All-Star Game's endearing appeal
PHILADELPHIA -- Despite the fact that Wednesday night's MLS All-Star Game between the league's best XI and Chelsea FC will be the 17th showpiece in league history, the whole affair remains endearingly curious to watch. Not the game itself -- American sports have a tradition of showpiece occasions in which the best in the field get to kick back, have fun and put on a show -- but the various incongruities in the teams involved. Things such as timing, the divergent goals and aspirations for each squad plus their smoldering competitive natures converge to create a compelling match, one that neither side would relish losing.
Since MLS took a more global view in its annual celebration and began inviting overseas teams -- with one notable format switch back to the East-versus-West format in 2004 -- to compete against the league's best, the popularity (and sellout crowds) of the occasion has been a mainstay. The past two years featured Manchester United, while Chelsea returns this time, surely cognizant of its 1-0 defeat to the All-Stars in 2006. But the Blues are also coming off a phenomenal end-of-season run that yielded an FA Cup and heroic Champions League victory.
And therein lies the first jarring difference: timing. While the MLS collective is in full midseason swoon and fitness, Roberto Di Matteo's Chelsea is still trying to find its summer sea legs ahead of what will surely be another grueling European season. Careful tracking of minutes is a concern. Rotation, another. The lingering specter of heavy legs following Euro 2012 also matters as the squad steadily lurches back into life.
Against Seattle this past week, the Blues looked bullish and full of skill given that all of their goal scorers in the 4-2 win -- Romelu Lukaku, Marko Marin and Eden Hazard -- were either new signings or yet to stake a solid claim in the first-team squad. But the defense still looked confused and distracted against both the Sounders and Paris St. Germain, far from the telepathic hum that will be needed when the Premier League season begins next month.
This disconnect means it's vital that the likes of Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel, both present for Tuesday's news conference, are focused. "We want to get to a stage where we're ready to start our season," said Lampard, all too aware of the uptick in MLS quality and competitive spirit. "Back home, we can watch an MLS game or two every weekend. We're taking notice."
So while Chelsea is hoping to continue a preseason run that has been equal parts shaky and majestic, the MLS effort is arguably three-fold in response: prove a point against another all-world European team; embrace the honor of representing an evolving and impressive league; and also keep an eye on staying fit for the second half of an entertaining domestic season.
Even more reason for Chelsea not to take the game lightly. Since the format switched to U.S. versus the world, MLS is 6-2-1 in these exhibitions. That it has been beaten by Manchester United in the past two seasons (an aggregate score of 9-2) isn't overlooked by the proverbial home team.
"It's an opportunity for us to showcase our talent across the world," said All-Star captain and D.C. United standout Dwayne De Rosario. "That we played them and beat [Chelsea in 2006] raised the profile and raised eyebrows." He went on to note that it's not often you also get to play a Champions League winner.
And De Rosario's squad will need little added motivation lining up against the Blues now that the likes of Hazard and Marko Marin have joined a squad featuring John Terry, Juan Mata and Lampard.
"I don't think I need to tell anyone what to do. The game creates the environment," said De Rosario, a seven-time All-Star who still covets each selection no matter how many he accrues. "When we're all in front of the fans tomorrow; game faces will be on and guys will be focused."
It's doubtful those Chelsea players featured in the 1-0 defeat in 2006 are focused on revenge, but rather keeping Di Matteo's grand experiment on track. "What's most important is what we do ourselves," said the Blues' manager, whose permanent deal has given him the bandwidth to revolutionize his squad.
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"Though it is a preseason [game] for us, it is an important game," noted Di Matteo, and despite the match falling on a MLS "break," the ingredients are there for another memorable night against a top-shelf opponent.
As for MLS, will game sharpness and physical fitness be defining factors? Or will Chelsea's star power reign supreme?
Said De Rosario about the All-Star Game: "I don't think it's really to prove anything. Yes, Chelsea is in preseason, but they wanna win as well and they wanna continue winning. That's something that's also in our nature. We don't like losing."
Praise for Coach Olsen: The All-Star team is obviously rich with emerging talent like Graham Zusi and Aurelien Collin along with globally recognized stars like Thierry Henry and David Beckham, but spare some applause for the man picked to stalk the sidelines.
D.C. United's Ben Olsen was picked to manage the side, a recognition of his brilliant work in just eighteen months on the job. Since taking over from Curt Onalfo in mid-August of last season, one of MLS's original clubs has rebounded from mediocrity to run near the front of the pack in the Eastern Conference. Though it took a two-game losing streak into the All-Star break, United's 7-2-1 home form is all down to Olsen's work.
De Rosario was glad to see his club coach at the helm. "He's a guy that has committed himself to the growth of this sport across America," said the All-Star captain of Olsen. "I know he's very humble about it, but us players are very pleased for him because we don't see anyone else as deserving."
Working with Olsen seemed to inspire De Rosario, particularly regarding a desire to coach in the future. "If I was to stand here and say it didn't, I'd be lying," he noted. "Coaching is obviously a part that I really enjoy, how to get the best out of individuals and also develop young talent." Given the resurgence of D.C. under Olsen and his assertive, nurturing approach to coaching, it's easy to see where the appeal lies.
James Tyler is an editor for ESPN Soccer. He can be found on Twitter at @JamesTylerESPN.
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