All-Stars embrace unique MLS format
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Landon Donovan will be making his eighth appearance in the Major League Soccer All-Star Game at Rio Tinto Stadium on Wednesday, so he has experienced just about every incarnation the game has taken over the years.

And he likes this one best.

The star of the Los Angeles Galaxy and all-time national team scoring leader said that playing against top international teams -- the MLS All-Stars will take on Everton FC of the English Premier League, this year -- gives players a chance to prove themselves against high-profile competition rather than just show off a bit in a playful exhibition.

"This format is fun for us," he said. "And these games, they're not only fun, but they let us show that we have very good players in this league -- players that are capable of playing all over the world -- and we enjoy that."

The nationally televised showcase will be the fifth in a row in which the MLS All-Stars have played a high-profile international opponent, and they have never lost. Fulham, Chelsea, Celtic and West Ham United all rank among the teams the MLS All-Stars have vanquished since the league switched formats after nine years of mostly pitting the stars of each conference against each other.

Which is what most sports do.

The NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball each match their own stars against one another, although the NHL will not have an all-star game next season because of the Vancouver Olympics. But MLS found that didn't exactly produce a must-see event.

"There were some entertaining games, but like other professional sports leagues, it was clearly an all-star game," said Dan Courtemanche, the league's senior vice president for marketing and communications. "There wasn't a lot of defense being played. We had one game where the goalkeeper, Tony Meola, came out and was playing forward for a little bit. So if you were a pure soccer fan, it became a little bit of a circus and turned some people off."

So after experimenting with a game against CD Guadalajara of Mexico in 2003 -- the league also had tried pitting American all-stars against international ones within the league in 1998, and playing against the U.S. national team in 2002 -- league officials decided to change formats permanently in an effort to make the game more competitive and create what they call "the most compelling all-star game in all of sports."

It seems to have worked.

Not only has MLS never lost in the current format, but league officials said they have heard almost nothing but appreciation for the set-up from players, coaches and owners.

Fans seem reasonably appreciative, too. They have sold out every game against an international opponent -- officials said they expect that to happen again this week -- after doing so only once in the other eight games, though many of those games were played in enormous football stadiums, compared with the smaller soccer-specific stadium that have played host to the five international games.

In the old days, "there wasn't much defending going on, and guys had a smile on their face," recalled Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis, who played in five all-star games during his legendary career. "It was an opportunity to kind of show your skills in front of the crowd. It was just a lot of fun. I think now it has become a little more competitive. It's very similar to like when we play a friendly. Yeah, it's a friendly -- quote, unquote -- but there's still some pride on the line. I know the players from MLS like to represent MLS well. Our league is talked poorly about too often. So it's an opportunity for us to make another statement."

But what kind of statement is it?

After all, the international teams that visit for the All-Star Game are still in the midst of their preseason training and wary of injury, while the MLS players presumably are in peak form at midseason but also hastily prepared.

But Seattle's Freddie Ljungberg, the Swedish international who's making his first all-star appearance after spending most of his standout career in the English Premier League with Arsenal and West Ham, said players in Europe and around the world are increasingly aware of the game and players in MLS.

"Every time, if it's all-stars or other teams here that do well against the European big clubs, it gives an echo back home to Europe, for sure," he said.

mcl@sltrib.com