transcript of our conversation.

I have to start with the obvious question: How much does the All-Star game matter or not matter?

It depends on what your definition of "matter" is. It's not like there are points involved, but I think it's really cool just to continue to brand MLS to new markets. Being able to bring in Chelsea and Man. U. and now Bayern Munich - this is one of the biggest clubs in the world. And obviously, they have a bunch of guys who are on their way back from their World Cup break. It's cool. It's a great marketing tool.

This MLS-against-the-World format has seemed to be pretty successful, but it still generates some debate among fans. Do you think it should continue?

I think there is an argument to be able to go back to East vs. West or however you want to do it, but when you're filling stadiums and getting media attention from what is obviously the biggest German club and one of the biggest clubs in the world, that just helps continue to raise the profile of MLS. And I think that's still where we are as a league - we've made tremendous strides, but we all know we've got a long ways to go. These little things help.

So if it's a blowout Wednesday night, what happens?

Do the MLS All-Stars lose three points? No. And Bayern doesn't get a straight jump to the Champions League quarterfinals. I don't think it will be a blowout, though like I said, this Bayern Munich team is completely stacked. It's a world All-Star team, and yes, they're missing a lot of players, but I think the All-Stars will do fine.

Between playing in Germany and your work with ESPN, you've seen the Bundesliga take off like a rocket over the last few years. But it's not very visible in the United States because the current TV contract here isn't very good. What are American fans missing out on?

I think one of the things they don't understand, and that I didn't understand when I went from England to Germany, is the unbelievable crowds that come into the stadiums. I think that as its profile continues to rise, it's definitely worth having a look at the Bundesliga. A lot of goals, a lot of attacking soccer, just a fun league to be a part of.

And there's also maybe a lot more parity then there is in other leagues. There's a lot more financial fair play. You've had teams like Wolfsburg and Dortmund who've been able to win the league over the last few years. So I think it's a great league to play attention to.

In the wake of Germany's triumph at the World Cup, the country has been praised a lot for how how the Bundesliga and the German federation have worked together to develop young players in recent years.

Among other things, all of the German clubs put money into a fund to bolster that development structure. United States national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann has, as we all know, routinely cited Germany as a development model to follow. Is he right to do so?

There were a few other things that happened in Germany. For example, you have to name a squad of 26 players, and 13 of them have to be German. So it really gives a lot of opportunities for younger German kids to develop.

Now, there's also, you were talking about the financial side of things, where the clubs made a big commitment with the federation to get the right coaches and to get these players into the right environments.

But so much of it comes from having to have an opportunity to play for their first teams. The Bundesliga has given them that opportunity, and because of that, they've developed and their national team has been successful.

We saw MLS put together the first ever Homegrown Game on Monday night. A lot of people have been talking about it as a good thing to do, because it gives young players who don't always get first-team minutes with their clubs a chance to be in the spotlight.

The fans definitely want to see a lot of those players on the field - and not just with academy teams or USL PRO affiliates, but with first teams. What has to happen for MLS teams to take that next step and get those players more minutes?

Well, it's tricky. We have a little bit different mandates from the U.S. government than a lot of other countries do. If you have a green card, you count as a non-foreigner. That doesn't happen in the rest of the world. It's those little things that we are always having an uphill battle on. But when the kids are better-prepared, they're ready to step in sooner.

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The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, U.S. national teams and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

Jonathan Tannenwald Philly.com
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