This Thursday sees Arsenal’s first visit to the West Coast of the US, after hitting New York City last year (Hang on, Omaha, the Midwest has to be next...right?). They’re in San Jose now to take part in the MLS All-Star Game on Thursday at Avaya Stadium, then they trundle on down the 101 to Carson, CA to face Chivas de Guadalajara on Sunday.
I talked to Steve Toto of SBN’s New York Red Bulls blog Once A Metro about the All-Star Game and Arsenal. My questions to him are below, and his questions and my answers are over on Once A Metro. So, if you’re curious about the All-Star Game, read on!
TSF: MLS All-Star teams have had a decent amount of success against European opposition in recent years. Does this have a ripple effect on the league as a whole, as far as confidence that MLS belongs at the grownup table of leagues in the world?
ST: It does help that the game is scheduled in the middle of MLS' season when the players have games under their belts, playing against teams in their preseasons. Americans love their All-Star games, but I am a big fan of this one in particular because it offers something the other leagues don't: the ability to play against teams that are better then them on paper. You'd never see the NBA or NFL do something like that. The NHL and MLB have the ability to, but they are too arrogant and imagine the backlash if they were to actually lose the game. They'd have a tough time still calling it the WORLD Series.
MLS still has a long way to go to be at the grown up table for world soccer leagues. Partly because the league is only 21 years old, comparing to leagues in Europe over 100 years old, with promotion/relegation. Partly because of the silly $3.6M salary cap. The teams have trouble competing with the clubs in Liga MX, mostly because those teams have three times the payroll of MLS teams. Most teams would be lucky to survive relegation from the Championship at the moment.
TSF: The timing of the ASG means that any European opposition is in preseason, and this year in particular Arsenal are missing most of their elite starters thanks to being rested post-Euros and Copa America. Does this diminish the game as a spectacle, or is it still a good showcase for American fans?
ST: Missing major stars does diminish the game a bit, but there won't be an asterisk at the end of the score line for beating a team that is really a shell of itself. I was at the New York Red Bulls-Arsenal game in 2014. It was pretty special to see the stars play, even if it was just for 20 minutes. I know that the fans watching the game in the stadium will still bring the same energy, but they may lose some TV viewers who won't be able to watch players like Alexis or Giroud.
TSF: Which MLS player(s) should Arsenal fans keep an eye on - not necessarily as potential acquisitions, but just as good players?
ST: Many fans residing in Europe will recognize names like Drogba, Pirlo, Kaka and Villa. A few budding stars fans will want to watch for are Darlington Nagbe, Cyle Larin, Laurent Ciman and David Bingham. All four have national team experience with their respective nations. Darlington Nagbe got his US green card in September 2015, then made his US debut (with Matt Miazga) a month later. He's very quick and moves well without the ball. Cyle Larin is a rock star for Canada and Orlando City. He was named Rookie of the Year after smashing the rookie scoring record with 17 goals with Orlando and has added another 10 halfway through this season.
Laurent Ciman joined the Montreal Impact in 2015 from Standard Liege and had an immediate... impact (sorry). He won the 2015 Defender of the Year and this year, appeared for Belgium in the first game of their Euro 2016 campaign, defeating Italy 2-0. Lastly, a name fans may not recognize much. Partly because he may not even be the starter this Thursday. David Bingham is the starting keeper for the hosts, San Jose Earthquakes. He only has one cap for the US national team, but he's only 26. So once Tim Howard and Brad Guzan retire from international soccer, watch Bingham contest for the starting spot.
Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City): MCL strain
Liam Ridgewell (Portland Timbers): Calf strain (he’s still 50/50 as of the time of writing but chances are he’ll miss the game despite the stupid rule described below)
*Note: The league has a rule that if a player selected for the All-Star Game and misses it for whatever reason (injury, doesn't want to play, etc), they have to sit out their team's next league game. Last year, too many players such as Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard had knocks that kept them out. It was a bit of a black eye for the game.
Predicted starting 11:
If they follow the fan selection, it will be:
Andre Blake (Philadelphia Union); Laurent Ciman (Montreal Impact), Keegan Rosenberry (Philadelphia Union), Brandon Vincent (Chicago Fire); Giovani Dos Santos (LA Galaxy), Kaka (Orlando City SC), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Andrea Pirlo (New York City FC); Didier Drogba (Montreal Impact), Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), David Villa (New York City FC)
Arsenal is most likely starting a young/inexperienced squad. But it's still Arsenal. 2-2 draw.