MLS All-Stars 1, Chelsea 0
The MLS All-Stars beat Chelsea 1-0 on Saturday in the beautiful and packed Toyota Park, which prompted all sorts of joyous, and somehow strangely familiar, proclamations of the rise of American soccer. Yes, we've heard it all before, but...
...a little perspective.
On the one hand, it was a fantastic effort for the growing but struggling league. The result surely looked great on news wires all around the world. Unknown, unappreciated American castaways 1, ridiculously expensive, worldwide superstars zip, zilch, nada. The unheralded Americans who beat the juggernaut. David over Goliath.
Or something like that.
Yes, it was a great story and one that, hopefully, captured, however briefly, the attention of American sports fans currently being bombarded by sad stories such as the disgrace of Floyd Landis, Terrell Owen's plunge back into the national consciousness with the start of NFL training camps, and Mark McGuire's impending eligibilty for the Hall of Fame.
That said, let's not lose sight of the big picture. Chelsea's players only got together a week before the game, sixteen of whom barely had an offseason while competing in the World Cup, several of whom are new additions and barely know their new teammates yet. Stars such as Michael Ballack and Andrei Shevchenko were subbed out at halftime. Hernan Crespo didn't even make the trip (and has since landed with Inter Milan). Joe Cole left with what looks now to be a serious injury. The heat, while actually a relief following the inhumam conditions of the prior days, was unrelenting to a bunch of dudes just beginning to get in shape.
Meanwhile, the MLS stars are in midseason form, at the top of their game.
Bottome line? Chelsea was taking the exhibition a lot less seriously than the MLS stars. It was roughly the equivalent of the NBA champion Miami Heat traveling overseas in the preseason and playing a European All-Star team in midseason and Shaq and Dwyane Wade playing only the first half. Sure, you'd still expect the Heat to win, but a loss wouldn't exactly be a shock-the-world moment.
I don't mean to take anything away from the MLS stars, but let's not kid ourselves. Had this game taken place in a month or so when the Chelsea players are no longer on a casual, shake-off-the-cobwebs vacation, er, world tour, the result would be very different. MLS' win was impressive, but I'll only truly be impressed when an MLS team wins the CONCACAF Champions League, travels to Japan for the World Club Championship in December, and knocks off the likes of a Barcelona or Sau Paolo. Until then, these exhibitions should be taken with a grain of salt.
I just don't think the hyperbole that so often becomes attached to these events is helpful. As the game reached its conclusion, Eric Wynalda was rambling on and on about how the win was a signature moment for a league that continues to grow deeper and is ready to shock many other opponents around the world. Whoa, take it easy. Of course, Wynalda is prone to such seat-of-his-pants, haphazard conclusions. Remember, this is the same Wynalda who spent the days leading up to the first U.S. game in the World Cup staring into a camera and telling the world how where once the U.S. was low in world class players, it now had a roster full. They were abundant. Then, following the loss to the Czechs, Wynalda was the first to throw the team under the bus and repeatedly mention how bad they performed. As much as I like Wynalda for his honesty and optimism (when the going is good, at least), I wouldn't put much stock in his opinions. They change quicker than a Floyd Landis alibi.
The point is this: MLS, and soccer in America, continues to grow. No doubt. However, ignoring the big picture and putting too much stock into these "practice" games, or any other single accomplishment, only serves to strengthen the negative backlash of the anti-soccer community when that backlash comes. Before the World Cup, there were plenty of Americans who paraded around our number four ranking in the world and proclaimed us a world power. Well, what was the end result of this false bravado? When our team disappointed, all the yahoo buttheads of the media - guys like the Around the Horn clowns who probably hadn't even thought of soccer since 2002 - had the ammunition to criticize American soccer and to do so harshly. It got ugly. And why? Because expectations were skewered by blind optimism, which has its place, but can also be detrimental.
To be honest, I was almost a tad embarrassed as the MLS team jumped on the podium after the game and celebrated like it was a World Cup victory celebration. Had they completely forgotten the circumstances? I couldn't help cringing at what the Chelsea players must have been thinking, or what the fans back in England watching the world feed must have been thinking. I'm not sure, but I can't help but feel the phrase "dumb Americans" must have arose occasionally accompanied by knowing laughter. Listen, the New York Cosmos were betaing the hell out of major European powers back in the 70s, and what did that really signal?
Baby steps. That's all.
The MLS win over Chelsea should be remembered for what it was: a fun exhibition in a packed, new, beautiful stadium. Which is awesome. It was. But anyone out there who makes these "wins" sound comparable to the Jets beating the Colts in Super Bowl III needs to relax.
- Dwayne De Rosario deserves a look from a European club, and not just because of his splendid winner against Chelsea. Dude has game and has been displaying it for several years now in MLS. I find it hard to believe that some European club couldn't find use for his creativity, enthusiasm, and ponytail/dreads combo look. It's also a bit disconcerting that arguably the best player in MLS is a Canuck. (Speaking of which, wouldn't it be awesome for everyone involved if Canada became a power in CONCACAF? The U.S. could gave a great rival on both sides. I patiently await the day. MLS expansion north of the border should help. 'Cause, you know, beating up on Mexico is getting old.)
- Coaching the MLS stars was just the latest success on the growing list of DC United coach and Fire legend Peter Nowak. Apparently, his contract is up with DC and his name is being mentioned as a leading candidate for the national team job, which wouldn't displease me. Hell, if that doesn't work out, bring him back to Chicago to coach the Fire next season. It's where he belongs. It still gnaws at me greatly that the Fire let him escape the organization.
- Speaking of the Fire, who is in charge of maintaining the grass in Toyota Park? As awesome as the rest of the packed stadium looked, the grass looked borderline awful. Not only were chunks coming up during the game, which is both dangerous and tacky, but even the lines left by the mower - you know those lines that look so, so pretty on a pitch - were faded and badly maintained. It's downright disturbing that with only a handful of games played thus far in the stadium, and with Chelsea in town for a midseason extraveganza, the Fire organization didn't find it in them to keep the field looking pristine. It's the little things, people, the little things. There is no excuse for this. None. Not even the overbearing heat.
(Which reminds me: As mentioned in here before, my pro-Peter Wilt rant is brewing. I promise. The "work" thus far of one John Guppy, Wilt's replacement, is disturbing to say the least, absolutely infuriating at worst.)
- I went to Chelsea's practice on Friday...Very short practice in the stifling heat. Only about an hour...Mourhino didn't do much. He just sort of saunters around, saying little, and looking at his watch a lot as the players go from drill to drill. It must be the life having that much talent paid for...That said, the players practice with a lot of spirit and seem to being having fun as much, if not moreso, as simply looking for playing time on a juggernaut. Maybe this is Mourinho's secret. It would be very easy for the players to drag ass considering it's preseason for them and the heat was ridiculous and the practice was basically just a walk-through, but they were all lively and smiling while they worked, which was nice to see...Mourinho had a fresh crew cut and so did Ballack, which was cute...Mikel was there and I wanted to see what all the buzz is about with this Nigerian kid but couldn't tell much in the light workout...Obviously, this means little to nothing, but in a half-field scrimmage, which seemed to pit mostly starters against backups, Ballack played in front of Lampard. Who knows what this means for the rest of the season, but that's what it was...Funny: At the end the players sat in a large circle and stretched as a cool down. Ballack was sitting on his ass casually stretching and Mourinho spent the duration crouched next to him, chatting away. I guess he's getting in the good graces (and ear) of his new star...A few thousand spectators on hand, but nothing too crazy. I heard both 5,000 and 7,000...Maybe the players spent the rest of the evening at Lollapalooza, which was taking place on the lakefront all weekend. It might help explain their lacklustre performance the next day.