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Wednesday, July 17, 2002
A game worth watching

By Marc Connolly
ABC Sports Online

NEW YORK -- Whoever says all-star games are for "the fans" has never really spent time with, well, fans.

Tim Howard
Tim Howard is one of the rising stars in MLS and poised to become a regular on the national team.
No matter which sport you look at -- and don't even count the Pro Bowl, because that's become the biggest joke of them all -- these meaningless exhibitions are boring to watch, noncompetitive and filled with the corniest of scenes from the perma-grinned participants that some networks celebrate as true "all-star moments."

Ugh. You can have 'em.

In fact, I've given away my own tickets for both the NBA and NHL midseason affairs twice in the past six years when the games were played down the street from me.

That's why I applaud Major League Soccer for having some imagination with their all-star game this year.

Instead of having another East vs. West footie session that features 22 players simultaneously seeing how they can dog it yet appear as though they are taking the game seriously to the untrained eye, MLS has scheduled a match between its all-stars and the U.S. National Team on August 3 at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C.

Seeing a slimmer and trimmer Bruce Arena, introduced as "one of the greatest coaches in the world" by MLS commissioner Don Garber, sitting on a dais next to MLS All-Star starters Tim Howard and Mike Petke at ESPN's Zone in Times Square is a great example of why this game will be competitive.

In Howard, you have one of the most difficult cuts from Arena's final World Cup roster, and a bona fide National Team future star for the next several years. In fact, Arena restated on Wednesday that the reason he didn't take him to the Far East in June was because he felt it was important for a 23-year-old goalkeeper to play for six weeks day-in and day-out rather than sit on a bench behind Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller. He also said that the MetroStars' goalkeeper would surely be in the mix for the 2006 World Cup.

"If I remain in this capacity (as head coach)," said Arena, who still hasn't been re-signed by the U.S. Soccer Federation beyond this year, "I'm certain he'll be called up for the National Team."

While Howard represents the young guns on the MLS starting 11 along with 23-year-old Carlos Bocanegra, 24-year-old Dema Kovalenko, 22-year-old Taylor Twellman and 24-year-old Ryan Suarez looking to impress Arena in such a game, Petke, 26, is the poster boy for those who have had success in MLS without getting much of chance at the National Team level. Starters such as Steve Ralston, and sure-fire reserves like Jason Kreis will look to show their skills to Arena, as well, for a last chance at making a World Cup roster.

It may be an exhibition, but it is also a rare opportunity to have the person expected to be the National Team coach the next four years on the same field. After all, Arena looked at the starting 11 for MLS and mentioned that "eight or nine players" had a chance to play on the U.S. squad in the future.

Squads
MLS All-Stars (Starters):
Defenders: Ryan Suarez (Dallas Burn), Mike Petke (MetroStars), Carlos Bocanegra (Chicago Fire)
Midfielders: Richard Mulrooney (San Jose Earthquakes), Steve Ralston (New England Revolution), Carlos Valderrama (Colorado Rapids), Mark Chung (Colorado Rapids), Dema Kovalenko (Chicago Fire)
Forwards: Carlos Ruiz (Los Angeles Galaxy), Taylor Twellman (New England Revolution)
Goalkeeper: Tim Howard (MetroStars)

U.S. National Team:
Defenders: Jeff Agoos (San Jose Earthquakes), Mike Burns (K.C. Wizards), Alexi Lalas (Los Angeles Galaxy), Carlos Llamosa (New England Revolution), Eddie Pope (D.C. United)
Midfielders: DaMarcus Beasley (Chicago Fire), Chad Deering (Dallas Burn), John Harkes (Columbus Crew), Chris Henderson (Colorado Rapids), Cobi Jones (Los Angeles Galaxy), Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado Rapids), Brian Maisonneuve (Columbus Crew), Preki Radosavljevic (K.C. Wizards)
Forwards: Landon Donovan (San Jose Earthquakes), Brian McBride (Columbus Crew), Josh Wolff (Chicago Fire)
Goalkeepers: Tony Meola (K.C. Wizards), Juergen Sommer (New England Revolution)

"There's not going to be one guy on the MLS All-Star team who is not playing to impress Bruce and to impress anyone else who is watching us play against the World Cup team that did so well," said Petke, whose only appearance with the U.S. came in a 0-0 draw against Ecuador last June.

This will help make it more resemble an international friendly between national teams than a made-for-MTV pseudo-juggling session with a dozen goals being scored.

"There's a lot of pride at stake," said Howard, playing in his second all-star game but first as a starter. "The National Team will want to put on a going showing after the World Cup, and MLS will not want to let that happen. I think it'll be the most highly-competitive game we've had yet."

"The all-star game is always hard to get up because it's not taken so seriously," said Petke. "We go out and play 90 minutes during the week and I'm out of reality. I'm trying to win at all costs. That's why it never really mattered to me in the all-star games when we'd get four goals scored on us because it's just fun and for the fans. But this is definitely going to be a bit different.

"Is it going to be one-nothing or two-nothing or is it going to 10-9 or 8-6? I don't know, but I know it'll be a much better game."

For all of those baseball bashers who called for a change in format -- and/or commissioner -- after the embarrassment in Milwaukee last week, take notice of what is going on here. A U.S. versus The World affair instead of the traditional format might actually bring out some emotions, some pride and -- gasp -- a few beads of sweat.

Arena laughed when this topic was brought up, saying he didn't care about what baseball, basketball or football does, but he did mention how this was something that he was all for from the beginning.

"For this particular time and place," said Arena, "this is right thing for MLS to do ... we really see it as a celebration of MLS."

Not only does this create a competitive game and a chance for Major League Soccer's lesser-known players to test their skills against the league's established stars, but it also gives fans a chance to see the U.S. players together again less than six weeks after the loss to Germany in the quarterfinals of the World Cup.

In a smart move, Arena filled in his squad with a group of past World Cup players who are now out of the National Team picture like Preki, John Harkes, Alexi Lalas, Mike Burns, Chad Deering, Chris Henderson and Juergen Sommer.

"These 18 players have done an awful lot for the National Team program," said Arena. "If you're going to try to put together a group of National Team all-stars and you're not able to use your 23 players (The European-based players are unavailable due to preseason training with their clubs) you have to have a common theme. And the common theme is MLS players who played in World Cup.

"We think this makes sense and it adds a nice twist to the game."

It's a way to give the veterans a proper send-off, especially for John Harkes, who played for the National Team for 13 years and is one of the most influential players in this country's soccer history.

"John is 35 years old and I don't believe he'll be involved in qualifying (for World Cup 2006), said Arena. "It's a nice way to say 'thank you' for all he's done for MLS and the National Team program."

It's just a shame that the same opportunity can't exist for the rest of the Old Guard like Tab Ramos, Eric Wynalda and Marcelo Balboa, who are all recovering from injuries and were unavailable. Arena said that each player was invited to play regardless, as was the case with Clint Mathis, who is recovering from yet another injury sustained a few weeks back.

Don Garber calls this all-star affair a "celebration of soccer in America." That's fine, as he's on the money with his assessment.

But I'm more excited about this game because that's what is -- a game.

Let's just hope that David Stern, Gary Bettman and Bud Selig are paying attention.

Marc Connolly is a senior writer for ABC Sports Online. He can be reached at marc.connolly@abc.com.