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Aug 1, 2006

All set for the All-Star game

The All-Star Game is an American anomaly in sport, and it is imposed awkwardly on the U.S. version of the world's game. It's not that high-profile players elsewhere don't come together for a match. Testimonials and charity exhibitions take place on a fairly routine basis. Regularly interrupting a league season to play a scheduled game with fan-selected picks is another matter.

It's not even first-time fans who might have trouble deciding on the league's most deserving players for the game. Other than goals, there are few specific statistics in soccer that fans can point to as proof of a player's worth. Besides, a goal stat reveals little of a defender's value, for example.

That leaves a lot of subjective ground for fans and critics alike to argue about when they debate the merits of which players look in good form and deserve the honor.

All-Star games are rarely considered dangerous, since all the players are professionals who are aware of the risks to their health and livelihood in any match. Still, many coaches will be crossing their fingers until their club players return home safe and uninjured. They would be furious if one was hurt in a game that meant nothing in the league standings.

The league trumpets the All-Star contest as an incredible honor for all involved.

Yet it's also hard to take the game seriously when the league's leading scorer (Ante Razov), will not be present.

Neither will the highest wage earner in MLS (Francisco Palencia), last year's Golden Boot winner (Taylor Twellman), and the most impressive U.S. player at the 2006 World Cup (Clint Dempsey).

The players from Chivas USA and the New England Revolution had to honor an earlier commitment to play the first match of a doubleheader in Los Angeles in conjunction with Barcelona and Chivas Guadalajara playing a friendly. It's on the same weekend as the All-Star match.

If coach Peter Nowak has any complaints about the 18-man roster which is left to face Chelsea FC, he is partly to blame, since he coaches a significant number of them. Seven D.C. United players will be making the trek out to Chicago for the game.

No doubt Nowak feels more comfortable with his players from United alongside him. United faced Chelsea in a friendly last year, acquitting themselves well, scoring first and leading for a good portion of the match, before succumbing to Chelsea's superior strength off the bench.

Considering that D.C. United has been at the top of the league table for some time, there should be little quibbling about so many players from that team representing the league.

It's also a triumphant return to the All-Star Game by Freddy Adu, and a deserving one. In 2004, the commissioner included him in as mostly a novelty act. He actually played better the next year, but the All-Star berth did not come about. Though an appearance was still in doubt until Nowak picked him, Adu started a record number of games this year and has contributed a lot in games. He has six assists and one goal on the year and his attacking play has created opportunities for teammates.

One D.C. United player, though, was not picked by Nowak. Commissioner Don Garber fell into the sentimental story trap in selecting his two additions.

Eskandarian and FC Dallas midfielder Richard Mulrooney have had solid seasons thus far. Others have done better, though. Garber was seemingly compelled to include the duo partly because the triumph and tragedy of their comebacks from injuries (Eskandarian had concussions and Mulrooney had knee problems) was interesting.

Stronger offensive candidates would include Kyle Beckerman of the Colorado Rapids and Kenny Cooper of FC Dallas.

Nowak was responsible for other head-scratching choices, though.

For example, Nate Jaqua has scored a few goals for the Chicago Fire, but he is well off the standard set not only by Razov, but by Carlos Ruiz and Jeff Cunningham.

World Cup participation may have also affected those who made the rosters, in terms of inflating a player's worth.

Defender Pablo Mastroeni has only performed in seven matches this season, but was still chosen over candidates such as the tough-tackling Simo Valakari.

Even if some of the choices seem capricious, one thing that MLS has gotten right would be the opponent for the All-Star players.

As sheer entertainment, the game has a certain amount of value, especially with a quality team in Chelsea to battle against.

Though there was a hometown advantage to having Brian McBride, along with the rest of Fulham, play in Ohio last year, it was difficult for any MLS fans to be truly proud of the result. After all, it wasn't as if Fulham was one of the top Premiership teams.

With Chelsea, MLS is facing the undisputed champion of the Premier League. Bragging rights are at stake.

Not to mention that the match might be a good opportunity to catch the eye of the right European scout that could offer a U.S. player a chance. It worked for Simon Elliot in 2005 when the former Crew midfielder (Columbus also played Fulham in a friendly) was invited to trial with a Fulham after the All-Star Game. He later joined the squad.

L.A. Galaxy general manager Alexi Lalas stressed the importance of making the most of any chance to show one's worth to what might include a new and skeptical audience, whether it be scouts, fans or coaches from Europe who might watch the match.

"On a whole, what I understood was that it was an opportunity," he said of his time in Italy's Serie A.

"You've got to grab it with both hands and milk it for all it's worth on and off the field. I like to think I did that. On the field, obviously, it was a tremendous opportunity. Whether you're playing in Serie A or whether you're a young player starting out [in MLS] and having the opportunity, these are the opportunities that come along."

It may still seem odd to others, but the All-Star Game, that quirk of U.S. sports leagues, may just be growing into its own effective niche.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com