LOS ANGELES -- The 2021 MLS All-Star Game was supposed to be a match-up of the best players from Major League Soccer and Liga MX, as well as a celebration of the increasingly close relationship between the two leagues. And in many respects, the match -- and the entire week -- was precisely that. But as so often happens whenever the United States and Mexico face off, be it at club or international level, circumstances can take over in a way that isn't anticipated.
So it proved on Wednesday at the Banc of California Stadium. The MLS All-Stars prevailed over their Liga MX counterparts, winning the penalty shootout 3-2 after normal time finished 1-1. But while New England Revolution keeper Matt Turner made two saves in the shootout, the story of the night was FC Dallas forward Ricardo Pepi. Fox Sports reported at halftime that Pepi has accepted a call-up to the U.S. men's national team for the upcoming trio of World Cup qualifiers, settling -- at least for the moment -- the latest dual national tug-of-war between the U.S. and Mexico.
So of course, when it came time to finish off the shootout for MLS, there was Pepi, and he blasted his shot in off the underside of the crossbar and past Tigres goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman. While Pepi declined to discuss his apparent decision to play for the U.S., saying he'll wait for Thursday's roster announcement, he was more than willing to soak up the night's proceedings, and his winning penalty. He said postmatch: "I was confident, I felt like everything was set up for me to win the game for the team, and I did."
Earlier in the week, Pepi and Guzman had squared off in the MLS Skills Challenge. Pepi was getting the better of Guzman in the crossing and finishing competition, so much so that Guzman feigned to be cramping up in order to break Pepi's rhythm. On Wednesday, Guzman again tried to get inside the 18-year-old's head, to no avail.
"It was funny. He reminded me about the thing that happened yesterday," Pepi said. "I was just laughing. But it was great. I feel like it was competitive and I came out on top."
And for MLS All-Star manager Bob Bradley, it justified placing the fifth and deciding attempt at the feet of an 18-year-old. And Pepi's self-belief -- with his club as well as on this night -- is impressive.
"Look, he's a talented young goal scorer," said Bradley. "He's got great instincts. He's got a lot of different ways to finish. He puts himself in really good positions, and he's got a really good personality. He's a fun kid who loves being around the goal, loves trying to score. So when we talked about penalties, he was he was ready."
Pepi's call-up amounts to another win for the U.S. over Mexico in a summer filled with them, including winning two tournament finals: CONCACAF's Nations League and Gold Cup. (El Tri did gain the international allegiance of Real Salt Lake goalkeeper David Ochoa).
But Wednesday's event was about the long-term as well. Earlier in the week, the bus carrying the Liga MX All-Stars pulled up to the training field at Dignity Health Sports Park, and came to a stop. The words "Grita Mexico" emblazoned on the side were impossible to miss. The phrase means "Yell 'Mexico,'" a reminder to fans to use this cheer in the stands instead of the anti-gay chant that still mars some club and national team games -- and even Wednesday's All-Star match, which was halted briefly in the 11th minute when the chant was heard. "Grita" is also the word associated with the current Liga MX Apertura tournament.
Yet thought of another way, the phrase is a metaphor for what MLS is trying to accomplish. The league has been collectively shouting "Mexico!" for the last few years now, and the All-Star game was just the latest instance where the two leagues attempted to become more intertwined. This is on top of competitions like the Campeones Cup, which pits the two most recent winners from each league, as well as the Leagues Cup, a kind of Europa League equivalent which is limited to Liga MX and MLS teams. There has even been talk that the two leagues will merge someday, though MLS commissioner Don Garber told Fox Sports at halftime that he didn't think the two leagues would ever do a complete merger.
At the least, the match served its purpose on Wednesday. In prior years, as hard as MLS tried to make the All-Star Game bigger and more relevant, the format of going up against a foreign club had gone stale. The biggest stars from abroad often stayed away, especially in those years when a major tournament had just taken place. And the fact that the likes of Real Madrid or Bayern Munich were in preseason further reduced the spectacle further. Tapping into the long-time rivalry between the two neighboring nations definitely added some juice. As much as it was an exhibition, neither side wanted to back down from the other.
"There's a lot of pride on the line, because obviously you're playing against another league," Club America defender Jorge Sanchez said prior to the match, with the help of a translator. "And that's why we're here, to give the best from us."
The fact that the U.S. men's national team twice beat Mexico with a trophy on the line this summer added to the competitiveness. As Nashville SC defender Walker Zimmerman put it: "There's going to be a little bit of a bite, guys that are in form, in season, instead of coming over for preseason. There's going to be pride on the line, and it's only going to be heightened from the last couple of months."
So it proved when the whistle blew. That's not to say that tackles were flying in all over the place, but it wasn't a Sunday kickabout either. And Sanchez was pumped when he cleared Diego Rossi's goal-bound shot off the line in the ninth minute.
The fans made a considerable contribution. There was a discernable roar from the crowd when Jonathan Rodriguez chested down Sanchez's cross, took advantage of some slack marking, and fired past Pedro Gallese in the MLS goal.
Later, the 3252 section, home to LAFC's most vociferous supporters, decided that they weren't about to be shouted down in their own house, responding with chants of "We can't hear you!" to counter the chorus of "Mex-i-co!" cheers echoing through the venue. And the home fans had something more to cheer about when LAFC defender Jesus David Murillo equalized eight minutes after halftime, nodding home a corner from club teammate Eduard Atuesta. And when Pepi bagged his penalty, the home fans and MLS had modicum of bragging rights.
Granted, at its core, Wednesday's match was an exhibition, so any broad generalizations about the respective qualities of the leagues should be shelved. But the attitude of the Liga MX players throughout the week was positive, whether it was the Skills Competition or the match itself.
"Sincerely, I hope that we continue to do this because people also enjoy it, the fans also enjoy it," Cruz Azul defender Pablo Aguilar said with the help of a translator. "And the players in this case, it is the same, so it is a win-win."
Even Guzman praised the event, saying via a translator: "Personally, I really wanted to win the game and penalties. About the experience and what this represents... I think that it's good. It's very good personally and collectively to be part of [this]."
There remains a sense that MLS needs Liga MX more than the other way around. For all the talk of MLS's improvement, access to markets and the infrastructure surrounding the league, Liga MX remains the regional big brother. This is borne out by the fact that MLS is still looking for its first win in the CONCACAF Champions League since it went to a home-and-away format in 2002. Yet the past week showed that the switch to the current format has value for both leagues, and is worth repeating in the foreseeable future.