When MLS took the veil off the roster for this year’s All Star Game, there was a lot of chatter online.
Some invitees, like Tim Howard and David Villa, were absolute locks to make the team. Their selection was safe, a bit boring even.
Others, like Miguel Almiron, were first-time additions to the All Star roster but were still widely anticipated to be joining the .squad
But like any list, there were names that didn’t make the cut. For some Minnesota United fans, target striker Christian Ramirez was not just a name that could have made the list but was a name that should have made it.
After a snub from Bruce Arena left Ramirez at home instead of competing with the national team in the Gold Cup, the All Star Game seemed to some fans to be the next chance for our dazzling forward to get some big time recognition.
Then the list came out. And Ramirez was not on it.
I think most Loons fans kind of expected our entire roster to miss out on this game. Afterall, the club is not exactly lighting the world on fire this year. They have no Designated Players signed, no real chance at making the playoffs, and no representation on the USMNT.
That doesn’t present a strong case for squeaking into the All Star Game.
But that did not stop some from voicing their disdain for an All Star roster that seemingly weighed popularity instead of performance, at least to some degree.
Ramirez is Still Tops
Ramirez, for his part, absolutely deserves to be in contention for a spot on the All Star roster. At least, he deserves a spot if the All Star Game still wants to bill itself as the “league’s best players” lining up against Euro powerhouse Real Madrid.
Of the five forwards - Jozy Altidore, Dom Dwyer, Sebastian Giovinco, Nemanja Nikolic, and David Villa - selected for the All Star squad, Ramirez has more goals this year (10) than three of them (Altidore, Dwyer, and Giovinco).
Ramirez’ 10 goals falls short of two of the league’s best in Villa and Nikolic. Villa was the 2016 MLS MVP, has notched 12 goals thus far this season and earns a reported $5.5 million as a Designated Player for NYCFC. Nikolic, a newcomer to MLS, is a huge part of Chicago’s epic turnaround this year as he has netted a whopping 16 goals on a nearly $2 million DP salary.
If you’re going to get beat in goal count, you could do worse than getting beat by two of the most prolific DPs in the entire league.
Again, if the All Star Game were actually just about performance, Ramirez would be a shoe in! Sure, Dwyer has had some heat recently because of his Gold Cup showing (for the record: he has had some stunning moments) but Ramirez has still tallied double the goals Dwyer has and received a fraction of the national media attention for his efforts. He’s a diamond in the rough.
Popularity, not Performance
But here’s where many of the fans clamoring for Ramirez to get a nod went wrong: they looked only at his stat sheet and not at the underlying forces at play in the All Star Game.
Though the league All Star page touts stats like goals, assists, and goals per minute for the forwards that made the roster, those are obviously not the only criteria at play.
The MLS Fan Starting XI is a perfect example of how the contest actually prioritizes popularity while marketing itself as a showcase of the best talent.
The Fan Starting XI is a democratic election of ten players to the All Star team by an open vote and an eleventh slot given to the player that scores the most goals in FIFA17 (ugh...).
While I appreciate the chance to get the fans involved (and cash some of those sweet, sweet EA marketing checks), the Fan Starting XI really lays the motives of this game bare.
Despite plenty of language in their advertising that implies the team is composed of the best players overall, fully half of the All Star Game 22-man roster is selected by a literal popularity contest.
This isn’t about assembling the best squad based on cold, hard data. This is about rallying online votes. And that’s where Ramirez was destined to fall short.
Despite being one of the leading goal scorers in the league consistently throughout the first half of the season, Ramirez enjoys a much dimmer spotlight than many of the other, more highly paid DP players that notch goals at a similar (or sometimes slower!) pace than him.
If this game is actually predicated on a popularity contest (which it is), then someone like Ramirez that gets the work done week in and week but comes to the club at a fraction of a DP price tag will undoubtedly be at a disadvatage.
Sure, he’s had some Goal of the Week mentions. Sure, he gets great coverage locally. Sure, he was a potential Gold Cup call up and is mentioned pretty frequently in those “Gold Cup snubs” articles. But all that amounts to nada when it comes time to whittle the entire player base of MLS down to just 22 slots to take to Chicago for the All Star Game.
What you really need is heat, name recognition. Dom Dwyer had it early this year and has only fanned the flames with his first Gold Cup performance. Bastian Schweinsteiger came into the league with everything to prove and still managed to beat expectations with his outstanding showing thus far this season.
Meanwhile, Ramirez is back in Minnesota quietly doing the work required to have double the goals of Dwyer and just two goals fewer than David “I was MLS MVP just a few months ago” Villa.
A Real Problem
Finally, it’s important to aknowledge the role that big ticket international clubs play in marginalizing domestic talent.
Sure, it’s a heyday for the league’s marketing team when they land a club like the legendary Real Madrid to square off against a ragtag group of MLS stars.
But ultimately the decision to bring in clubs on the order of Real Madrid hurt the All Star Game and our domestic growth instead of bolstering it.
I get it. Real Madrid’s club name and crest are juicy steaks for marketing and advertising teams at any of the league’s clubs. Heck, there’s a non-zero chance that more than one front office staff would volunteer as tribute and duke it out Hunger Games style for the opportunity to welcome Christiano Ronaldo and his squad to their stadium.
But that misses the point.
If we’re pinning the lion’s share of the All Star Game’s value on marketing a club from overseas, we’ve already missed the point. Don’t get me wrong, the cool factor is not lost on me. I would love to see Ronaldo play in person as much as the next guy or girl. But this match - this match in particular - is so much bigger than that.
The MLS All Star Game has the potential to function as a real showcase of the league’s talent. It could be a lethally effective recruiting tool to lure so-called EuroSnobs to the domestic league not with flashy ad campaigns and an expensive international friendly but with increasingly high-quality talent present in their backyard.
Don’t forget: a one-off friendly with Real Madrid isn’t going to convert anyone. Sure, it may sell a few tickets (or a boatload) to Euro fans that just want to see Ronaldo live but it won’t move the needle on MLS interest over the long term.
To do that, we need to start treating the All Star Game like the prolific, impactful game it can be. Stop paying big money for Euro clubs and instead line up two teams of all MLS talent to duke it out and, in the process, showcase just how far this league has come.
Ramirez’ Day is Coming
I think this season has been a tough pill to swallow for some fans for a number of reasons. The turf and stadium are far from ideal. Our team has seen failure from a number of players that were supposed to be foundational building blocks at their positions. Vadim Demidov is on the roster.
With all that (and more) weighing the inaugural campaign down, it’s easy to think the deck is somehow stacked against us. But with young talent like Ramirez, Calvo, and Molino on the team, there are plenty of reasons to have hope for the future.
Heck, just look at the Fire. A year ago they were the laughing stock of the league and were widely pegged as a team begging for new ownership. Today, they are on top of the table and have four players on the All Star roster.
Fates change quickly in MLS. With any luck, Ramirez will be called up to Cupcake Camp in January and we’ll have ourselves a contender for an All Star spot in 2018.
Keep those heads held high, Loons.