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Jul 11, 2008

American talent features heavily in All-Star lineup

One of the major story lines heading into the 2008 MLS season was the big influx of foreign players. Concerns about there being too much reliance on foreign talent weighed on the minds of some MLS fans as more teams looked abroad to fill the needs of a growing league.

If the group of players named to the 2008 MLS All-Star First XI is any indication, those concerns may have been a bit premature. While foreign stars David Beckham and Cuauhtemoc Blanco earned a majority of headlines when the First XI was announced, what may have been overlooked is the fact that eight of the other nine players chosen to play against West Ham United on July 24 are American.

While there were several foreign players who could have earned nods, from Brazilian Luciano Emilio to Argentine Guillermo Barros Schelotto to Canadian Dwayne DeRosario, the heavily American lineup that was chosen was every bit as deserving.

Veterans Landon Donovan, Jimmy Conrad and Matt Reis made the squad, but it was the young Americans, players such as Robbie Rogers (21), Sacha Kljestan (22) and Kenny Cooper (23), whose inclusions served as the clearest example that Major League Soccer's mission of developing young American talent is being accomplished.

Here is a closer look at the All-Star First XI selections (which were made by voting from fans, players, media and coaches/general managers), along with players who just missed the cut.

Goalkeeper-- Reis was the biggest no-brainer among the selections, with Chicago's Jon Busch the front-runner to be Reis' backup.

Defenders -- Parkhurst, Conrad and Hejduk have combined for 14 All-Star selections and all three are deserving this year. Coach Steve Nicol has to decide whether to use a 3-5-2 or a 4-4-2 against West Ham United and if he uses the latter, he could turn to Chicago's Gonzalo Segares, who finished fourth in the defender voting and has been the league's best left back this season.

Now, if Parkhurst or Conrad gets the call as an overage player for the U.S. Olympic team, which is possible, Nicol will have to pick a center back from candidates Bakary Soumare and Chad Marshall among others.

Midfielders -- The closest vote in the competition was for the final midfield spot, with Rogers edging Houston star and Toronto native DeRosario by the narrowest of margins. Beckham led the voting among every segment of voters, a sign that his stellar form this season hasn't gone unnoticed.

DeRosario and Steve Ralston finished sixth and seventh in the midfield voting, but both should get the start because Rogers and Kljestan are considered safe bets to make the U.S. Olympic team. So is Maurice Edu, who would have been a strong candidate to be either one of Nicol's five reserves or one of commissioner Don Garber's two picks.

Shalrie Joseph made his fifth straight All-Star team, but did so receiving only the eighth-most votes among fans. That he received the second-most votes among coaches and general managers says a lot about how highly Joseph is valued around the league.

Forwards -- One of the most hotly debated positions saw Cooper edge out Luciano Emilio and Brian Ching. Actually, it wasn't that close. Emilio's torrid June couldn't offset his terrible first two months of the season, but both he and Galaxy forward Edson Buddle will receive strong consideration as reserves.

So why Cooper? He has managed to continue scoring goals and creating chances despite his club being in disarray and going through a coaching change. He doesn't have the numbers of Emilio or Buddle, but fans, players and coaches realize what a special year he is having.

Donovan led the overall voting for all positions, but some might argue that he tailed off after a strong April. That may be so, but Donovan has still done more than enough to deserve the start and should be a focal point of the MLS All-Star attack against West Ham.

What about East vs. West?

The old East vs. West format for the MLS All-Star game didn't have many fans when it was still around, but the selection of West Ham United as the opponent for this year's All-Star game has some wondering if the league might not have been better off showcasing its own talent in a game that would have been sold out regardless.

Well, if MLS had reverted to the East vs. West format we might have seen a pretty good game. Here are the lineups that might have represented the East and West had they met in this year's MLS All-Star game:

EAST: Matt Reis, Michael Parkhurst, Jimmy Conrad, Frankie Hejduk, Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston, Robbie Rogers, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Marcelo Gallardo, Luciano Emilio and Alejandro Moreno.

WEST: Pat Onstad, Wade Barrett, Sean Franklin, Jameson Olave, Dwayne DeRosario, Sacha Kljestan, Javier Morales, Jesse Marsch, David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Kenny Cooper

With some Canadians on the West team and some Toronto FC players likely to play for the East, the atmosphere at BMO Field could have been electric and the old MLS All-Star format could have been a better option this year than in most years.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives and can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.

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