MLS All-Stars show rugged determination
BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- The conventional wisdom heading into Saturday's game between Chelsea and the MLS All-Stars was that the game didn't mean anything, and on a certain level, that was true. There was nothing at stake, and there was no pressure. No one was supposed to care. But in the aftermath of the All-Stars' surprising 1-0 triumph over the reigning English Premier League champions, it was evident that the players representing America's league cared plenty, and by the end of the match, so did most of the 21,120 fans in attendance.
There was MLS All-Star forward Nate Jaqua sprinting all the way back to this own end line in the 87th minute to tackle the ball away from Geremi. Then there was defender Eddie Robinson clearing a sure goal off the line two minutes into the second half. And then you had Dwayne De Rosario's moment of brilliance in the 70th minute, when he lashed home the game's only goal. It was the kind of effort that gave head coach Peter Nowak a near terminal case of perma-grin.
"Congrats to the players," said a beaming Nowak. "They showed what will and determination can bring. I'm very proud of them."
He wasn't the only one. At the beginning of the match, the vast majority of fans seemed smitten with their English guests, cheering their every move. But with each tackle and each completed pass by the "home" team, the crowd was soon won over, to the point that chants of "USA! USA!" became more common than the roars of "Chelsea!"
Given the blue-collar attitude displayed by the players, why not? This was the kind of performance that fans were hoping to see from the U.S. national team at the World Cup, but didn't get. And as Saturday's game progressed, the more the All-Stars battled, the more fans hitched along for the ride. According to defender Bobby Boswell, it was an attitude that Nowak instilled in this thrown-together team from the get-go.
"[Nowak] had a meeting with us when we all first got to Chicago," said Boswell. "He asked us to treat this like business and not a vacation, and I think you saw tonight that we took it pretty seriously. We came in here wanting a result and that's what we got."
Of course, as good as this result will feel to fans of the league, the reality is that this adrenalin rush will wear off and there are plenty of things that won't change. There is a reason why Chelsea's players are playing in the EPL and why MLS players are plying their trade in the United States. In addition, for the American league, real progress can only be measured in international club competitions like the Copa Libertadores or, to a lesser extent, the CONCACAF Champions Cup. Nowak himself admitted as much when he said, "[MLS] still has a long way to go."
But that doesn't mean this result is inconsequential. The swing in support by the crowd shows that some perceptions can change. And while everyone knows that the players in MLS are not the best in the world, the league is still worth watching. By caring when there was nothing at stake, the All-Stars have hopefully convinced a few more fans that this is the case.
Player (and coach) Ratings:
Peter Nowak, 9 -- The D.C. United head coach pushed all the right buttons, and set the tone from the beginning by driving home to his players that they were there to win. His reliance on United players, especially on the backline, was a smart move that provided a platform for the team's success.
Troy Perkins, 6 -- An impressive performance. Perkins did well to hold Frank Lampard's 17th-minute free kick through a thicket of legs, and he commanded his box well. His distribution with his feet left something to be desired, as a few of his goal kicks sailed straight out of bounds, but a clean sheet for 45 minutes against the defending Premier League champions is an experience Perkins is bound to remember for a while.
Jimmy Conrad, 4 -- The lone performer on the squad to have played in the World Cup, the Wizards defender struggled against the likes of Didier Drogba, earning a deserved yellow card in the 31st minute. Given the result, I'm sure he doesn't care.
Bobby Boswell, 8 -- My Man of the Match. Boswell was very composed, and on the rare occasions when he was beaten, showed remarkable powers of recovery, especially in a first-half duel with Chelsea winger Shaun Wright-Phillips. With performances like this, it's no wonder that D.C. United tops the league.
Facundo Erpen, 7 -- Other than a bad giveaway to Salomon Kalou in the 65th minute, Erpen hardly put a foot wrong. The Argentine was sure in the tackle and covered ably out wide. His best moment came in the 75th minute, when he was isolated on the right wing against Arjen Robben, and came away with the ball cleanly.
Chris Albright, 7 -- The focal point of the All-Stars' attack in the first half, Albright got forward well and caused Chelsea left back Wayne Bridge some considerable problems. He nearly earned the role of hero with a perfectly timed run down the right wing, but his shot sailed just wide. Still, it was an excellent game by the Galaxy fullback.
Dwayne De Rosario, 6 -- The Canadian international was coming out second best in his duel with Michael Essien, but his inch-perfect ball that released Albright on his aforementioned run got him into the game. He also created the game's "Ole" moment with a second-half nutmeg of Lassana Diarra. Of course, his superb strike for the game's only goal was vintage DeRo.
Richard Mulrooney, 5 -- Seemed to struggle with the speed of the game early on, as his lack of pace was exposed at times. But the Dallas midfielder got stronger as the game progressed, providing a valuable option for the back line.
Joshua Gros, 6 -- Does this guy ever get tired? The amount of running Gros does is unreal and the All-Stars needed every ounce of his energy in coping with the likes of Wright-Phillips and Robben out wide. His attacking game wasn't as impressive, as Gros struggled with his crossing, despite taking up some good positions on the wing.
Christian Gomez, 4 - The United midfielder floated in and out of the game, and did well to help the All-Stars keep possession at times, but overall was too quiet. He nearly connected on a cross to Ching late in the first half, but just missed.
Brian Ching, 4 -- Had some good moments with his holdup play, and he nearly got on to the end of some crosses. Otherwise, Ching had little impact, not a surprise considering the pedigree of opposite number John Terry.
Jaime Moreno, 4 -- The Bolivian struggled for the most part against the Chelsea back line. As the half went on, Moreno dropped a bit into midfield, and had more success finding the ball, but was rarely dangerous.
Joe Cannon, 7 -- Made two outstanding saves in the last 5 minutes, although a communication mix-up between himself and Boswell created the first opportunity. Still, Cannon's saves from Terry and then Ricardo Carvalho in stoppage time preserved a remarkable result.
Eddie Robinson, 7 -- For all of Boswell's and Erpen's brilliance, it was the Dynamo defender who turned in the defensive play of the game, when he cleared Erpen's tackle on Salomon Kalou off the line. Robinson also came through with some vital challenges of his own, with his 65th minute steal from Kalou the best of the bunch.
Ricardo Clark, 6 -- The Dynamo midfielder's range and mobility gave the All-Stars a valuable spark in the second half. Clark also contributed to the attack, going on some dynamic runs that helped tilt the field in the All-Stars' favor.
Freddy Adu, 4 -- Had some dangerous moments, but the youngster always seemed to take one dribble too many. Adu also had a horrible giveaway just two minutes into the second half, when he coughed the ball up to Frank Lampard, who then set the table for Kalou. Fortunately for Adu, Erpen's tackle and Robinson's clearance bailed him out.
Alecko Eskandarian, 6 -- The United forward was lively and some of the All-Stars' best counterattacks went through him. Eskandarian had a few chances to test out his lethal left peg, but some good Chelsea defending denied him. The former No. 1 draft pick also put in some solid work on the defensive end.
Ronnie O'Brien, 6 -- The FC Dallas man not only assisted on the winning goal, but he provided a spark in the form of some much-needed urgency in the attack. O'Brien also seemed to adapt to the speed of the game better than some of his colleagues.
Nate Jaqua, 6 -- The hometown forward had some solid moments up front, but what will no doubt stick in the minds of fans was when he tracked back deep into his own end, and thwarted Geremi's late run.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .