New York Soccer: MLS All-Star Game

W2W4: NY Red Bulls vs. Paris Saint-Germain at Emirates Stadium

July, 30, 2011
Leave it to the City of Lights to unite an Arsenal legend with his old supporters against a common foe.

Before the Gooners can welcome back Gunners great Thierry Henry in the weekend finale, the New York Red Bulls will kick off against Ligue 1 side Paris Saint-Germain at Emirates Stadium in London, England on Saturday. This trans-Atlantic clash represents the first leg of the Emirates Cup, a two-day exhibition tournament hosted by English Premier League side Arsenal FC.

The four clubs involved in this year's Emirates Cup -- Arsenal, Paris SG, Boca Juniors, and the Red Bulls -- play two matches with the standard tournament scoring of three points awarded for a win, one point for a draw, and the added incentive of a point for every goal scored. Arsenal has won the Emirates Cup three times in the four years of the tournament's existence, including last year's edition.

Key Matchup: The Red Bulls vs. Their Depth Chart. Red Bulls coach Hans Backe has worked hard to mixed results in balancing a very busy July schedule that includes MLS regular season, US Open Cup, and MLS All-Star Game commitments for many of his key players.

Make no mistake -- the Emirates Cup sat on the Red Bulls' calendar with a big circle around these next two days. These games may not factor in to the MLS standings, but they stand to help benefit the club's reputation on the global soccer scene and within MLS. They will not punt these matches in the same way they seemingly punted the US Open Cup quarterfinal at Chicago.

Backe has 21 players at his disposal to play two matches in two days before the Red Bulls can finally have their full first week of rest since the middle of June. With Luke Rodgers and Mehdi Ballouchy missing the trip due to injury and visa issues respectively, Backe has one more balancing act to peform with his reserves and regular personnel to make a strong impression under the bright lights of the second largest club stadium in London.

Time Zone Tizzy. New York generally hasn't fared well in their matches away from Eastern Standard/Daylight Time, going 0-2-8 in MLS play this season as well as the US Open Cup loss at Chicago.

Factor in the five-hour time difference to Greenwich Mean Time and that the club did not leave New York until Thursday nor send any non-All-Stars in advance to adjust to the time difference and it could make for a sluggish start by whatever combination of players that Backe decides to start against Les Parisiens.

A Moveable Feast. Paris Saint-Germain is a club on an upward trajectory, with their fourth-place finish in the 2010-11 season being their best finish in a decade and a mere three seasons after narrowly avoiding relegation. New Paris SG sporting director Leonardo took the reins in July after being courted away from his post as Inter head coach.

Leonardo promptly brought Roma winger Jérémy Ménez and former Juventus defensive midfielder Mohamed Sissoko to bolster his defensive efforts as well as French 'keeper Nicolas Douchez and former Palermo shot stopper Salvatore Sirigu to handle the netminding duties. A lot of Paris SG manager Antoine Kombouaré's weekend tactics may revolve around Leonardo's efforts to help these players establish chemistry for the upcoming season and the accompanying run in the UEFA Europa League.

Did Backe's subs kill MLS All-Star Game chances?

July, 28, 2011
Even with the odds stacked in favor of Manchester United on Wednesday at Red Bull Arena, Red Bulls coach Hans Backe gave the MLS All-Stars a reason to keep their heads held high at halftime.

Despite two moments of individual brilliance by Anderson and All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Park Ji-Sung creating a 2-0 hole for the MLS All-Stars after the first 45 minutes, Backe’s decision to employ a 4-3-3 formation ultimately lent itself well to the star-studded squad. The best of MLS – led by the dynamic designated player duo of Thierry Henry and team captain David Beckham – maintained an edge in possession and created ample scoring chances.

Then a funny thing happened. Backe, who notoriously shies away from making significant substitutions in Red Bulls matches, decided to make his first mass substitution to open the second half. In came Nick LaBrocca, Chris Wondolowski, and Backe’s inclination to let all of the All-Stars get meaningful minutes while out went Henry, Shalrie Joseph, and the touch passing that sparked the MLS attack throughout the first half.

“We could probably have played the same team 15-20 minutes more,” said Backe. “It wouldn’t have made a huge difference in the second half. I could have had a little bit more possession but we picked up two good chances – Omar Bravo had a phenomenal chance to score after a rebound. Normally, you can say that too many subs can kill a game but we decided to do 4 or 5 including the goalie at halftime, two subs after 60 and then after 80. We didn’t kill the game with that.”

But they did. Manchester United, who kept their starting XI intact for the first 15 minutes of the second half, took advantage of the change in MLS personnel and the lack of cohesion that came with it. The Red Devils completed twice as many passes as the MLS All-Stars in the period prior to Dimitar Berbatov’s dagger in the 52nd minute while the MLS All-Stars struggled to establish its offensive momentum and basically resorted to lobbing long balls into the attacking third to no avail.

Backe had already stated at Monday’s press conference that he intended to give all of the All-Stars meaningful minutes at some point in the match, acquiescing to the American spirit of letting all of the fans see their stars play on one of MLS’s biggest stages – competitive match be damned.

Still, the best of MLS showed an organic cohesion in the first 45 minutes that few expected, considering the truncated practice schedule afforded to Backe to establish a form worthy of the lofty expectations of kicking off against Manchester United.

“The last time I played in the MLS All-Star Game, the team came together,” said Beckham. “We played well. You clicked. I think, especially in the first half, showed that if you’re a good enough player, you can just come together and you just play. We didn’t have enough time together, but that’s the way it is. That’s part of being the All-Star team.”

Does it have to be that way? Couldn’t Backe have eased in his substitutes to let each player acclimate to the run of play rather than throwing back-ups to the wolves every 20 minutes?

Ultimately, Backe was right in that keeping the starters on an extra 15-20 minutes would not have changed the final score. A comeback win against the defending English Premier League champions seemed unlikely from the outset and doubly so after Park’s goal before halftime, but the opportunity for the MLS All-Stars to tally a goal and save face against one of the best clubs in the world felt just as inevitable.

Soccer fans around the world woke up this morning to the box score that Manchester United defeated Beckham’s and Henry’s merry band of MLS All-Stars handily, which is what everyone expected and surprised no one. MLS gains a bit of notoriety from the match, which is negated by seeing the league’s best receive a drubbing from the Red Devils. The match only makes waves in the global soccer scene if MLS wins, but it's probably wise to not try to dig for any deeper meanings from what is ultimately an exhibition match.

The final result was predictable, but it didn’t have to end the way it did.

Backe could have substituted a better finish.

Rapid Reaction: Man U 4, MLS All-Stars 0

July, 27, 2011

Recap | Match stats

WHAT IT MEANS: For the second straight season, the MLS All-Stars lose handily to English Premier League power Manchester United. A year ago, the final tally was 5-2 at Reliant Stadium in Houston. This time around, the score was 4-0 at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey.

In the defeat, Major League Soccer squanders another golden opportunity to earn more credibility on the national and international stage. To be fair, however, the MLS did not have a number of All-Stars available due to injury, including Los Angeles Galaxy forward Landon Donovan and New York Red Bulls defender Rafael Marquez.

EARLY PROMISE: The All-Stars went toe-to-toe with the Red Devils for most of the first half. After feeling each other out in the first few minutes of play, the MLS crew actually created more scoring chances in the first 45 minutes and change of action. But they weren't able to get a shot past Man U goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard.

Brazilian midfielder Anderson struck for Man U in the 20th minute, off assists from strikers Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney. Then disaster struck right before the halftime whistle, when fellow midfielder Ji-Sung Park pulled a pretty fake and put the ball in the back of the net, giving Manchester United an intimidating 2-0 lead at intermission.

PILING IT ON: Manchester United put the game away early in the second half, courtesy of a Berbatov goal in the 52nd minute. Sir Alex Ferguson cleared his bench soon after that, making six substitutions in the 61st minute, including the removal of Rooney and defender Rio Ferdinand. (MLS coach Hans Backe also made wholesale personnel changes prior to the start of the second half, in an effort to play as many players as he could.) The final goal of the evening came off the foot of Man U substitute striker Danny Welbeck in the 68th minute, after deflecting off an MLS defender.

ELECTRIC ATMOSPHERE: The game was a sellout -- 26,760 fans in attendance -- and the atmosphere was indeed outstanding, particularly before the game and in the first half. Manchester United's announcer from its home stadium at Old Trafford introduced the Man U starting lineup, and fireworks accompanied the U.S. national anthem.

WHAT'S NEXT: With the All-Star Game in the rearview mirrow, MLS league play will resume on Friday. But first the Red Bulls are headed to England to participate in the Emirates Cup, playing against Paris Saint-Germain on Saturday and Arsenal on Sunday. They will then resume MLS play at Real Salt Lake on Aug. 6.

Manchester United will complete its five-game U.S. tour with a rematch of the the European Champions League final in May against Barcelona, on Saturday at FedEx Field in Washington, D.C.

Video: MLS All-Star Game preview

July, 27, 2011

Max Bretos and Taylor Twellman preview tonight's MLS All-Star Game.

Everton's Tim Howard talks transfer, MLS

July, 20, 2011
As Everton prepares to commences its US tour on Wednesday evening at PPL Park against the Philadelphia Union, they will do so without longtime goalkeeper Tim Howard.

Howard, who will not be between the posts for the Toffees against the Union, is still resting after a grueling CONCACAF Gold Cup Tournament in which the North Brunswick, N.J. native served admirably as the shot stopper for the U.S. Men's National Team. He should have ample opportunities to gain match fitness before the start of the upcoming 2011-12 English Premier League season, but Howard may need a bit more time in the interim to recharge the batteries before resuming his role as one of the best 'keepers in the EPL and one of the great success stories in U.S. Soccer.

His club's loss during their U.S. tour is our gain, as Howard gave a few moments of his time to chat by phone on Wednesday morning with your friendly neighborhood soccer blogger about his own preparations ahead of the EPL season, his club's lack of noise thus far in the transfer market, his thoughts on missing the U.S. matches this week and on next week's MLS All-Star Game, and his enthusiasm in appearing in a slew of advertisements for Allstate.

Without further ado, here's my conversation with Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard:

ESPNNY: How are things going with preparation for the upcoming season with Everton?

Howard: Part of preparation is the rest and mentally preparing is the biggest part because it is a long, tough, grueling season. All in all, it’s going well. The spirit in the group is high. I’m ready and looking forward to getting back into action. Fingers crossed, we can have a good start and put ourselves into the position to hopefully get into the top four.

ESPNNY: There hasn’t been much chatter in terms of transfers for Everton going through this particular window. What are your feelings about the lack of movement for your club thus far?

Howard: We’re always disappointed when there’s not a lot of player movement. I think everyone involved is. Our manager, David Moyes, has shown that’s he’s pretty shrewd in the transfer market and can wheel and deal without a ton of money. But yes, I think in order to move forward, the club needs to spend money and keep up with each other. At the moment, we haven’t brought anybody in but we’re optimistic that will happen before the close of the transfer window. I do think it’s important – it just lifts the squad a little bit and gives everybody a boost.

ESPNNY: Is there anything in particular position or area that the team could use?

Howard: We have two very good top strikers, but when it comes to strikers, they’re priceless. You can always use more firepower – it’s a long season. In losing Stephen Pienaar last year, he was one of our top wingers. He’s a guy we’re trying to replace. And of course in the back, we’re on the fortunate side but we keep talking about how long the season is, those kind of things are forced to have quality and depth.

ESPNNY: There was some reports yesterday about how you won’t be with the team over the next few days at Philadelphia and at Washington. Is that accurate?

Howard: It is. I’m going on my manager’s advice to shut it down and take some more rest. He knows how much I’ve put in the last 12 months and what the next 12 months look like. He’s been generous enough to give me an opportunity to rest and get ready for this next long stretch of the season.

And part of that, unfortunately, is not being around tonight. I wish I could be there. I know the people of Philadelphia are excited for it and that’s the reason we came. We knew what good preparation it would be.

ESPNNY: So, in the end, it was the manager’s advice and not necessarily that you requested the next few days off?

Howard: Yes. Those decisions are obviously made jointly, but unfortunately, they were made quite a long time ago. They don’t get made this week. Those types of things are discussed amongst ourselves months and months in advance. That’s the unfortunate part.

ESPNNY: I wanted to change speeds a bit. Next week, Major League Soccer is preparing for its All-Star Game. You had the distinction of being able to play on both sides in that you played once upon a time for MLS and also, in 2009, you were there with Everton. I was curious about your impressions of that match since you were on both sides of the MLS All-Star Game.

Howard: That’s a good point. I’ve played for both of those teams – I’ve played for Everton against the All-Star team. I think it can be a pretty intense game. I think the All-Stars in the new format have something to prove. A European club comes over and they’re promoting themselves as well. I think the MLS All-Stars can handle themselves.

In terms of Manchester United, I think they’re very much in a transition. That usually means bad things, but not for ManU. It’s going to be exciting to watch them revamp their team from last year and kind of see what they have going on going forward. They have to replace a few different players, but they always do that and do it well.

ESPNNY: So will there be a small part of you maybe scouting as ManU prepares for the upcoming season?

Howard: If I watch, it’ll be fan first. We do enough scouting over the course of the year. We’ll have plenty of meetings on what Manchester United does. So, I won’t watch it just for that reason. But yeah, I’ll certaintly tune in. I have no doubt that they’ll play that in England. And I’ll be tuning in to see my new Allstate commercial.

ESPNNY: Could you tell me a bit about the new commercial?

Howard: It’s quite a funny one, I think, of all of them. The most entertaining. It’s called “Borange” and actually airs today on YouTube. (Ed. Note: You can see it here.) I’m super excitied to partner with Allstate this year, first year partner of MLS and and the U.S. Men's National Team. Those are all things that mean a lot to me as well as the protective side of things, being a goalkeeper and all. It’s going to be kinda cool, kind of exciting, and I think people will really enjoy this commercial. I will, I’m going to watch and enjoy the game as well.

ESPNNY: Did you have any problems with your own humility, or having a sense of humor in doing these commercials?

Howard: I think that’s the part I like about it the most -- The humor and how they twist it and made it not your run-of-the-mill type of sports commercial. I enjoyed watching, being in the process, being a part of making it, and then seeing it come to fruition.

ESPNNY: Before I let you go, could you handicap your expectations for the start of the upcoming EPL season?

Howard: I think that the Champions League, a lot of people talk about it. It’s very difficult – most clubs don’t actually attain that goal until the end of May at the last games of the season. All of that is put in place, particularly early on, we’ve shown over the course of the last 10 years that when the winter months come, the really hard, tough months, that we can grind with the best of them and we’ve always seemed to flourish in that time.

Our goal and the key to this season will be get off to a fast start and collect a lot of points early on, really make it tough on the teams around us and try to pull away earlier. Last year, we started to pull away from some teams but it happened later in the season. I think every team’s trying to do that, but the more players we can bring in with quality, the better we’ll be in that regard. Having said that, our top players are very, very good.

We have every opportunity to make that right, get some points early on. If we can do that, we’ll be a happy bunch of guys and our manager will be happy as well.