MLS stars eager to impress in buyer's market
When Major League Soccer's All-Stars take the field in Chicago against English champions Chelsea on Saturday, they won't see the world's most expensive lineup, or arguably the game's most talent-filled roster. MLS stars won't see blue, but green, and the dollar signs that could come with a good performance against the world's highest-priced club.
If you don't think one well-timed performance can't spell big bucks for an MLS player you should consider the case of Jean-Philippe Peguero. Peguero spent three years as a struggling forward on the Colorado Rapids before a trade to New York. A hot month and a memorable two-goal effort against an under-strength Bayern Munich in a meaningless friendly led to a contract from Danish club Brondby, worth double what he could have hoped to earn playing in MLS.
Chelsea will present the ultimate challenge, not just because of the star power on the roster, but also because those stars are under pressure to fight for playing time and will certainly bring their best for fear of winding up on Jose Mourinho's bench when the English season begins later this month. That competition for playing time will mean that the likes of Michael Essien, Joe Cole and Didier Drogba will have added incentive to torch their American counterparts.
As compelling as this match could be, you should not put too much stock into the result. In the end, you still have an All-Star team made up of players who aren't used to playing together playing against a team at the beginning of its preseason. The soccer should still be entertaining, but using any outcome as a gauge to measure the league's progress would be a bit misguided. A Chelsea romp does not mean doom for MLS and an MLS victory shouldn't be trumpeted as some form of validation for a league still fighting for respect.
What the match will do is provide an opportunity for some of the league's best players to match their skills against the world's best. European scouts will watch attentively to see just what level of skill the Americans bring to the table because they are fully aware that there are bargains to be had here.
Which players stand the most to gain? Here is a look at seven MLS All-Stars who will be drawing extra attention from foreign scouts on Saturday.
Freddy Adu: If you think Adu's presence at the All-Star Game is simply a marketing ploy then you really haven't been paying attention. Adu has been one of the keys to D.C. United's record-breaking season. He has grown into his skills seamlessly and Saturday's match against Chelsea will be as much about showing skeptical American fans that he has, in fact, arrived as it will be about impressing scouts. Adu is the one known MLS commodity in this match to European scouts, who have already been watching him for years. Now it will be up to Adu to show that he really has blossomed as a player and he is ready to make the leap to Europe, which is about as much a foregone conclusion as you will find.
Bobby Boswell: The only MLS player to already have a goal against Chelsea is Boswell, who is surely eager to prove that his memorable performance against the Blues last summer was no fluke. He has enjoyed another strong season for MLS title favorites D.C. United and there is only room for growth considering how young Boswell is (23). If Boswell posts another good effort against Chelsea on Saturday, you can bet that English clubs will step up their interest in securing his services.
Brian Ching: The U.S. World Cup forward missed out on showing his stuff in Germany in June, but he could make up for it with a solid showing against a stellar Chelsea defense that includes John Terry. Ching has enjoyed a solid season for Houston and is considered a strong candidate to replace retired target man Brian McBride in the U.S. national team plans. The fact that he reminds so many of McBride shouldn't hurt his chances of landing a European deal considering how successful McBride has been at Fulham.
Ricardo Clark: Clark very well could have been in Europe already if not for an ill-timed ankle injury last winter. He is back and looking as dynamic as ever, showing the signs of being able to live up to his billing as an MLS version of Patrick Viera. If All-Star coach Peter Nowak gives Clark the start in defensive midfield ahead of Richard Mulrooney, Clark will have a who's who of central midfielders to match his skills against, including Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard. Clark's technical skill, athletic ability and age (23) make him the perfect target for a team seeking central midfield help. While most people think Clint Dempsey is the next MLS standout to bolt for Europe, Clark isn't far behind.
Jimmy Conrad: Few things have been more interesting to watch than the growing myth that Conrad had an amazing World Cup. Whether you agree that he was one of the U.S. team's best players, or you think he was simply decent, Saturday will offer another opportunity to prove himself against top-flight talent. Ukrainian star Andriy Shevchenko and Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba are two of the world's best. If Conrad can contain either of them on Saturday he will definitely convert some who still aren't convinced that he is an elite defender.
Alecko Eskandarian: No MLS player suffered a worse fall from grace than Eskandarian a year ago. He went from MLS Cup MVP to a potential retiree when concussions sidelined him. The New Jersey native has rebounded nicely and has shown that same nose for goal and impressive skill that made him a star two years ago. Can he get it done against the world's best players? A good outing against Chelsea could bring back some of those European scouts who gave up on him last year.
Nate Jaqua: The only Chicago Fire player to be named to the MLS roster, Jaqua should see some minutes, but may not get enough time to really make an impression. That said, the 6-foot-3 striker shouldn't need much time to draw interest from scouts. His size alone is enough to make some foreign clubs drool, and if Jaqua can flash any of the form that has made him Chicago's leading scorer, you can bet that MLS will receive a few phone calls from European clubs seeking a young (25) and inexpensive target forward.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.