Is The MLS Homegrown Game The Best Way To Increase Soccer's Popularity?
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

The MLS revealed on Wednesday that they are expanding the All-Star spectacle by including the Chipotle MLS Homegrown Game, which will feature only American-born players taking on Portland Timbers Under-23s. But is that really the best course of action the league could have taken to improve, amongst other things, the coverage and the fanbase surrounding the sport?

Household names like DeAndre Yedlin and Gyasi Zardes join up-and-coming players such as Erik Palmer-Brown and Harry Shipp in the match, which will be played two days before the All-Stars face German champions Bayern Munich.

The reasoning behind the idea appears to be sound: increase the profile of American players, show that the MLS is more than a league where foreign players come to unwind before retiring, and generally try to muscle the sport into the ‘Big Four’. However a homegrown match is not the way to accomplish this, since to a lot of people it’s basically just another game of soccer that they won’t look. The NBA All-Star weekend is the ultimate example of how to create a huge event with just a few stars, with various mini-games and challenges, starting on the Friday, upping the ante before the main East - West All-Star game on the Sunday evening.

Entertainment such as the skills challenge, the Slam Dunk contest and the Shooting Stars challenge dominate Saturday night and allow fans to see their favorite players do more than just play basketball. Now imagine if this was translated across to the MLS, with a view to expanding the main match into a whole weekend.

Crossbar challenge. Keepy-up challenge. Dribbling challenge. Penalty shootout. Costless kick challenges. The possibilities are practically endless. If the format doesn’t revert to East - West, and the All-Star opposition are willing to arrive a few days earlier than they would have to, there’s no reason why they also couldn’t get involved in an ‘MLS - All-Star Opposition’ battle for glory before the big match.

To refer back to the NBA, All-Star Saturday is often far more entertaining than the actual match on Sunday, thanks in part to the lack of competitiveness of the game, but mostly because seeing stars like Pau Gasol and former pros like Dominique Wilkinson throw up balls from halfcourt is something that will never happen in any other scenario. Similarly, looking the likes of Thierry Henry and Clint Dempsey trying to hit the crossbar from the halfway line would be spectacular, with the possibility of adding in ex-players such as David Beckham always an option.

Of course, this is not to say that the Homegrown game is a bad idea. It’s a rather good idea, in fact, but it shouldn’t be the sole addition to the All-Star game. People trying to get into soccer more, maybe off the back of the World Cup, aren’t going to turn on their televisions just to look players they’ve never heard of play against a fourth tier side. However, factor in some lighthearted competition and they just might.