MLS All-Stars earn some respect
You've come a long way, MLS.
With a 1-0 victory against a multimillion dollar team, Chelsea FC, the All-Star players of Major League Soccer stepped forward and indicated something very clearly.
What took place under the upturned nose of those same critics was a sea change in the domestic league. Unnoticed and uncelebrated by most of the public, young players were developing and creating new options for coaches. Coaches who realized that they didn't necessarily need to bring in a big name from abroad, when local players were hungrier and often had more potential to improve.
It wasn't always easy to see the progress, though. When the league first rolled out the MLS versus foreign teams format in 2003, Chivas Guadalajara fans came to cheer their club on, but the loss to the league's All-Stars didn't translate to all those fans respecting MLS and becoming Chivas USA supporters when that team debuted. The All-Star team's 4-1 win in 2005 versus Fulham FC was overshadowed by the thumping the MLS Select team received from Real Madrid the same year.
Yet MLS players were largely responsible for the U.S. team's qualification to the World Cup, playing in the majority of the games to earn the ticket to Germany. For the World Cup itself, many MLS players on the U.S. team yielded their spots to their European counterparts. When U.S. team failed to advance, the league came under immediate fire -- as many theorized that the low level of play in the league was holding players back.
The foreign contingent of the league evolved as well. Though many of the more recent international signings of MLS weren't big-ticket famous players, they were often shrewd choices of uniquely skilled and creative players who actually displayed more loyalty to their clubs than to their paychecks. They were sometimes players who developed in the league and owed their emergence at least partly to MLS.
Against Chelsea, the All-Star players on display stepped forward to show that MLS is a league with skill, heart and hustle.
Of course, Chelsea was a team in preseason. Coach Jose Mourinho and Blues fans have that as a ready excuse that cannot be discounted. Yet what also cannot be dismissed is how well the MLS players, who barely had a couple of practices together, showed.
The story of this All-Star game was not how badly Chelsea played. While their players were a step slow and a bit off, their form was not poor by definition -- the MLS squad simply played better. They might have scored multiple goals if their finishing was more precise.
In the first half, the MLS effort was controlled and probing, led by the wily veteran forward Jaime Moreno of D.C. United. His cheeky pass through the legs of Chelsea captain John Terry nearly found a charging Chris Albright in the goal area for an early chance.
All-Star coach Peter Nowak had taken a page out of former U.S. national coach Bruce Arena's book, playing Albright, normally a right back for the L.A. Galaxy, in the midfield. Albright turned the position into a showcase of his versatility. He was seemingly everywhere in the first half, making defensive plays and creating havoc up front. His speed and athleticism was showcased in an effort in the 39th minute when he beat Chelsea defender Wayne Bridge to a long pass and sent a shot that flew past goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini, though it ended up on the wrong side of the post.
The numerous subs on both sides during the halftime break created a disjointed opening to the second period. The young players on the MLS end of things, Freddy Adu, Nate Jaqua, Rico Clark and Alecko Eskandarian, are clearly talented, but their nervousness was also on display as a pressing Chelsea team, pushed hard for the lead.
The game's MVP, Dwayne De Rosario, though, earned the title even before his impressive goal in the 70th minute. De Rosario continued his classy play from the first half, showing no evidence of weariness. He steadied the midfield and got the MLS reinforcements involved. He led by aggressive example, feeding passes forward and working give and go plays with Clark, Ronnie O'Brien and Adu.
Sometimes the hunger for respect goes deeper than usual. De Rosario didn't go to the World Cup, because Canada was eliminated in qualifying. Despite his stellar play in 2005, De Rosario couldn't change the league's decision to move his Earthquakes team from San Jose. Though the enthusiastic welcome of Houston for the relocated Dynamo helped ease the transition, De Rosario probably felt more than most to prove both his own quality and that of the league, having tasted firsthand the results from skepticism of the worth of MLS.
Some of that motivation was undoubtedly unleashed in the fierce strike DeRosario produced in the second half.
The win by the MLS players sends signals in multiple directions.
It's clear, for example, that the U.S. continues to produce quality goalkeepers. Joe Cannon and Troy Perkins, of the Colorado Rapids and D.C. United respectively, showed their nerve. The pair shut out Chelsea to produce the first clean sheet in MLS All-Star Game history.
It's now pretty obvious that some MLS players, most notably Brian Ching, should have seen World Cup minutes.
It shouldn't be long before the next generation of attacking players developed in MLS starts moving onto more national team spots, or to clubs abroad.
It's probable that Nowak is separating himself from the pack of MLS coaching contenders for the U.S. national team position.
It wasn't even all the very best of the league on display in the game -- there is depth of talent in MLS. The new player academies will add another pipeline of development that should only improve that quality.
It's time for MLS administrators to sink some of the money from their lucrative new television contracts into player salaries, not just stadiums.
It could be that MLS players are due a little of the adulation some fans are so quick to shower on overseas visiting clubs.
It doesn't count in the league standings, and the trophy given out isn't one that either side will really care about.
It might possibly only indicate one thing, something that rises above all that soccer in this country still needs to do and could improve upon.
MLS is good enough.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org