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A learning experience

MADRID, Spain -- It's 7:45 pm in Madrid, and outside the MLS Select Team's luxury downtown hotel, Youri Djorkaeff, Frankie Hejduk and Landon Donovan are signing for autograph seekers before boarding the bus that will take them to Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. A police motorcade leads the way onto Paseo de la Castellana en route to one of the true cathedrals of the world's game. As we get close to the arena, thousands of people barricaded 12-deep behind iron fences line the streets, waving and hollering as the convoy rolls past. Helmeted police with batons keep hordes of onlookers inside nearby souvenir shops until the vehicle reverses safely inside the gates.

It is a mind-boggling experience for MLS players, accustomed to playing the Wizards in Kansas City at empty Arrowhead Stadium on a Wednesday night, or a U.S. Open Cup match on a high school football field.

Less than two hours later, after the MLS XI and mighty Real Madrid come out of adjacent tunnels onto the immaculate carpet of grass, the Americans, including the young, uncapped Justin Mapp and Jose Burciaga, squeezed the palms of Beckham, Zidane and Ronaldo in front of 60,000 rabid Real fans.

Steve Nicol, the Scottish coach of the hodgepodge squad, had instructed his players beforehand to stay compact, disciplined, and to "bring yer f-ing bollocks out there."

But no matter what they brought on this night, this game was never going to be in question. Real Madrid was fit and fresh at the end of a six week preseason. They had something to prove after losing the Trofeo Santiago Bernabeu, 1-0, to Mexico's Pumas a year ago, and were facing a battle-weary, jet-lagged MLS squad that had been hastily thrown together only four days earlier and had trained once, for 45 minutes, the night before the bout.

"I mean, what did you expect?" asked captain Landon Donovan in the locker room after the 5-0 loss. "At least we tried to play. A lot of teams might come in here and just try to get a result. I think we all learned a lot. It's one thing watching this team on TV and you think they're good, but playing against them - they just do everything right. All of these guys are six-feet plus. They're strong, they're fast and they've been together for a while now and know where each other are all the time. We have no excuses. We enjoyed it even though the result sucks. We just didn't have that sharpness, that little bit extra that you normally have."

Originally pegged as starters, MetroStars midfielders Amado Guevara and Djorkaeff begged out of Nicol's eleven after playing Chivas USA in New Jersey 43 hours earlier. An exhausted Guevara was called on to replace an injured Jaime Moreno midway through the first half. However, he looked like he'd left his legs on the Giants Stadium FieldTurf (where he scored a hat trick Sunday) as he gave away ball after ball in central midfield.

Golden boy Donovan, the focus of the Madrid media leading up to the match, couldn't find that extra gear his game relies on either and was without his usual burst of speed running out of the midfield with the ball when the chance arose.

On the other hand, Real's Ronaldo didn't have that problem. "Don't be afraid to make the tactical foul" Hejduk reminded his teammates just before taking the field, but the Brazilian superstar constantly had room to run onto Zidane's spectacular feeds, and his finishing was lethal on two of his three looks at Matt Reis' goal.

"Every time we lost the ball they came at us like four or five at a time," said Burciaga. "You can't let Ronaldo run at you like that."

Amazingly, Real had only two more shots on goal than MLS' eight. And aside from Real's display of sublime passing, off-the-ball running and rehearsed cohesion, the difference was the wonderful, world-class finishing on each of their five goals. Beckham's bender, Guti's cutback and first-time strike, Raul and Javier Portillo's perfect give, go and chip that added the exclamation point in the final minute. For the visitors, this was a clinic of soccer competence at the very highest level.

"They're a magnificent team," said assistant coach Mo Johnston afterwards. "When they bring someone like Michael Owen on in the 82nd minute, that says a lot. A lot of teams come here and lose. Spanish teams, Champions League teams. Players learn from experience, and this was a good experience for us."

Despite the ugly scoreline, that was the general feeling amongst the MLS contingent after the game. Sure, league brass were still wearing long faces in the hotel lobby on Wednesday morning, and back home SportsCenter showed the result and one of the goals made its Plays of the Day. But face it: there is no such thing as bad press for this little league. Fans follow these special games, and the atmosphere, environment, and excitement these eighteen players were exposed to in Spain this week can only help them, their teams and their league in the future. What, you think Burciaga would have gotten more out of playing the Minnesota Thunder in Parkville, Missouri the next night?

Despite being an outfit that continues to set new standards for scheduling absurdity, MLS should be commended for finding its players opportunities to test themselves against the world's best this summer. Suddenly, an American kid's best shot at getting on the same field as a top team is through MLS.

Plus, David vs. Goliath story lines are part of soccer's lure. In Spain' s La Liga this season, minnows Cadiz and Getafe will each get two cracks at Barcelona and Real. When D.C. United guts out a tough 2-1 home loss to Chelsea as it did last month, it's easy to forget that a $200 million payroll difference matters. Simply having the chance is essential, even if sometimes you take your beating and learn a lesson.

Even for a vet like Pablo Mastroeni, who started in the U.S. national team's wins over Portugal and Mexico at the last World Cup and played a qualifier for the next one in front of 110,000 in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium earlier this year, Tuesday marked a special moment.

"Seeing Zidane and Beckham arrive in the locker room before the game -- these are the guys you look up to and try to model your game after. It's hard to put into words. I had butterflies like crazy."

Said defender Jimmy Conrad, "You just never think this chance is going to materialize playing in MLS. I'm a little bitter because we gave up five but when I'm done playing I look back on this fondly. It's something I'll always remember."

After the final whistle, the MLSers applauded the Bernabeu's fans and got a sincere ovation in return. Half an hour later, Real president Florentino PĂ©rez was underneath the stands, proudly examining his new black no. 10 MLS jersey worn by second half sub Djorkaeff, the one he'd specifically asked for. As the bus pulled out into the Madrid night, cars honked their horns, smiling kids hanging out the windows, waving. "This is how we should be treated in America'" cracked Conrad. The fans weren't gloating. Even after their team had whooped their guests, to them the visitors were still rock stars.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet. He traveled with the MLS Select Team in Madrid on assignment for The Mag.