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West Ham miscast in MLS starring role

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The scuffles between West Ham and Columbus Crew fans on Monday night were a long way removed from a scene out of "Green Street Hooligans," yet the incident provided more proof why Major League Soccer chose the wrong opponent for its annual All-Star game on Thursday.

Despite making great strides the past few years, MLS is not yet at a stage where it can simply snap its fingers and summon the crème of the European leagues whenever it feels like it. Still, even temporarily disregarding other factors such as hooliganism, West Ham is a thoroughly inappropriate option.

The East London club finished 10th in the 20-team Premier League last season, a fair and accurate reflection of its status in English club hierarchy. Also, under Alan Curbishley, West Ham plays a solid and organized but not a particularly thrilling brand of soccer. With Scottish side Celtic a fitting foe last year and Chelsea an excellent coup in 2006, a Champions League pedigree should be the bare minimum for the All-Star game opponent.

MLS's pursuit of a suitably high-profile attraction started many months ago, and for a considerable time it appeared as though Liverpool would be the team taking BMO Field in Toronto on July 24. Once that possibility failed to pan out, was it really impossible to find another top-level club that understood both the increasing presence of MLS and the value of tapping into the North American market?

Sure, West Ham may have a moderately higher level of recognition in the United States than other mid-range Premiership teams, mainly because of "Green Street Hooligans," the 2005 film which took less than a million dollars at the U.S. box office but has gained a minor cult following since its DVD release.

The reputation of West Ham supporters, embellished by the movie, is another reason why having the club come to Toronto was as puzzling as scheduling the All-Star game a day after a regular-season match between D.C. United and Houston Dynamo and three days before a full league slate.

When West Ham returned to UEFA Cup action in 2006 and were drawn against Palermo, violence broke out on the streets of the Sicilian capital. The rioting and fighting that left shards of broken glass and blood besmirching the Italian city's historic center was horrific to witness. Those events did not go unreported and MLS should have been aware of the possibility for trouble before giving West Ham the All-Star green light.

Even though the Hammers are no longer the club that has hooliganism as a constant problem, travel does seem to bring out the worst in some of their followers. Of course, many Crew supporters were clearly just as responsible for the aggravation in Monday's friendly, and there is no suggestion that there will be any ugly scenes in Toronto.

MLS will be keen to ensure that an increase in fan awareness and passion in the stands over the coming years does not lead to a spate of unsavory incidents. Finding a balance between fun and safety will be a challenge for the league as it moves forward.

Let's hope that, like most of its decisions, MLS gets it right next time and that this West Ham episode is merely an aberration.