Jay Bell reflects on the gala of a week it was in MLS.
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Wednesday’s night’s 3-1 victory for AS Roma provided more evidence on both sides of the debate over what the format should be for the Major League Soccer All-Star Game.
The positives were numerous and in full display. First and foremost, the MLS All-Star game is an event, not a normal contest. It is not and should not be a measuring stick for the quality of play in MLS. The game brings in 20 players, most of which do not play together, and pits them against world class teams. Roma may be in preseason, but the players are still club mates and they are still top players. Francesco Totti will go down as one of the greatest players in the history of the all-star game. He oozed class in this year’s event.
The display Sporting Kansas City and its fans put on Wednesday night followed the tone of the rest of the week. The pre-game and halftime displays were extravagant, the fans were active and they finally got the chance to erupt in second half stoppage time when the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez scored one of his vintage headers off an assist from Vancouver’s Camilo.
The exposure and the excuse to throw a party is the league’s top reason for leaving the current format as it is. New York Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry said emphatically after the game that he believed the current format is best for the league for the exposure it gets from playing high profile teams like Roma.
“Who will watch East vs. West in Europe? I’m telling you, no one,” Henry said.
“If all we are looking to do is to win a game, then easily you could set something up,” said SKC and all-star team manager Peter Vermes. “These are real games. These are real teams that come in here to play and sometimes results don’t go your way, but at the end – I still go back to it – it’s more than just the winning of the game. It’s really what the experience is for everyone that participates. It’s not just a game on Wednesday night. It’s everything that goes along with it.”
Vermes said he did not think that the result was the key focus. He felt that Wednesday’s match was about a vision becoming a reality for the club and its ownership.
“Everyone was talking about Kansas City, how nice everything was, how much buzz there was about this game,” said SKC defender Matt Besler.
The biggest news of the event was Commissioner Don Garber’s comment at halftime that MLS is planning to expand to 24 teams by the end of the decade. MLS expansion has become an even trickier proposition in recent years. A solid ownership group and a stadium are not the only factors anymore. New markets have to help the league’s value as a whole, which is precisely why the league pursued New York City FC.
Miami may be the clear frontrunner at the moment with the backing of David Beckham and Marcelo Claure. Once the group figures out a stadium situation and submits a legitimate bid, Miami will have the best chance of anyone because of the region’s soccer viewership. Orlando City SC is making noise with its pursuit of a stadium and an MLS team, but after that the race is wide open. The list of potential suitors also includes San Antonio, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Minnesota, Sacramento, Phoenix, Detroit and the Cosmos could eventually be a third team in the New York City metro.
Vermes was supportive of the continued expansion of MLS. He discussed the success of the most recent expansion teams and how they have competed from the start.
“I think it is fantastic for our league to keep expanding like we are,” Vermes said. “At one point, I thought maybe, ah, it may be a bit of a difficulty with regards to the player pool – how that starts to get thin – but I’m not seeing that. I think our teams are getting better. I think all of our clubs are getting better in their scouting as well.
“Look at the combination of players that we have here, not just this weekend – so many good players in this league right now and it just continues to keep growing. I think it is an exciting thing.”
The argument against the current all-star game format is the poor reflection of some recent all-star game results. The 3-1 result was not a flattering one for MLS and it could have been worse. MLS lost by a combined seven goals in two years to Manchester United after losing to Tim Howard and Everton on penalties in 2009.
The problems began almost immediately on Wednesday. SKC’s Graham Zusi worked an early sequence with Kyle Beckerman and Tony Beltran of Real Salt Lake to earn a corner kick, but Roma scored within the opening minutes. Roma’s newly acquired Kevin Strootman scored on the end of a through ball that wasn’t meant for him. The MLS team’s defenders were caught wrong-footed.
Roma was nearly able to score twice more within the first eight minutes. Vermes said he felt the all-stars felt they needed to press more after surrendering the early goal.
The match settled down and MLS tried to build through Henry. Both teams playing a high line made the game more compact and the all-stars were unable to link up effectively, while Roma was able to keep threatening on curling through balls.
Zusi said he felt tightness in his leg and Vermes made the decision to sub him out in the 24th minute, bringing on Camilo. Vermes said the club would assess Zusi more on Thursday.
Some offside calls and a hustle play from SKC’s Aurelien Collin helped to hold Roma to just one goal in the first half. Collin, Henry and Beckerman were the most involved all-stars in the first half, while Roma thrived around Totti’s creativity and American Michael Bradley’s efficiency in the midfield.
Vermes said Roma was very organized, disciplined and balanced when moving forward. Seattle Sounders rookie DeAndre Yedlin said it was the Roman players’ technical ability that stood out the most.
“I think that is something that we as a country are still behind in, but we are catching up,” Yedlin said. “Just how technical they were – that’s what I noticed at the (Under-20) World Cup also – the other countries, how technical they were. We’re making progress as a country in that category.”
The second half began much like the first when Alessandro Florenzi, the game’s most valuable player, got behind Houston’s Corey Ashe to score a goal just two minutes after halftime. Junior Tallo tallied Roma’s final goal in the 69th minute finishing off a ball in the box.
The all-stars were more dangerous in the second half as the streaking Landon Donovan of LA, Chris Wondolowski from San Jose and Mike Magee from Chicago were more direct, but they were still unable to get on the scoreboard. Yedlin also added more energy at right back after he entered in the 67th minute. He sent his best chance over the bar in the 86th minute.
Yedlin said he was nervous in warmups, but settled into the game just as usual after coming on.
“Seattle has prepared me well for this,” Yedlin said. “Kansas City – the fans are great. They really showed their support for us tonight. Even though we went down three goals, they were still cheering really loud. It really tells a lot about this country and how far the sport has come.”
Gonzalez netted the only goal for the home team in stoppage time off of a free kick from Camilo. Vermes said he felt it was a deserved goal
“It is hard to bring a group of guys together with one training, but at the end of the day, they did a good job. I’m glad they got a goal at the end. They deserved to get at least one. And yeah, exciting night. Great for Kansas City and I appreciate that MLS gave us this opportunity to pull this event off in this place because I think it was a great night,” Vermes said.
The atmosphere and the event also stood out to Bradley, who played for the New York Metrostars as a teenager when MLS first began playing foreign teams in the all-star game.
“I think we are moving in the right direction. As the league continues to add more teams, as there continues to be more stadiums, as you continue to have atmospheres like you do in Kansas City or Portland and a Seattle, these are all great things. I think the future is very bright.”