Coleman impressed by MLS quality
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Someone forgot to inform the MLS players how All-Star games are supposed to go.
A collection of individual highlights usually rule such affairs, while anything related to team play is nonexistent. Making the extra pass is not supposed to happen, and the flow of play is expected to be disjointed.
However, that was hardly the case for the MLS All-Stars in their 4-1 victory over Fulham at Columbus Crew Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The West London-based side from the vaunted English Premier League looked more like a team that was thrown together for two quick training sessions like the MLS all-stars were, rather than a squad less than two weeks away from its season opener. Fulham manager Chris Coleman said that he had expected the match to be difficult. However, he was a bit surprised at how his side failed to generate much of an attack and appeared unorganized in the back on several occasions.
"We made a lot of errors that I simply won't accept as a manager," he said. "I let them know that in the locker room. These especially happened on defense. It was preseason, but we need to cut those out when the season starts."
The MLS players, however, played as a cohesive unit from the start of the match. Lined up in a 4-5-1 formation, head coach Colin Clarke's strategy was to neutralize Fulham playmaker Claus Jensen by having two ball-winners in Shalrie Joseph and Simo Valakari sit in above the back four. It worked nicely, as the two holding midfielders played in tandem as though they had been teammates for years. Their ability to limit Jensen's touches on the ball, as well as quickly get the ball to attacking midfield Landon Donovan in transition, was a major reason the MLS All-Stars were able to dictate the match.
Once the home side was able to gain possession, they were willing to move the ball around and play unselfishly around the box.
"It's amazing that we were able to knock it around as we did after just two quick sessions together," said Valakari, who is in his second year with FC Dallas. "We knew this was a big game for MLS as a league, so we made a point in the locker room to play as hard as we could and try and look like a real team. It wasn't a typical All-Star game. It was competitive and felt like a real match."
Even though the MLS players had the better run of play overall, it could have been different for Fulham if they were tighter in the back during the second half. Taylor Twellman's acrobatic, twisting goal off a well-timed through ball from Donovan just 23 minutes into the game was quickly matched when Jensen converted on a penalty kick 13 minutes later.
But after an initial strong run of play to open the second half by Fulham, they started to tire in the oppressive heat.
"They're definitely not used to playing in the heat," said Los Angeles Galaxy defender Chris Albright, who started the match as the team's right back. "That's what we're paid to do: sweat all summer."
It also didn't help matters for Fulham that the fastest player on the MLS side came on with fresh legs in the 68th minute to play against a tired back four. Their fatigue helped lead to Jeff Cunningham's two strikes in a four-minute span to close the door on the match.
"I think they were tired and I could use my speed to get by them," said Cunningham, playing in his first MLS All-Star Game despite being one of the top scorers in the league for the past several years.
"Jeff came in and changed the game," said Brian McBride of his former teammate with the Columbus Crew. "It was 2-1 when he came on."
Long before Cunningham's heroics, the MLS All-Stars took it to the visitors. With a midfield that also featured Clint Dempsey on the left flank, Ronnie O'Brien on the right, and Donovan in the middle as the lynchpin to the attack, they were able to cover a lot of ground and use their speed advantage over a bigger and stronger Fulham side. Their willingness to run at the defense forced Fulham's holding midfielder Zesh Rehman to play much like a third centerback at times. That opened the middle for Donovan to get the ball in transition and make long runs with the ball to quick-start the attack.
The Los Angeles Galaxy and U.S. national team star was able to get the ball in to Twellman, who was ultimately named the game's MVP for getting his side on the board early and for his all-out efforts as the lone striker up top.
"It is a tough position to play up front all on your own," said Clarke, who knows from experience from his days playing in England as a striker. "It is a thankless task, but (Twellman) worked very hard, held the ball up, brought people into play, and put them under pressure defensively."
While the MLS All-Stars were able to find Twellman, Fulham had a difficult time getting the ball into McBride up top and left-sided midfielder Luis Boa Morte. Going into the match, the MLS players were wary of playing against McBride. They knew all too well how strong he is in the air as a target man. But the central defense partnership of Jimmy Conrad and Greg Vanney shut him down. When you add that to Albright's ability to limit Boa Morte's touches, it was not an afternoon that Coleman would like to remember.
"In the second half we certainly were not as fit," he said. "They got stronger and we just got weaker. It was always a possibility of that happening, but I'm not going to make excuses for my guys. It was hard to prepare against a team that was six months into their season. It was our preseason and it showed."
Fulham opens up their 2005-2006 EPL campaign against Birmingham City at Craven Cottage on August 13. If their play against the best of MLS is any indication of how their season is going to go, then the outlook cannot be good for a side that lost striker Andy Cole and goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar in the off-season.
"Our quality of play was not as good as it should be," said Coleman. "We're not quite there yet. We have a lot of things to work on."
What might be intriguing to monitor in the coming weeks is whether or not Coleman makes any offers to MLS for one or two of the players that he faced on Saturday. During the weekend, sources around the league mentioned that Coleman might have an eye on O'Brien and Dempsey, in particular. Both players said that they were happy in MLS and that the league holds their rights, but would obviously have to listen if any offers were made from a side like Fulham.
"I just try and go out and play well whenever I play and it's more for the love of the game than to try and impress anyone," said Dempsey, who ended up with an assist on a goal by O'Brien when his hard volley was deflected in the goal in the 56th minute. "If it gets me to a bigger club in a bigger league and with more money, than that's just a bonus."
After the match, Coleman indicated that he is looking for talent, and that there were many individuals on the field for the MLS All-Stars that he felt could improve his side.
"I was very impressed with some of the players," said Coleman. "I thought they did very well. Our league is a totally different league and a totally different tempo of football. In every game we play it's in the cold and rain and it's miserable and wet. In this country, the sun is shining most of the time and field conditions are fantastic. Our country is a different standard of football. But there are a lot of good players in MLS - good boys that are good with the ball and strong physically.
"There were more than a couple that we could possibly be looking at, as well as other Premiership teams. Unfortunately for us, we don't have a big budget and we can't go out and spend millions on one player, so the United States is a country we are looking at for players. As we saw today, it's a good standard of football."
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.