Chelsea provides the ultimate challenge
There is little tradition and little demand for all-star games involving soccer leagues. National team competitions have long fulfilled the need for all-star aggregations, with the incentives of patriotism and continental competitions thrown in.
The MLS has followed a tradition of other North American franchised sports, however, and its All-Star Game could be gaining acceptance with the "spare no expense" approach. The MLS All-Stars will meet Chelsea FC at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill., Saturday in what is the most attractive matchup for the event since the initial MLS All-Star Game in 1996.
The '96 league showcase received backing from FIFA, which sent its own all-stars to play against Brazil's Olympic team in a doubleheader at Giants Stadium. The event drew extensive media coverage, and more than 78,000 spectators appeared.
That set high standards for the All-Star event, a sense of anticipation and excitement that could not be equaled without FIFA help. So, the MLS tried other approaches. But the East-West clashes lacked competitive tension. The domestic players vs. foreigners setup (Orlando, 1998) was worse. I was waiting for the league to try a married vs. single players format.
The MLS vs. Chivas matchup (Home Depot Center, 2003) actually produced some competitive tension. But there was also a letdown afterward because there was no context for the MLS' 3-1 victory over Chivas; the MLS was not advancing to the next round of a tournament, and Chivas had not been eliminated from anything.
Last year's game against Fulham in Columbus at least grabbed the attention of the MLS players. If the MLS performed well against a British team, there could be some sterling contracts awaiting to play alongside Carlos Bocanegra and Brian McBride. Nothing like that happened, but it was still a good showcase for players such as Jeff Cunningham and Taylor Twellman.
This time, the MLS has devised an effective formula, scheduling its All-Stars against Chelsea FC. The MLS players are eager to participate against Chelsea, which is also essentially an all-star aggregation. Spectators and sponsors are curious about a team that has spent more than $450 million on talent in recent years.
Most important, this could be a competitive match.
The MLS All-Stars defeated Fulham, 4-1, last year -- with Fulham hindered by being in preseason form and performing in 83-degree temperatures. The MLS will have similar advantages against Chelsea.
Chelsea has been training in the Los Angeles area in preparation for the Community Shield match against Liverpool in Cardiff on Aug. 13 and the start of the Premiership against Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on Aug. 20. Newcomers Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko needed a break after the World Cup and should not be expected to be in top form. However, Chelsea presents such a deep roster that coach Jose Mourinho will be able to find 11 well-conditioned and motivated players if he needs them.
William Gallas no longer wants to play for Chelsea and failed to report to the team's Beverly Hills hotel, but the Blues still are loaded with talent. Chelsea had more players on World Cup rosters than any other club, although only Gallas and Claude Makelele made it to the championship game.
Chelsea's ambitions have progressed far beyond the Premiership, which it seems capable of dominating again. Roman Abramowich has proved it's possible to buy championships, although only on a domestic basis. Ballack and Shevchenko were brought in to improve Chelsea's chances in the Champions League -- and to increase even further the club's profile for tours such as this one to the U.S.
MLS players, meanwhile, are eager to line up against some of the world's high-profile performers. New England's Clint Dempsey and Shalrie Joseph were chosen to the MLS team but must skip the match to perform for the Revolution against Chivas USA on Sunday. Joseph would have had the chance to meet Chelsea had the All-Star Game been held on its original date: July 29. But the match had to be rescheduled for this Saturday because Chelsea players' contracts stipulated a 21-day break in games after the end of the World Cup.
The Revolution's Dempsey, Joseph and All-Star alternates Matt Reis and Twellman -- plus Chivas USA's Juan Pablo Garcia and Ante Razov -- will be viewing the All-Star Game on television from Southern California as they focus on preparing for their matchup the next day, a game that's a preliminary to a Barcelona-CD Guadalajara exhibition.
Joseph normally would be content to take on MLS rivals, but he also would thrive on the chance to test himself against Europe's best. Most MLS players share Joseph's attitude, but not all are as adventurous and ambitious as Joseph, who certainly will someday have a chance to perform full-time in Europe.
Until then, the MLS should continue to bring in high-caliber opposition for the All-Star Game. This is a good way to give players something to anticipate beyond an incentive bonus for making the All-Star team.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.