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Aug 6, 2014

The All-Star game comes with caveats

2014 MLS All-Star Game: MLS All-Stars 2-1 Bayern Munich

PORTLAND, Oregon -- "For me, it doesn't count because it doesn't really matter. It does, but it doesn't."

Thierry Henry had just been asked if his New York teammate's Bradley Wright-Phillips emphatically hit goal had been Wright-Phillips' best goal of the season, but he might as well have been talking about the difficult etiquette of how to celebrate an unlikely MLS All-Star win over Bayern Munich.

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Because when you're an MLS All-Star playing European opposition, it's almost impossible to win. If the post-World Cup U.S. soccer summer has at times appeared to be a series of free-floating concepts attached to random silver trophies -- like whatever it was Manchester United won then forgot about the other day -- then victory in the All-Star game might be called winning the Caveat Cup.

Were such a Cup to actually exist, it would probably be a giant asterisk presented to European opposition who beat the All-Stars, or a giant asterisk surrounded by a bunch more asterisks if the All-Stars happened to beat the European opposition, as happened on Wednesday night.

Indeed, after losing the game, Pep Guardiola was happy to add a few asterisks of his own to add to the qualifying circumstances of preseason fitness, tired World Cup players and reserves as starters. After waving away Caleb Porter's proffered handshake at the end of the game, following a rough but hardly criminal Will Johnson tackle on Bastian Schweinsteiger late on, Guardiola's postgame news conference almost seemed to imply that the All-Stars had tried too hard:

"We tried to play, and congratulations to the MLS. I hope they invite us next year so we can try and to make the revenge," Guardiola said. "I will prepare a little bit better and we will be sure of what is going on and we will prepare much better. We will do it. I hope our invitation is coming."

Certainly, the game had gotten somewhat ragged in the second half, and some laissez-faire refereeing hadn't helped the overall mood, but what had also happened had been that Porter had sent his team out to harry the preseason Munich side just as much as the midseason Munich side like to harry their usual opponents.

Two second-half goals from Bradley Wright-Phillips and Landon Donovan sealed a 2-1 MLS All-Stars victory over Bayern Munich.

In return, Bayern's front men did a version of their own usual pressing high up the field. It had all the rough outlines of a Bayern Munich side but not a lot of the tensile ability to spring incredibly rapidly on the counter that we can expect from them at their best, or with their best men on the field.

By the time those men, the players who'd gone deep or indeed all the way in the World Cup, appeared to appease the fee-paying crowd, Bayern had already fallen behind to two second-half All-Star goals and couldn't recover.

While Bayern showed flashes of their bite, particularly in the first half before lack of stamina told, and indeed took the lead early through Robert Lewandowski's great shot on the bounce from the edge of the box, they couldn't settle as a more ragged but more urgent and (partly by necessity) improvisational MLS side took the game to them.

- McIntyre: Three Points on MLS All-Stars vs. Bayern

Tim Cahill was his usual clattering self when faced with nominally superior firepower in midfield ("That mentality has to change" he said of All-Star teams approaching these games with an exhibition mindset, rather than a winning one), but also had his share of the flicks and tricks the All-Stars tried to embellish their approach play with.

For all that Guardiola seemed to suggest his side weren't prepared for how the opposition treated the game, in some ways Bayern's approach was instructive.

I'd been curious how they'd handle themselves in the game, especially compared to Roma last year. The Italians had showed up in Kansas City, observed the pregame montages and fireworks with mild bemusement, then played keep ball, strangled the midfield and scored a couple of demoralizing first-half goals en route to easing comfortably past the All-Stars.

I'd been at both field level in the first half and the press box at halftime and felt the air being sucked out of both as Roma's very Italian anti-spectacle unfolded.

And while it would have been more entertaining, there was a version of Wednesday night's game that could have involved Bayern's starters carouseling the ball around the All-Stars at speed on the slick, artificial surface and running up the kind of score Manchester United did against the Galaxy a couple of weeks ago.

Even some of the most vocal and positive of MLS advocates I know were talking the game down beforehand in expectation of a possible worst-case scenario that never materialized.

Before the game, I'd also seen it billed in some quarters as a World Cup rematch between the USA and Germany, but despite the personnel overlaps in the two sides, that's not a comparison that survives all those caveats‚ for either side. Where it did remind me of the USA's World Cup campaign was in leaving us with a faint sense of anti-climax, even after the pregame benchmark for success had been reached.

Just as the USA getting out of the Group of Death would have been just about anybody's pre-tournament unquestionable success only for it to be recast retrospectively in some quarters as a disappointing, consecutive second-round exit, the All-Star team not only avoiding a rout, but winning against the domestic avatars of the World Champions becomes a result that "does but doesn't" matter in the aftermath, as the victors are crowned in a garland of asterisks.

After the game, Guardiola and Henry embraced. "What were you talking about?" reporters asked afterwards:

"We were talking about everything but the game," said Henry -- perhaps tellingly.

Graham Parker

Graham Parker writes the Designated Player column for Grantland. He is the chief soccer writer for The Guardian US and an editor at Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams as well as the business of soccer. He lives in Brooklyn.

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