Let me start by saying, I'm not a huge fan off All-Star games. For the most part, they're a glorified friendly that just takes players away from the regular season for a week.
With that said, I've always loved the NBA All-Star Weekend. A sport that was built on the stars found a way to take one game and make a weekend out it and people tune in to watch. While not all the events are that exciting, they continue to tweak their methods in order to make the weekend fit what fans are looking for.
So to the topic at hand... The MLS is having a Homegrown Game? When I first heard this, I was just as shocked as you were. The MLS All-Star Game has been looking for something to make it standout. East v. West didn't work. The MLS All Stars v. the World wasn't a success. Most people didn't care when the best from MLS played the U.S. Men's National Team because several of the players qualified in both categories.
Beginning in 2003 and every year since 2005 the best of MLS have competed against a foreign opponent. This was a new twist, but still has been disappointing. The foreign teams - European for the last nine years - have sleepwalked through a meaningless preseason game, that's really no fun for anyone.
This year the MLS took the NBA route and added to All-Star week (this actually isn't new, they used to have other events such as "goalie wars" but only those in the host cities really knew about them). There will be a secondary game played the Monday before the All-Star Game between the MLS' "best" Homegrown players and the Portland Timbers Under-23s.
Where They Went Right
This is overall a good move from MLS. It is an event that 20 groups of fans will care about because they get to see their Homegrown players in their own all-star setting. This is essentially MLS' version of the NBA Rookie-Sophomore game that has recently been retooled into the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge.
Not only will fans be interested in it, but the league has found a way to distribute the event. The game will be broadcast on WatchESPN (this might be a preview of how out of market games will be presented next year) and on MLSsoccer.com. This means even those without access to WatchESPN - I'm looking at you Time Warner Cable - still can take in this event. Would it be better if this game were televised? Sure, but we're taking baby steps here.
The league is smart to promote its young talent and get fans familiar with these players as they emerge as budding stars. Most people probably aren't familiar with the Homegrown players on teams outside of their own, but that doesn't mean this players aren't talented. If MLS' idea is to grow these players into the next stars, hoping they begin to form the basis of the 2018 U.S. National Team, then why not begin the introductions now? Market these young players so they really become the faces of the league. Sure, some of them will leave and go abroad, but others will stay and those players can be known league wide.
It also gives the league another date on the schedule during the summer. MLS has done one thing right by remaining a mostly summer sport. The league's only competitor during that time is Major League Baseball, so another summer date can only be positive. While this game isn't on television, it is still something else they can promote and apparently something ESPN paid for rights. Money and publicity are a good thing for this growing sport, especially in a summer where there is a lot of hype around soccer.
Where They Went Wrong
MLS forced some things with this game. There are four players who were selected to compete in this game - Jon Kempin of Sporting Kansas City, Steven Evans, of the Portland Timbers, Caleb Calvert of Chivas USA, and Bradford Jamieson of the LA Galaxy - who have never made an appearance with their club. I realize there are only so many Homegrown players in the league, teams were asked to submit the players, and the league was trying to put together a roster with players in every position, but to take players who haven't seen the field, some of them in multiple years, and have them involved in All-Star week feels like a stretch to me.
On a local note, the Columbus Crew had Wil Trapp and Matt Lampson - one of seven teams with two players - selected for the game. Trapp is a no-brainer; he is the vice captain, one of the stars of the Crew, and arguably the most impactful homegrown player this season. Lampson, on the other hand is confusing.
Lampson is a good young goalkeeper who before this season, I thought would be starting in the nets for the Black and Gold. He is certainly a valuable player as a backup to Steve Clark and should be a starter in his hometown in the future. But was he the player the league needed to select? I realize there are only so many homegrown goalkeepers, but the league took two, Lampson and Kempin, who have not played a game this year while Bill Hamid of D.C. United - who will not make the All-Star team - was not selected?
How about Chad Barson, who was an important part of the Crew maintaining a good defensive record while Giancarlo Gonzalez and Waylon Francis have been away, with four starts and six appearances this year? Or what about Ben Speas, who has become the primary backup to Federico Higuain and had given head coach Gregg Berhalter options and depth at the position?
Also, what about the young players who aren't considered "Homegrown" because they didn't grow up near an MLS city? Why should those that were drafted, such as Ethan Finlay, but are having breakout seasons but won't be rewarded with an All-Star vote, not earn an appearance in this game? I understand MLS likes the homegrown idea, but while there is still a draft, shouldn't the league be fair to all their young players?
Finally, who decided the Portland Timbers Under-23 team would be a good choice for an opposition? Was it just convenient since the game will be held in Portland? That seems like a bad excuse.
How about the Homegrown players v. the drafted players. Surely there is enough personnel to make those two teams and it would likely be a competitive, yet fun game as both sides look to prove the way they came into the league is viable. Instead, those who watch will get the Timbers U-23s thrown at them, because Portland's players don't get enough advertising.
Ultimately I think this game is a step in the right direction. It gives something more to what was quickly become another boring All-Star game. There are ways things could have been done differently, but it is a good step and something that could work in the future to make the MLS All-Star week more of an event.