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MLS All-Star skills competition is not quite a classic, but it’s a start

Liga MX players celebrate after beating MLS in the MLS All-Star Skills Challenge.
Liga MX players celebrate after beating MLS in the MLS All-Star Skills Challenge at Banc of California Park on Tuesday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

If the courtship between North America’s top two soccer leagues leads to any serious proposals in the years to come, this week may be remembered as the one in which the romance became serious.

Major League Soccer, with 27 teams in the U.S. and Canada, and Liga MX, with 18 teams in Mexico, have competed in numerous competitions over the years — most of which ended with Mexico winning. But this week’s interleague activities at Banc of California Stadium, which kicked off with Tuesday’s skills challenge and will conclude Wednesday with the first MLS-Liga MX All-Star game, is both the largest and most intimate collaboration between the two.

That’s because it involves individual players, not teams, playing for pride and joy and not the name of the front of their shirts. Many passionate affairs have sprouted from far less.

Tuesday’s skills challenge matched eight players — two goalkeepers and six field players — from each league in five events, from passing to shooting to hitting crossbars. Liga MX won when Cruz Azul’s Jonathan Rodríguez broke a 25-25 tie by hitting the crossbar with a shot from distance.

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And trust me, you don’t need to know any more than that.

The made-for-TV competition, which spent two hours struggling unsuccessfully to justify its existence, was difficult to follow in person. That probably contributed to the small crowd of about 5,000, which had no trouble socially distancing in the 22,500-seat stadium. A larger crowd is expected for Wednesday’s game between the MLS and Liga MX All-Stars.

The format was supposed to debut last summer but was canceled by COVID-19. Its renewal marks a chance for the growing synergy between the two leagues to move out of the boardrooms and beyond teams to individual players, who ultimately, by their play, will determine the future of the relationship.

Liga MX All-Stars' Alexis Canelo competes in the MLS All-Star Skills Challenge.
Liga MX All-Stars’ Alexis Canelo competes in the MLS All-Star Skills Challenge at Banc of California Park on Tuesday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“We’re really excited for it,” said Alex Roldan of the Seattle Sounders, a Salvadoran national team player. “This provides a new challenge for some players.”

Past All-Star games matched MLS players against European teams such as Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester United, who had come to the U.S. for preseason training camp. Those games were exhibitions in every sense of the word and the players treated them that way.

But the longstanding — and sometimes bitter — soccer rivalry between the U.S. and Mexico adds a bit of spice to this competition, one the players are taking seriously.

“That rivalry is only getting better, only continuing to grow. I think it’s great for the league,” said Roldan’s older brother Cristian, captain of the MLS team. “Anytime you put the best players or the best teams against each other, you see some quality football. That’s what we’re all hoping for.”

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Added Nashville defender Walker Zimmerman, a teammate of Cristian Roldan on the U.S. squad that won the Gold Cup this month: “There’s a lot at stake with that rivalry. It will definitely mean something. This is going to be a competitive match with a lot of bragging rights.”

FC Dallas player Ricardo Pepi makes a scissors kick during the MLS All-Star Skills Challenge.
FC Dallas player Ricardo Pepi makes a scissors kick during the MLS All-Star Skills Challenge at Banc of California Park on Tuesday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Missing from the MLS team for both the skills challenge and the All-Star game were the week’s two biggest draws, former Mexican national team stars Carlos Vela of LAFC and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández of the Galaxy. Both were scratched with injuries.

Still, Santos Laguna defender Matheus Dória, a Liga MX All-Star, said the game is “something really cool … really important.”

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Just being chosen to play in the first one, he said, was a privilege.

“Knowing that we are among the best in our country against the best in the USA, the recognition is nice and it shows we are doing our jobs well,” he said. “It motivates us to keep going and working hard and to be able to participate in events and games of this type.“

Midfielder Fernando Gorriarán, Dória’s club and Liga MX teammate, agreed.

“It is a reward for the efforts throughout the year. Representing the league is important for us,” he said.

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For the Roldans too. The brothers from Pico Rivera played with each other at El Rancho High, winning the Southern California regional title, and are now teammates with the Seattle Sounders, playing on an MLS Cup winner in 2019. But playing together on an MLS All-Star team, in their hometown, may top all that.

Alexi Lalas expects Liga MX and MLS players to push hard for a win and bragging rights when the two sides face off at Banc of California Stadium on Wednesday.

“It’s a great story. To be able to share the stage of our first All-Star game is pretty special,” said Cristian, who scrambled to get tickets to Wednesday’s game for 15 friends and family members. “Then secondly, playing against another All-Star team is different; it’s new.”

“We grew up together, we’re playing the sport on the same club, and now we’re here against some of the best players in the nation and even the world,” Alex added.

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“We’re soaking up as much as we can.”

And while the skills challenge is probably not long for this world, if the All-Star game becomes a midsummer staple, Wednesday’s exhibition could prove to be historic as the one that helped take the cross-border romance to a new level.

“As players you want to be part of a history. That’s something that we all cherish,” Cristian Roldan said. “So I think this is a really great event for that reason.”


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