Confident Chelsea ready for MLS All-Stars
In some ways it seems fitting that Chelsea FC is the team to face Major League Soccer's best in the All-Star game on Saturday. Jose Mourinho leads a squad into the match at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill., that has been considered by many to be a true constellation of superstar players.
Yet the coach, who has achieved success with numerous clubs in Europe, described his team differently.
His attitude has helped bond the multimillionaires under his guidance. As Michael Ballack was formally presented as a Chelsea player at the team's preseason hotel, his main concern didn't seem to be how well he would mesh in the midfield with Frank Lampard, for example.
The Chelsea players have a tradition that each squad addition has to regale everyone with a song at a team dinner. Ballack, sporting a new short cut that might have been inspired by Mourinho's own recent buzz, had yet to perform. "I still have to sing," he admitted to the media.
His tune of choice? "I don't know."
While Ballack might have been nervous about his karaoke turn, Mourinho, adept at mixing some of the best talent into a cohesive unit, was calm about integrating his new prospects.
"We have new players that are high quality, and they bring motivation for us," he said. "They don't come here just to make money -- they come for a crucial challenge in their careers and new success."
The current players with the team seemed to welcome the challenge for spots offered by the new additions.
"We are happy to have world class players," said midfielder Michael Essien. "To play alongside them is a pleasure. They are all good players and we're looking forward to the season."
Though everyone associated with Chelsea was polite about the challenge offered by the MLS All-Star team, it was also evident that most of the players weren't worried about the game.
Few could name a single player in the league, for example.
"I don't know any of them," admitted Essien.
"In Europe, we don't know much about the American soccer league," allowed Ballack. "[The game] is still a part of our preparation for next season. We'll just handle it that way and give 100 percent. It'll be just like playing any other team."
Yet both Essien and Ballack were not with Chelsea when the team faced D.C. United in a preseason game last year, a match which the MLS team actually led for a portion before Chelsea came back to win, 2-1.
Arjen Robben, however, remembered the encounter well.
"I think the football here is developing and the level is getting better and better. We can expect a difficult match. That's good for us and also good for American football."
Mourinho also paid respect to the effort of United, who currently lead the league and will contribute seven players to the All-Star contest.
"Last season was a very good experience when we played Washington D.C.," stated Mourinho. "They played like they are the same level we are. The way they play from a tactical point of view is like they want to play with the top quality teams."
Mourinho indicated that MLS in general still needs to improve individual skills.
For the MLS players, though, the format is often a chance to show off specific specialties. Last year's All-Star game MVP, Taylor Twellman, displayed his finishing talent with a strike against Fulham. Jeff Cunningham, perhaps the league's best dribbler, ran at the tired Fulham defense as a late-game sub, netting two goals in the 4-1 victory.
Neither player will be at the game against Chelsea, though. World Cup veterans Landon Donovan and Pablo Mastroeni, late injury scratches to the roster, are also notably absent.
That gives other players, such as replacement Ricardo Clark, a new opportunity.
"For the younger players, it's going to be a chance to prove themselves," declared forward Jaime Moreno. His veteran leadership will be counted on in the match to help provide the MLS team with a cohesive effort.
While the MLS players will have the advantage of being in midseason form and fitness, Chelsea players should be more accustomed to working together, even with their new personnel.
Still, the transition from training to game play is not always smooth.
"It's going to be our first game," observed Robben. "It's going to be a nice test of where we are. It's also going to be a tough match, because I think they'll have a very good team."
Mourinho, though, was confident about his players bringing the right mentality to the game, one of close camaraderie.
"The way we are living and working together in the U.S., reminds me of our first year," he stated. "It will be difficult for other clubs to stop us, because we are a very good football team, but also a family."
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 email@example.com