Howard's star shines the brightest among the all-stars
SANDY, Utah -- Well that nifty little streak wasn't going to live forever. But if the MLS All-Stars' perfect record was going to be sullied, who better than MLS product and beloved U.S. international Tim Howard to do the sullying?
The Everton goalkeeper was large and in charge all night, with four classy saves in the run of play and some athletic stops in the penalty-kick tiebreaker as the EPL club did what five other foreign travelers couldn't in this All-Star game format: overcome the weary legs of preseason training to defeat the MLS All-Stars.
Stuart Holden's mad moment gifted Everton an early goal and Brad Davis finished a chance at the far post in response, and the score remained 1-1 after 90 minutes plus stoppage time. Everton won the penalty-kick shootout thanks largely to Howard. Here are five talking points on the league's 14th All-Star contest at the lovely Rio Tinto Stadium:
1. Tim Howard gets it done. Howard made worthy stops on Davey Arnaud, Conor Casey, Landon Donovan and Fredy Montero in the run of play, and then turned away Arnaud, Davis and Freddie Ljungberg in the tiebreaker to earn MVP honors.
Even though he was technically with the "visitors," the crowd certainly appreciated the U.S. international and all he has accomplished. Howard got a rousing applause during pregame introductions and then another hardy ovation as he accepted the postgame MVP award. Howard was typically modest in the postgame news conference, although Everton coach David Moyes sang his praises.
"Once again, Tim Howard has proved that he's certainly the best goalkeeper in America, and if he keeps going the way he is at the moment, it might not just be in America," Moyes said proudly.
2. The MLS setup. All-Star games are a tactical conundrum waiting to happen. So it was with Dominic Kinnear, taking his first bite off the All-Star managerial apple. With just five defenders and only one true holding midfielder, Kinnear was going to need some kind of novelty formation.
So he lined up the MLS men in a 3-4-3, although not any 3-4-3 that a serious manager would choose for a serious match. It took the MLS side 25 minutes to gain its footing in the formation. Essentially, there were too many guys out wide and not enough charges in the middle to get it to them. Not only that, but nine of the 11 MLS starters were All-Star newbies. Kinnear said his team was tentative early, although things looked more settled following Davis' 26th-minute goal.
"It took us a little while to get going," Kinnear said. "The first 10 or 15 minutes we looked a bit nervous. But then I thought after we scored we did some good stuff, and as the game wore on we created some good chances."
3. A razzle-dazzle game without much razzle-dazzle. A match against Everton was probably never going to be high on the flair factor. Sure enough, this one wasn't.
It was very un-All-Star like in a lot of ways. The Merseysiders' uncompromising style -- it's hard to turn that on and off -- had a lot to do with it. From the MLS All-Stars, Cuauhtemoc Blanco looked slow, so his ability to be a showman was somewhat muted. Freddie Ljungberg was busy but wasn't always crisp. Landon Donovan is one who "gets it," but a calf injury meant he wasn't introduced until halftime. He did add some spice with all that speed and his knack for improvisation. But this "friendly" had 34 fouls, and that about says it all.
Then again, there's another way of looking at it:
"This was a real game," Donovan said. "You could tell by the way they were playing. There were a couple of hard tackles in the first couple of minutes. ... I'd rather it be that than a game where people are walking around, trying back heels and bicycle kicks. That was a real soccer game, and it was fun."
4. The ugliest moment. Stuart Holden is a good young player who, all in all, is having a big summer. His Houston Dynamo are leading the West and he was one of the better U.S. Gold Cuppers. But, oh my, what an absolute shocker of a bad pass.
Even if Saha had not been standing in the way of Holden's woefully ill-advised effort, Everton's Tim Cahill appeared to be in good shape to pick it off before it got over to its target across the field, Wilman Conde. Or, Conde was the probable target. Who knows, really?
Holden did help make amends with a help-along on Davis' goal after Casey did the heavy lifting in holding off a challenge inside the penalty area.
5. The penalty-kick tiebreaker. One of the more tantalizing subplots all along was Howard, the current U.S. No. 1 in goal, against the man who set the goalkeeper standard for the national program, Keller. And fate intervened twice to create the head-to-head tiebreaker meeting of the giant U.S. Soccer figures.
First, Keller did his part in the first half, never really stretching himself, then giving way for second-half replacement Zach Thornton. But Thornton took a weird step 15 minutes after the break and went down immediately in pain. Game officials and Everton's management had no problem with letting Keller re-enter the match, so in came the Seattle Sounders man once again.
Prior to this year, a tie All-Star game would have been called a draw. But MLS decided only this year to add the penalty-kick tiebreaker in the event of a 90-minute deadlock. So the crowd got a big show at the end.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10):
GK, Kasey Keller, 7 -- Did everything he needed and certainly had no culpability for the Everton goal. Probably will lament not turning away Phil Neville's tiebreaker penalty kick after he managed to get his hands to it.
D, Geoff Cameron, 6 -- Went the full 90 and got forward more than any of his fellow defenders.
D, Chad Marshall, 5 -- Played just a half as the central figure among a back three, and like some others had his wobbly moments in distribution.
D, Wilman Conde, 7 -- Easily the best MLS defender with good tackling and worthwhile passing.
M, Stuart Holden, 4 -- Gave the visitors a goal with that awful pass, but rallied past the moment and had an OK game afterward.
M, Kyle Beckerman, 6 -- A very professional performance from the hometown man as he held the middle of the field almost by himself as the lone defensive screener.
M, Freddie Ljungberg, 5 -- The busiest man on the pitch. And since he won't be playing for a while in MLS thanks to red-card issues, he went the full 90, albeit with spotty effectiveness.
M, Brad Davis, 6 -- Got involved going both ways, with some tough tackles and business on the attack. In the right spot for the only MLS goal.
F, Fredy Montero, 4 -- Lined up as a right-sided forward but never really got into the game; hampered some by a first-half injury.
F, Conor Casey, 6 -- Some dutiful hold-up play. Came close on a couple and did the hard work on the MLS goal.
F, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, 4 -- Blanco's passing tends to have a funky rhythm, and it didn't click with less-familiar teammates. He looked slow and not much like the spunky player he was at last year's All-Star event.
M, Will Johnson, 6 -- Made a good account, mostly owing to that big motor, although he was caught out of position a time or two.
M, Landon Donovan, 7 -- Nearly settled the game but saw his late shot from 6 yards out clang off the post. Overall, the best U.S. attacker in running at the Toffees.
GK, Zach Thornton, 4 -- His night ended quickly, although in his limited minutes he nearly made a big mess of one free-kick cross.
D , Bakary Soumare, 6 -- Replaced Chad Marshall at the half but didn't need to do much against the fading visitors.
M, Davy Arnaud, 5 -- Had a few decent moments in nearly half an hour as Montero's replacement, although his crossing could have been better.
M, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, 6 -- Like Soumare, generally had the easier duty as he came on in defense after Everton lost its legs.
M, Javier Morales, 4 -- Seemed curiously uninterested, then hurt himself. So, all in all, a disappointing night for another hometown man.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.