The MLS All-Star Game has historically been the most watchable midseason showcase, by far, among North American professional sports.
We made this point a couple years back, and though it still stands, the game has changed slightly in its past two editions, for one simple reason: Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson is a competitive S.O.B.
Back in 2005, when MLS started inviting European clubs to play in its All-Star Game, the sides were well-matched: A decent-to-excellent European club comes over in preseason form to play a friendly against a hastily composed team of Major League Soccer’s best players.
The European side was still in preparation mode, and the U.S.-based side had never played together before. But both teams were motivated to win and put on a show, and the combination worked to produce a worthwhile event. It even stoked some MLS pride as the All-Stars reeled off wins against Fulham, Chelsea, Celtic, and West Ham from 2005 to ’08.
After the 2009 game versus Everton ended in a 1-1 draw, Manchester United came calling. Now it’s one thing for Fulham or even Chelsea to lose to the MLS All-Stars in a preseason exhibition, but for a global brand like Man U—and a prideful Scot like Ferguson—that just wouldn’t do. Especially as Man U’s presence alone ensured the game would have a higher profile. The scoreline had to reflect Man U’s status in the soccer universe, and therefore, the team would gear its preseason preparation toward the ASG to a far greater extent than previous European participants.
There was something else, too: On July 25, 2010, three days before they would compete in the All-Star Game, Ferguson’s boys lost 2-1 to the Kansas City Wizards in front of 52,342 fans at Arrowhead Stadium. They didn’t play all of their starters, but you can bet the boss didn’t enjoy the experience, full-strength or not.
The upshot was that Man U came in to that year’s ASG in front of 70,728 fans at Houston’s Reliant Stadium raring to go. Their near in-season condition upset the balance we mentioned above: Now they had a cohesion and sharpness that the MLS All-Stars, convened just two days earlier, couldn’t match.
The result was a 5–2 romp for the visiting giants, and when they were invited back the following year, Ferguson had this to say:
“We’re delighted to have been invited to play the MLS All-Star Game for the second year running. Last year’s game was a special occasion in front of a noisy, passionate crowd. Obviously we’ll be looking to repeat the performance and the scoreline, but it will be a great spectacle for everyone involved.”
Emphasis ours, but Ferguson’s choice of words, regarding an exhibition game, was telling. Sure enough, Man U ran off 4-0 winners in the 2011 game—even though the match was more competitive, especially in the first half, than the scoreline suggested.
So this year the league has invited Chelsea, reigning Champions League titlists, and the Blues have brought all of their big guns, from John Terry and Frank Lampard to Fernando Torres and David Luiz, along with new signings Marko Marin and Eden Hazard.
What form are they in? Well, they’ve dispatched Seattle 4-2 and tied PSG 1-1 so far on this tour, but they substituted freely in both games and some players, including Torres, have only just drifted in to join the U.S. tour. But they’ll be taking the game seriously, and coach Roberto Di Matteo told the MLS website he’ll keep the team’s core on the field for the bulk of the 90 minutes. Chelsea will also want to maintain the standard their hated Premier League rivals have set for the game.
As for the MLS team, they’ll trot out Thierry Henry, Landon Donovan, David Beckham, and Dwayne De Rosario, but they’ll have just one day of preparation with the full team.
Kickoff is at 8:55 ET tomorrow, and TV coverage begins at 8:30 on ESPN2.