SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The days when Major League Soccer would use its summer All-Star Game as a measuring stick against elite European club teams is over. Sure, MLS still invites a super-team to play its opponent every season -- this year it is famed north London club Arsenal FC -- but now the game is more spectacle than sideshow. And visiting teams know they have to be on their game to complete with the best of MLS.
We know, in fact, that the history of this game is in favor of the MLS," said Arsenal head coach Arsene Wenger at the MLS All-Star Game introductory press conference on Tuesday. "We know we face a very motivated and determined team."
In last year's All-Star Game, played at the home of the Colorado Rapids, MLS defeated Arsenal's chief rival, Tottenham Hotspur, 2-1, as Brazilian legend and former FIFA Player of the Year Kaká earned MVP honors with a goal and an assist. The year before, in front of a packed house in Portland, it was Bayern Munich and their many stars fresh off winning the 2014 World Cup with Germany that succumbed to MLS. Back in 2012, on a team that featured current All-Star Chris Wondolowski, the league's best earned a dramatic 3-2 victory in Philadelphia.
As of late, it is the big European opponents that are the underdogs in the MLS All-Star Game, and that's not a role Arsenal are used to playing.
"We are Arsenal football club," said Wenger. "We are under pressure every time to win the game. We play to win. We want to win, as always, with style and respecting our identity, our values, what we think are important in our game."
That drive to win, even for a team that is missing some key players -- Mezit Ozil of Germany and Alexis Sanchez of Chile are both resting following deep international tournament runs in the Euro Championships and the Copa America Centenario respectively -- is built into Arsenal's ethos, and the MLS All-Stars -- also a collection of household names to fans of soccer, will need to be ready for the challenge the Gunners are sure to pose on Thursday afternoon at Avaya Stadium.
"As I wrote down the players' names for the team tomorrow, theirs were some incredible names," said MLS All-Star Game and San Jose Earthquakes head coach Dominic Kinnear. "It is, it's a little bit like fantasy football manager. It's not actually fantasy, it is definitely real, but so far working with these players has been really special."
Kaká of Orlando City is back for the second year in a row, and like in 2015, he will wear the captain's armband for MLS. Spanish striker and current MLS Golden Boot leader David Villa is ready to show off his skills against the English giants. And Italian legend Andrea Pirlo will be pulling the strings in the midfield. Throw in lethal strikers Sebastian Giovinco of Toronto FC and Clint Dempsey of the Seattle Sounders, and Arsenal will need to bring their A-game to Avaya Stadium to compete with MLS.
But Kinnear is nothing if not pragmatic in his coaching philosophy, and the Quakes manager will not sacrifice defense to get his plethora of attacking options on the field all at once. The MLS All-Star Game coach back in 2010 when his side was cast aside by Manchester United 5-2 in Houston, Kinnear knows he will have to bring some tactics to the talent in order to top Arsenal.
"You'll see a few changes," said Kinnear of the attacking heavy Fan XI starting lineup that was voted onto the team, "and we'll be playing four in the back, that's for sure."
But make no mistake: The MLS All-Star Game is a summer exhibition friendly like any other such match, and the players on Arsenal will not want to risk injury while many MLS players will be given a short leash by their respective clubs.
"We'll put the eleven out, and then we'll try to manage minutes," said Kinnear. "Before practice, I was going around talking to players, wanting to make sure they were feeling good. You want them to play well, but you also want to send them back both with a win and their health."
Most of the MLS contingent will scurry home from San Jose following the All-Star Game and rejoin their teams for a full weekend slate of matches. The San Jose Earthquakes duo of Chris Wondolowski and David Bingham will at least get in a good night's sleep at home before embarking as a team for a Sunday night game against the Houston Dynamo. Others on the MLS roster will be content to play half a game so as to not tap their energy before heading back to their respective clubs.
"There won't be guys going 90 minutes because I know I would be getting phone calls after the game that I don't want to be getting," joked Kinnear. "We're doing our best to piece together our line-ups. We want to make it fair to everybody, but also make sure the game is in control."
Meanwhile, the message from the Arsenal bench will be as straightforward as can be.
"We want to win the game," said Wenger in as much a straightforward manner that losing does not appear to be an option.
Will Kinnear and the MLS All-Stars extend the league's winning streak to four games in Thursday's much anticipated game? Will Wegner and his preseason Gunners follow through on the Arsenal way and leave San Jose victorious. Whichever team does prevail, fans of high-level soccer everywhere will be winners.