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Timing is everything for MLS

Timing is (almost) everything in sports. Major League Soccer chose the wrong time to send an all-star team to Madrid last August but picked the right time to meet Chelsea this year.

The MLS win over Chelsea compensated somewhat for the select squad's 5-0 loss in Madrid on Aug. 23, 2005. New England Revolution coach Steve Nicol, for one, felt some vindication.

"It absolutely means something," Nicol said of the MLS All-Stars' 1-0 victory over Chelsea on Saturday. "Whoever criticized us when we lost to Real Madrid should give us a pat on the back for this."

Nicol coached the All-Stars on the Madrid trip, which was assembled hastily and left a bad impression of the MLS. Nicol said the Chelsea game was a fairer reflection of the MLS.

"Everything about the Madrid thing was wrong," Nicol said. "Playing a team like Real Madrid and arriving the day before the game after spending God knows how long in airports and in the air. It was still a great experience, but we didn't give ourselves a great chance and this time [against Chelsea] we did give ourselves a great chance. A 1-nil win means you are doing something right."

Nicol's All-Stars had been together for a matter of days, much of the time spent traveling, and were treated as sacrificial lambs in Real Madrid's annual Trofeo Bernabeu match, which presents the team to the public. Peter Nowak's All-Stars were primed to play and caught Chelsea in preseason form.

Yet, without an excellent finish by Dwayne De Rosario, the match might have ended in a draw. De Rosario made a major difference in the game, even before his hard strike sailed past Chelsea goalkeeper Hilario. De Rosario gained the most valuable player award, but his performance raises questions about his career. How could De Rosario have made so little an impact in Germany (FC Zwickau 1997-99) that he would have to regroup with the Richmond Kickers before finding an MLS team?

The MLS All-Star win over Chelsea does not mean the league is on a par with the Premiership. The result did mean the league gained in prestige, though. And the MLS also gained financially during the weekend with a 92,650 crowd for the U.S. opener of the Soccer United Marketing tour of FC Barcelona.

Barcelona is commanding an estimated $6 million fee for the tour, which continues against Club America in Houston on Wednesday and the Red Bulls at Giants Stadium on Saturday. The 1-1 draw between Barcelona and CD Guadalajara provided estimated gate receipts of more than $3.5 million ($40 average ticket price) and set a U.S. record for attendance for a match involving club teams. The Reliant and Giants stadium crowds will ensure a profit for the MLS even without considering television and sponsorship fees.

In fact, the MLS' early August act, which includes a Real Madrid visit, will be a tough one to follow.

It takes time to place events in perspective. But the win over Chelsea and the reception for Barcelona could have long-range implications. The U.S. has long been able to provide profitable receptions for touring teams, but there have been questions about the country offering credible club teams as opposition.

Now, though, the world's biggest clubs clearly desire involvement in the U.S., and they seem satisfied to be playing against MLS competition and dealing with the SUM organization.

If the MLS is the league of the future, these days might be recalled as having tipped the balance in its favor. European leagues essentially have maxed out, but there is room for expansion in the U.S. Both Barcelona and Club America are considering placing "farm" teams in the MLS, as Chivas has done.

As a veteran journalist observed at the Coliseum: "The MLS does not want to be like a Triple-A league. But, at the same time, are they going to turn down a Barcelona or Boca Juniors 'B' team?"

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.