Fulham puts on game face for MLS
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Landon Donovan was a little surprised when he caught the tail end of Fulham FC's training session on Friday morning.
"I thought they'd relax a bit more."
Even on the day before playing the Major League Soccer All-Stars at Crew Stadium, Fulham manager Chris Coleman has his players doing sprints and engaging in spirited 6-on-6 matches. Since his side opens its English Premier League schedule Aug. 13 against Birmingham City, the preseason for the Whites is coming to a close, raising the importance of this match against the top players in MLS.
"We wanted stern opposition," said Coleman, who is entering his third season as manager after a long playing career in the Premiership. "And there's no doubt we're getting that. While the primary reason we are here is for our fitness, we want to win the game. It's as simple as that."
While Coleman did not mention any of the MLS players by name when asked which players he is expecting to cause problems, he does have the luxury of having Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra on his team to scout. The two U.S. national team stalwarts said they've briefed their teammates on the top players and their style of play.
For the MLS players, there's hardly a need for a scouting report. Since most players in the league follow the EPL and have seen Fulham play several times, especially now that two Americans are on the roster, they'll be taking on many familiar faces Saturday.
"I've seen them on TV a lot," said Donovan, who could name six of their starters. "They're considered to be decent as far as their league goes, but any team that competes in the EPL and stays up there is a quality team. We know that it'll be a challenge."
Head coach Colin Clarke, who scored 146 goals in various leagues in England over a 12-year playing career, also seems to have a pretty good idea as to what his All-Stars should expect.
"I follow them quite a bit," he said. "I've had plenty of chances to see them."
Most of the MLS players on hand in Columbus mentioned Portuguese international Luis Boa Morte as Fulham's most dangerous player. The 28-year-old midfielder plays along the left flank and is very good technically.
Chris Albright said he'll be marking Boa Morte on Saturday, which will likely force him to stay at home as a right back rather than get forward into the attack, as he often does with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
"I know he'll be a handful for us since I've seen him play a fair amount," said Albright. "The guy doesn't have any weaknesses. Maybe I cannot run with him, but I'll put a body on him. It might mean that one of the centerbacks will have to slide over since I'm not going to give him a lot of room out there."
In a normal all-star game, such comments would never be made. Usually, these matches are about putting on a good show and having fun. But that's hardly the way this match is being prepared for by both teams, which is why tactics are being taken so seriously.
It also helps that so many of the MLS players have been teammates -- either with the U.S. national team or at some other point in their careers. Also non-American players such as Simo Valakari and Ivan Guerrero are only in their second and first years in the league, respectively, but that should not hinder the quality of play.
"Good players know how to play with good players," said Valakari, who is having a strong season as the holding midfielder for FC Dallas. "We'll be OK. What also helps is that they are a real team and will be organized, so it will force us to follow suit."
New England Revolution striker Taylor Twellman said he isn't worried about how the team plays as he rememberes how well things went for the MLS All-Stars two years ago when they downed Chivas de Guadalajara by a score of 3-1 at the Home Depot Center.
"There'll be jitters early on and a little bit of feeling out," he said. "A few guys don't speak English, so we have to sort that out a bit, too. But we all know each other for the most part and know how each other plays the game. Familiarity won't be a problem. In the first half against Chivas, it was a bit weird for everyone. But we came out in that second half and just jelled.
"I expect a lot of the same against Fulham."
Clarke won't have all of his players available as FC Dallas striker Eddie Johnson, MetroStars midfielder Amado Guevara and Real Salt Lake defender Eddie Pope will have to be replaced in the starting lineup due to injuries. In addition, New England Revolution striker Pat Noonan and Los Angeles Galaxy defender Tyrone Marshall -- originally named to the roster as an injury replacement -- will not be available.
Judging from how he lined up the players during Friday morning's kickaround, Clarke has chosen Albright, Twellman and Columbus Crew defender Frankie Hejduk from the reserve bench to start Saturday. Albright will play as a right back alongside Jimmy Conrad and captain Greg Vanney, who will man the central defense, with Hejduk playing as the left back in front of goalkeeper Matt Reis. In the midfield, Shalrie Joseph will hold behind Donovan, while Clint Dempsey and Ronnie O'Brien will run the flanks. Up top, Twellman and Carlos Ruiz will serve as partners.
As far as Fulham goes, the one certainty is McBride will start at forward and wear the captain's armband for his side.
"He's a legend in Columbus," added Coleman, who said the American striker will also have a chance to start for him on opening night against Birmingham if he plays well over the next two weeks.
McBride will likely partner up top with Canadian international Tomasz Radzinski. If that's the case, the 31-year-old joked this match will be a nice change of pace for him.
"In my international career I've never played against the U.S.," he said Friday. "It'll be the first time I'll be able to have a go at you guys. You always like to make fun of Canadians. Maybe this will be my way to get back at you."
Both McBride and Radzinski are in the middle of a dogfight for playing time as strikers along with Dutch international Collins John and newly-signed Icelandic target forward Heidar Helguson, who played for Watford for the past six seasons. All four players will get time against the MLS All-Stars and will be playing not just to help their team get a victory, but also to catch Coleman's eye.
In the midfield, Boa Morte will be on the left, while Steed Malbranque runs the flank on the right. Sylvain Legwinski will spend a lot of the afternoon marking Donovan since he'll be playing in a holding role behind Denmark international Claus Jensen, who'll dictate the pace of the play.
In the back, the big question is whether or not Coleman starts Bocanegra. At the moment, the former Chicago Fire star is supposedly in a three-man battle for two centerback positions along with Zat Knight and Alain Goma. While Coleman could give in to the hometown crowd and start Bocanegra, the defender is most likely to be the odd man out come the start of the EPL season. Whichever way the Fulham manager chooses to go in the central defense, the outside backs will be Niclas Jensen on the right and Moritz Volz on the left. Jaroslav Drobny will be the team's goalkeeper after being signed in the off-season to replace the legendary Edwin van der Sar, who signed with Manchester United.
It'll be a similar lineup to the one that will be used in two weeks at Craven Cottage.
"This game is so important for them since they don't have a lot of time left before starting their season," said Valakari. "They'll have their best . . . out there, and they'll come out strong."
"It'll be a tough game," said McBride, who has scored five goals in previous All-Star games when he was a member of the Crew. "It's one that I know the MLS All-Stars will be up for, and one that our guys will be up for."
And after losing to the Columbus Crew 2-1 on Wednesday night, there'll surely be an element of revenge in mind for Fulham, while the MLS All-Stars will be trying to gain further respect for a league that is only in its 10th season.
"I know MLS players are going to want to prove themselves against a very good English team, as well as them not wanting to lose to us," said Colorado Rapids striker Jeff Cunningham, who leads MLS with 10 goals. "It's going to be very competitive even though it's an All-Star event. I'm sure there's going to be some bite to the game."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.