The MLS All-Star Game will feature one of the world’s most storied clubs.
Unfortunately for the more than 70,000 fans expected at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Cristiano Ronaldo is not along for the ride.
After Portugal’s elimination from the World Cup and his transfer from Real Madrid, the five-time FIFA Player of the Year took time off rather than accompany Juventus on its American preseason tour, which includes Wednesday night’s game against top players from Major League Soccer.
The decision will surely be a disappointment to the big crowd that had hoped Ronaldo would make his unofficial debut with Italy’s reigning Serie A champions while touring the United States.
Juventus acquired the 33-year-old from Real Madrid on July 10 in a deal the Serie A champion said was worth 112 million euros ($131.5 million) — the largest for a player older than 30.
Also sitting out the U.S. tour, which includes three other exhibitions, is Argentine striker Gonzalo Higuain. He is coming off a scoreless World Cup in which he didn’t statty in the round of 16 loss to eventual champion France.
“Obviously these guys are world-class players,” said Atlanta United’s Brad Guzan, a goalkeeper for the MLS team. “With or without them, it will be a difficult game. But their names alone bring a lot of attention. It’s a shame for everybody on the outside. For me, personally, hopefully it makes for an easier night.”
Most players take three weeks off after the World Cup. Juventus opens its Serie A schedule at Chievo Verona from Aug. 18-20.
“We are sorry not to have the Ronaldo, and Higuain as well,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said through a transator. “Unfortunately, they played in the World Cup. They needed some days to rest.”
Ronaldo and Higuain won’t be the only big names missing from the game.
One of MLS’ top new stars, LA Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, announced Monday that he’s skipping the All-Star match rather than make a cross-country trip to Atlanta. The 36-year-old Swede cited the grind of playing three matches in an eight-day span, including Sunday night’s 4-3 victory over Orlando City in which he scored his first MLS hat trick.
“I am disappointed to miss the 2018 All-Star game against Juventus, one of my former clubs,” Ibrahimovic said in a statement. “I want to thank the fans for voting me to the team. My main focus is to score goals and help the LA Galaxy to the playoffs.”
The Galaxy (10-7-5) are unbeaten in nine games and have climbed to third place in the Western Conference.
Per MLS rules, Ibrahimovic will also have to sit out LA’s next match Saturday against Colorado, one of the league’s worst teams.
New York City forward David Villa also will skip the All-Star Game after missing six matches with a knee injury. Ibrahimovic and Villa were replaced on the MLS roster by Minnesota forward Darwin Quintero and New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams.
Atlanta United coach Gerardo Martino, who will be guiding the MLS team, said the timing of the game does pose problems.
“In reality, I recognize it’s a little bit of a challenge for coaches who have players participating,” Martino said through an interpreter. “Some players are coming from teams where they’ve played three games (in the last week). Some had a long trip to get here, like from Vancouver. I understand it’s a very beautiful spectacle for the league and the United States. But I think what we have to look at in the future is to have it at a different time, either before or after the season.
“We have to make sure the players arriving here in good condition are also returning to their teams in good condition.”
But MLS is eager to show off its most compelling success story.
Atlanta shattered the MLS attendance record in its debut season, averaging 48,200 per game, and is on pace to break that mark this year at nearly 52,000 per game. The club already has the five biggest stand-alone crowds in MLS history — each more than 70,000 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The league expects another record crowd for its All-Star Game, breaking the mark of 70,728 in Houston for the 2010 match in which Manchester United defeated the MLS squad 5-2. An extra 1,500 tickets have been put on sale to meet the demand.
“It’s been fantastic to see the support that the city has given the club,” Guzan said. “There’s not many cities around the world that have what we have here in Atlanta. I’m happy to have the opportunity to showcase this to everyone.”