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Aug 3, 2006

MLS stars look for validation

I'll admit it. In past years, watching the MLS All-Star Game has ranked right below "yard work" on my list of priorities. The game struck me as more speed bump than spectacle, and the attempt at showcasing the league's best players was a nuisance as easily ignored as a PDL match. There were some years when the game had more goals than fouls (you can look it up), making the match more of a Sunday kick-about than a game featuring professionals.

Yet this time around, the good folks at MLS HQ have gotten it right. (The silliness of having New England play Chivas USA the next day notwithstanding.) This year's opposition will be none other than English Premier League champion Chelsea, which will raise the intrigue factor by a few orders of magnitude. Other aspects are raising the interest level, as well, including the fact that several deserving players were left off the All-Star roster.

Five reasons to watch

1. Chelsea is one of the best clubs in the world.

For those of you who continue to turn up your noses at MLS because, "it doesn't have the best players," it's time to put up or shut up. Yeah, I know. There is nothing at stake, and in a few weeks, you can see the Blues on Fox Soccer Channel whenever you want. But c'mon, aren't you just a little bit interested to see how this plays out? At the least, if it turns into a slaughter, you can tell everyone "I told you so." In the meantime, the opportunity to watch a team of Chelsea's quality, on American soil no less, is an opportunity that can't be missed.

2. Need a World Cup hangover cure? It's right here.

By now, you've probably burned a hole in your DVR, so intense has the withdrawal been. But with the likes of John Terry, Didier Drogba and Joe Cole set to take the field, it should bring tears of joy to an already-damp eye. Besides, you have to have something to bridge the gap between now and the start of the English Premier League season.

3. Will Michael Essien put the full-court press on Freddy Adu?

Granted, most of this drama will play out off camera. But you can be sure "The Negotiator" -- in this case, Essien -- will be doing his utmost to convince Adu that his international future lies with the Black Stars of Ghana, not with the Red, White, and Blue. Memo to Freddy: Be strong.

4. It's an opportunity to see how MLS measures up.

For those fans whose focus turns a bit more toward the domestic game, this is the main reason to watch. Of course, the match comes with the usual caveats. It's Chelsea's preseason. The result doesn't matter. Injury avoidance will be foremost on the minds of Mourinho's boys. But the MLS guys will be plenty motivated. A decade's worth of "You're not worthy" taunts guarantees that, and although the thought that Mourinho will take one of the All-Stars back with him to England is pure fantasy, you never know who else might be watching. Expect at least a few of the All-Stars to acquit themselves well.

5. Which players will step up?

Although the MLS All-Stars certainly will be fired-up for the occasion, pay particular attention to those performers who rarely get to set foot on the international stage. Players such as Canadian international Dwayne De Rosario and D.C. United's Argentine playmaker Christian Gomez likely never will take part in a World Cup, which means Saturday's game represents a rare opportunity to measure themselves against the world's best.

Five matchups to watch

1. Dwayne De Rosario vs. Michael Essien

You have one of the best two-way players in MLS matched up against one of the best two-way players in the world. Essien more than showed his worth with Ghana in the last World Cup, although mostly in a defensive role. But De Rosario's mobility and penchant for joining the attack late could cause a few surprises.

2. Jimmy Conrad vs. Andriy Shevchenko

Conrad was one of the few American players whose stock went up in Germany in June, delivering some accomplished performances against the likes of Italy forwards Alberto Gilardino and Luca Toni. Now, he'll get a chance to test himself against another top-level striker. Given his recent $55 million transfer from AC Milan, Shevchenko will be spending most of his time on the field trying to get more acquainted with his teammates, but chances are he'll more than show his quality.

3. Brian Ching vs. John Terry

The Hawaiian never did receive his World Cup baptism, so Saturday's match will have to serve as the next best thing. He couldn't have picked a tougher opponent than Terry, who is dominant in the air as well as on the ground. Terry never has been one to back down from physical challenges, and Ching, at 6-1, 195 pounds, is sure to provide just that.

4. Freddy Adu vs. ????

Adu has long desired to measure himself against the best and although his opponent for Saturday remains a mystery -- especially given that fullback William Gallas is a no-show at present -- this given will represent one of the bigger stages Adu has graced. Although the Adu-to-Chelsea rumors were never more than just that, the D.C. United midfielder will get a chance to show there is more to his game than just hype.

5. Peter Nowak vs. Jose Mourinho

It's arguably the most tactically astute coach in MLS against the self-described genius. Although the game's liberal substitution rules will place less of a premium on individual decisions, it still should be fun to watch Mourinho and Nowak match wits. And for those who would tout Nowak as the next coach of the U.S. national team, the match offers an opportunity -- albeit limited -- to see him go up against one of the best.

Five MLS players who should be on the team

1. Terry Cooke, M, Colorado Rapids

The Englishman leads the league in assists, but Nowak still couldn't see his way clear to include Cooke on the squad. The Rapids have been a pleasant surprise in the Western Conference this year, and Cooke's marauding runs down the wing have been one of their chief weapons. The sight of Cooke serving crosses in to the likes of Ching is one MLS fans deserved to see this Saturday.

2. Andy Dorman, M, New England Revolution

The Revs might be healthy now, but given the traveling MASH unit the team resembled earlier in the season, it's difficult to fathom just where they would be without the Boston University product. Dorman has had a hand in exactly half of the Revs' 26 goals this season, contributing five goals and eight assists. But beyond the numbers, Dorman's tireless running in midfield has had a telling effect, as well. With New England taking on Chivas this Sunday, Dorman wouldn't have been able to play in the game anyway, but a spot on the inactive roster would have been more than deserved.

3. Brian Carroll, M, D.C. United

I know. If Carroll had been included, that would have meant eight United players on the roster, making Nowak guilty of D.C. United overkill. But Carroll has been one of the unsung heroes of Nowak's league-leading squad, controlling the tempo in midfield and doing plenty of dirty work on defense.

4. Jeff Cunningham, F, Real Salt Lake

Trouble seems to follow this guy wherever he goes, but you have to hand it to him, all he does is score goals. One only has to recall his two-goal performance against Fulham in last year's All-Star Game to see how he does against quality opposition. At the least, Cunningham's electric pace would have given Nowak an interesting card to play late in the game.

5. Kenny Cooper, F, FC Dallas

With eight goals in 19 matches, the former Manchester United product has proved he made the right decision in leaving the bright lights of Europe for MLS. At 6-3, Cooper often has been cast as the prototypical target forward, but the Dallas striker has shown he is comfortable with the ball at his feet, as well. Although he was left off the roster this time, Cooper seems a lock to participate in many All-Star Games to come.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com .