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Thursday, July 28, 2011
Don't read too much into All-Star Game

By Leander Schaerlaeckens
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- With the dust slowly settling on last night's 4-0 All-Star Game thrashing of the MLS at the hands of Manchester United, the league wakes up this morning to the realization that things aren't as bad as they looked in the dusky haze of last night, and that it doesn't even have a hangover.

With the perspective of hindsight comes the realization that the MLS All-Stars, or all of Major League Soccer for that matter, needn't tread the walk of shame today.

First things first: This was an exhibition game. This was not a referendum on the league. Although many billed it as such, that was never a fair characterization. The All-Stars had just two days together, and only about two hours of serious training at that, to somehow glue-stick together a team with enough structural integrity to face a painstakingly assembled and precisely calibrated behemoth.

"They're players you've played against for a few months or a few years but it's the first time you're playing together," All-Star midfielder David Beckham said of his one-game teammates. "We didn't have enough time together, but that's the way it is. That's part of being in the All-Star team."

"It is a bit difficult to not be together for very much time and to try to come together and play a cohesive type of game," said defender Heath Pearce.

Yet in spite of those difficult circumstances, the All-Stars made out very well for the first 45 minutes. Before the MLS ship sank in the second half, the All-Stars had looked perhaps the savvier team. Coach Hans Backe's 4-3-3 worked remarkably well in controlling the midfield through Beckham and Brad Davis, as they sat very deep and distributed the ball to wingers Thierry Henry and Omar Cummings. "If you play Man United, normally if you play the same kind of system against them -- if you play 4-4-2 -- that's a killer because they are better individuals on perhaps every position," Backe said. "You need to do something different."

It worked. "We got a good rhythm, our possession game was phenomenal in the first half," Backe said.

That half was an advertisement for the distance MLS has come. For that half, Major League Soccer's best -- minus an injured Landon Donovan and Brek Shea, who was needed in FC Dallas's CONCACAF Champions League campaign -- were well-matched with a team that has made the final of the world's toughest club competition three out of the past four years.

"I think they did really well, the lot of them," said United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. "Particularly the first half."

Yet any score that reads 4-0 looks bad. But pick apart the game itself and you'll come to see that in the first half, the game was very even and that it wasn't until MLS started giving its other All-Stars their requisite minutes that the wheels came off and United began to dominate.

"I thought MLS as a team was more dangerous than us [in the first half]," Ferguson said. "It was a close game, and we got the goals at the right time." Indeed, United had scored in the 20th minute on a well-executed attack when MLS had had the better of the chances. And it sent a dagger-shaped ball into the net seconds before halftime. "The one before halftime put us in a comfortable position," Ferguson said. "And we were never going to lose after that."

That score was unjust. "It was obviously unfortunate us going in 2-0 at halftime, because I think that we had really good chances," Beckham said. "If we would have put one of them away it could have been different, it could have been closer."

If only the All-Stars had made more of the handful of nice chances they carved out of their superior tempo and distribution in the half, this could have been a real contest. "They took their chances, they were a little bit sharper in the attacking third," Backe said. "Otherwise we had our chances, too, to normally go in tied at halftime."

This inflated the final score, which, Beckham said, was "not embarrassing, because you're getting to one of the best teams in the world."

"Even if you lose 4-0, I must say I'm quite pleased with the performance," Backe added. "I think definitely we deserved a better result."

Still, there's a lesson to be drawn from the affair to complement the affirmation that, in soccer, the score often skews perception: There would be no need for a column explaining that one shouldn't overreact to last night's outcome if only the All-Star team would get more time to prepare to represent the league against an international powerhouse.

Backe said several times that he had to keep things simple tactically, that he could only cover "some basics" with his team, given the lack of time to prepare. If this game is to become a calling card for an emerging league, the next coach could stand to be given more time to prepare his team, to properly integrate a second string, so that the All-Stars can be competitive for an entire game, not just a half.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LeanderESPN.