Tom Cleverley Covers Pelé, Circa 1958

Manchester United youngster Tom Cleverley clearly has a sense of soccer history. His spectacular goal against the MLS All Stars last night in Houston was a clear homage to Pelé’s famous strike against Sweden in the 1958 World Cup final.

Check it out:

And the original:

Cleverley is faithful to the source material, while adding a few flourishes of his own. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. We give it a 10.

The 20-year-old midfielder and 18-year-old striker Federico Macheda, who scored two goals, showed that the cupboard is by no means bare at Man U. The Red Devils put on an entertaining show en route to a 5-2 drubbing of the disjointed MLS All-Stars.

Despite the lopsided scoreline, the game was a success—with more than 70,000 fans in attendance at Houston’s Reliant Stadium—and the MLS team appeared on the verge of making our prediction come true when Brian Ching‘s header hit the net in the 64th minute to make it 2-1.

But then the floodgates opened with goals by Darron Gibson, Cleverley, and rising Mexican star Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, who was making his Manchester United debut. 

The timing of the event was not in the MLS side’s favor as probable starters Edson Buddle, Landon Donovan, and Dwayne DeRosario had all played the night before in CONCACAF Champions League action, and Seattle stars Steve Zakuani and Fredy Montero were unavailable due to the Sounders’ CONCACAF game on the same night as the All-Star tilt.

MLS All-Star Game: The Only One Worth Watching

The presence of Manchester United as the opponent for tonight’s MLS All-Star Game is obviously a coup for the league in terms of publicity and credibility, but it also points up something about the format of the game that sets it apart from every other U.S. pro sports league’s midseason showcase: The MLS All-Star Game is actually worth watching.

Let’s break it down:

NBA and NHL All-Star Games: These are little more than overhyped exhibitions, where matador defense is the order of the day and scores are ridiculously inflated. Even diehard fans have little use for these gaudy spectacles anymore, preferring instead to focus on the skills competitions at each event, which are at least entertaining and feature genuine competition—except when they’re rigged.

NFL Pro Bowl: Do you know anyone who watches this beachside vacation for the NFL’s elite? Did you even know they changed the format this year, relocating the game from Hawaii to Florida and scheduling it for the dead week before the Super Bowl? … No? … See what we mean? Seriously, C-Span is more entertaining on an average day than the Pro Bowl.

Major League Baseball: This one has lost a considerable amount of luster since the introduction of interleague play in 1997. Before then, the MLB All-Star Game was an opportunity to see players matched up against opponents they wouldn’t ordinarily face, except possibly in the World Series. Interleague play put the kibosh on that novelty. In 2003, the league decided that home-field advantage in the World Series would go to the league that won the All-Star Game, thereby increasing players’ incentive to win the game—theoretically anyway. But the truth is the players consider it an unfair way to determine home-field advantage for the championship of the sport, and would like to see it removed. All of this leaves you with an event that is essentially meaningless, yet has a disproportionate effect on the outcome of the season. It’s as confused as the expression usually found on Bud Selig’s face.

MLS All-Star Game: In 2005, when Major League Soccer started inviting European clubs to play in its All-Star Game, the league’s showcase jumped to the head of the all-star class in North American pro sports, and it’s not even close. The game provides an opportunity for U.S.-based stars to test themselves against the best players in the world, who, in turn, do not want to get embarrassed by guys toiling in a fledgling league in the less-than-soccer-mad United States. The result is a lively, competitive game that has more edge than an exhibition, and more attacking flair than your average rugged regular-season game.  It’s also a chance for U.S. fans to see a brand-name team like Manchester United—with Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nani and Dimitar Berbatov—in action.

Prediction:

As we said, MLS players will be fired up for this one: no player needs extra incentive when taking on Manchester United. But there are other motivators for them as well: y0u never know who could be watching; impress against the best tonight, and it could lead to a career upturn. Then there’s the matter of protecting the MLS All-Stars’ unbeaten record since 2005 against top-flight European sides, including Chelsea, Celtic and Everton.

But Man U comes into this one motivated as well: they’ll be licking their wounds after Sunday’s embarrassing loss to a shorthanded Kansas City team, and their preseason preparations are gaining momentum. This is the fourth game of their U.S. tour, and they should be rounding into form.

We’re calling for a 2-2 draw.

Enjoy the game. It’s on ESPN2 at 8:30 tonight.

“MLS Owns the City of Manchester Right Now”

So said Kansas City defender Jimmy Conrad after his team downed Manchester United 2-1 on Sunday, not long after the New York Red Bulls had beaten Manchester City by the same score.

No doubt Conrad—who was shown a straight red in the 39th minute after taking down Dimitar Berbatov in the box—was feeling a rush of blood to the head when he made the comment. He swore he got a lot of the ball on the play and didn’t think he deserved the red (the replays showed that referee Terry Vaughn, who’s messed up a call or two in the past, got this one right).

So, yeah, Conrad was going with the heart not the head when he threw that one out.

But still, the results—especially the win by 10-man KC—are impressive. Check out the Wizards-Man U highlights below:

The effort drew some praise from Man U coach Sir Alex Ferguson, who called the Wizards, “a big, strong team. They’re athletic, very powerful,” and it paid immediate dividends for Kansas City: The club is moving into its own soccer-specific stadium next June (capacity, 18,500) and saw a spike in season-ticket sales for the venue, with more than 700 sold on Monday.

Here are the Red Bulls-Man City highlights, with a “heavy legged” Thierry Henry (he’s packing in the training sessions to get match fit for his MLS debut on July 31), more good work from Macoumba Kandji, and Dane Richards proving once again (see Santos friendly in March) that he is the best exhibtion-game player in MetroBull history (now, as for MLS games…..):

Henry Scores in Red Bulls Debut

Here it is—New York midfielder Joel Lindpere skins Tottenham right back Alan Hutton and sets up Thierry Henry for his first goal in a Red Bulls shirt:

(We enjoyed Henry’s “That’s right–I’m  here! I’m here!” post-goal gestures to the crowd.)

Even though it wasn’t quite a sellout last night, the atmosphere was buzzing, and the number of Red Bull “Henry 14” jerseys in the house was surprising and impressive (ditto the Arsenal, Barcelona, and France “Henry” shirts all over the place).

The fans roared when Henry’s face appeared on the Jumbotron before the pregame introductions, again when he was introduced, and again just about every time he touched the ball.

He acknowledged before the game that he’s a week or two away from full fitness, and he was definitely playing in a low gear, but every time he got the ball he was effective and looked full of potential to make something happen.

He nearly opened the scoring just seven minutes in with a great anticipating run in the box, but Spurs keeper Carlo Cudicini stifled his scuffed shot. That would have been an even more storybook debut, but his 25th minute opener will do just fine.

When Henry came off at halftime, Tottenham’s Croatian central midfielder Luka Modric (the checkerboard Croatia shirt was well represented in the house last night) asked to exchange jerseys with him.

Tottenham won the game 2-1, but the Red Bulls outplayed the Champions League entrants—even the Spurs fans sitting behind us acknowledged that. The visitors’ goals came about only by a pair of gaffes from RBNY.

On the first, New York midfielder Tony Tchani skimmed a corner kick with his head just as backup keeper (and Keith Van Horn lookalike) Greg Sutton came out to claim it. The deflection threw Sutton, the ball went through his hands, and Robbie Keane slammed it in at the back post.

The second goal came as a result of a poor header by substitute right back Jeremy Hall. He was trying to head the ball back to Sutton, but didn’t get enough on it, and Tottenham’s Gareth Bale (who we’re pretty sure hails from the Shire) swooped in for an easy finish.

Other than those two mistakes—which, admittedly, were big, and could cost a team an MLS game as easily as an international friendly—the Red Bulls were the better team on the night.

During a long sequence of Red Bull possession in the second half, one of our Tottenham-supporting neighbors said, “These guys know how to keep the ball. I’m surprised. Henry’s got to be happy to see this. If they do this in league games, he’s going to score a lot of goals.”

Another fan who watched on TV told us, “MLS players are better than I thought. As long as the league can survive, the gap between them and the European leagues will continue to shrink.”

We’ve said it all along: if U.S.-based fans of European ball actually watched MLS games, they would, more often than not, see that the level of play is much better than they imagined.

We’re not getting carried away—it was only a friendly against a team in preseason form, and without some of its top players—but the atmosphere and the action last night marked another small step forward for the league and the sport in this country.

Sidenote: Henry took the PATH train to the stadium last night. Gotta love it. We’re pretty sure David Beckham did not take mass transit to his MLS debut back in 2007.

Sal Zizzo Signs with MLS, Allocated to Chivas USA

If you watched the 2007 U-20 World Cup, then you definitely remember Sal Zizzo. He stood out on a U.S. team that reached the quarterfinals and also included Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Freddy Adu, Robbie Rogers, and Danny Szetela.

Zizzo was a constant threat on the right wing during the tournament, terrorizing defenders with his pace and skill. He set up two of Adu’s three goals in the U.S.’s 6-1 rout of Poland in group play. Check out the highlights below, which, in addition to showcasing Zizzo, serve as a reminder that the Adu hype of yore was indeed justified:

After the tournament—the U.S. lost 2-1 in the quarters to eventual fourth-place finishers Austria—Zizzo signed a three-year contract with German club Hannover 96, home of U.S. international defender Steve Cherundolo.

He never quite cracked the case at Hannover, though, and in October 2009 he suffered a torn ACL that caused him to miss the entire 2009-10 season.

Now, at 23, he’s coming back to the U.S. to try to get his career back on track. He was allocated via lottery to Chivas USA, but there are reports that the LA club may deal him to one of several MLS teams (including Red Bull New York) that have expressed an interest in the winger.

Zizzo’s arrival also swells the ranks of former UCLA Bruins on MLS rosters to 20—the most from any college in the nation.

Ljunberg, Bornstein Headed Out of MLS, Ronaldinho on Way In?

Seattle Sounders FC Designated Player Freddie Ljunberg is “exploring options,” regarding other places to ply his trade, according to his coach, Sigi Schmid.

Ljunberg had an excellent first season with the Sounders last year, but has become dissatisfied in 2010, apparently over the club’s unwillingness to commit to him for 2011.

The former Swedish international hasn’t played since July 4, and he didn’t travel with the team for its July 15 game at D.C. United.

U.S. international Jonathan Bornstein has announced that he will join Mexican club Tigres after the 2010 MLS season. The 25-year-old defender—whose mother is from Mexico—will be the second capped American to depart Chivas this year, following midfielder Sacha Kljestan, who signed with Anderlecht earlier this summer.

If Dave Checketts is to be believed, there will be an acquisition in the next few days that will more than make up for these departures: The Real Salt Lake owner suggested that Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho, 30, was about to sign with Major League Soccer and join the LA Galaxy.

No word yet from the Galaxy or MLS on this, but … let’s see: Thierry Henry to New York, possibly followed by Rafael Marquez, Nery Castillo to Chicago and Ronaldinho linked to LA, (where he could line up alongside Beckham and Donovan)?

The three-D.P.s-per-team rule may just be on the verge of ushering in a new era for the 15-year-old league.

Red Bull-apalooza

The Red Bulls responded to the big Thierry Henry signing with their worst performance in weeks, an utterly listless 2-0 road loss to Columbus this past Saturday night.

About an hour into the broadcast of the DOA contest, MSG commentator and former Cosmos keeper Shep Messing said, “the most exciting part of this game so far was that [pregame] shot we had of Thierry Henry getting out of the yellow cab. I liked that one. It wasn’t in Hollywood, he was in Columbus, Ohio, in the yellow cab.”

Messing’s broadcast partner, Steve Cangelosi, quickly changed the subject, while stifling a giggle, knowing Messing had a point: This game was a poor advertisement for both the Red Bulls and the league, and the new marquee signing, who did indeed arrive at Crew Stadium by standard-issue yellow cab, could not have been impressed. He took no-frills transportation to a no-frills stadium in the middle of Ohio (no offense, Buckeyes) and watched a pretty pedestrian game—one in which the Red Bulls looked shockingly uninterested, despite the fact that first place in the East was at stake.

But no matter! That was just one game, and things are looking up in Red Bull-ville. Let’s wash away that mental image of Henry traveling by yellow cab, with this footage, shot by the Backpost A/V team, of Henry making a more accustomed entrance, to his new home, Red Bull Arena:

Note how he shakes the hands of the Red Bull Arena employees on either side of the door, and his overall silky demeanor. Sade’s “Smooth Operator” should be playing him in.

His new teammates should be inspired by his presence, and we expect them to lift their games accordingly. Henry has had multiple training sessions with the team, even bringing along his NBA-star pal, Steve Nash, for one. Check it out:

What’s an NBA player doing at a professional soccer team’s training session, you might rightfully ask. Well, Nash can genuinely play, as has been documented in the past, and he’s not just a passionate fan, but is also part of the ownership group for the Vancouver Whitecaps franchise that will join MLS next season. So it’s not entirely inappropriate for him to be there, and who knows, maybe his presence inspired the players as well. Based on the Columbus game, they certainly could use a boost. 

Henry will play in a friendly against Tottenham tomorrow, and make his MLS debut on July 31st in Houston.

Now, not to bury the lede, but the Red Bulls reportedly have another D.P. on the verge of joining the team, and Soccer America‘s Paul Gardner came out this morning saying it was Rafael Marquez, and that the deal was all but done. Marquez’s arrival has been rumored for days (his countryman Nery Castillo just signed with the Chicago Fire), so perhaps we’ll be getting some official word soon.