All-Star: Oral history of the 2006 MLS ASG vs Chelsea

They were arguably the greatest Chelsea team of the last decade.

And that's not to disrespect the 2011-12 squad that won both the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League, but José Mourinho’s side in 2005-06 was as talented and efficient as it was rare.

The Blues had just won back-to-back English Premier League titles their first two in club history and had just signed on two of the world’s best players at the time, Germany’s Michael Ballack and Ukraine’s Andriy Shevchenko. They had players like Arjen Robben, William Gallas, Damien Duff, Claude Makelélé, Joe Cole and Hernán Crespo. The list goes on.

Behind leading goal scorers Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba both of whom were in the Top 10 in tallies Chelsea led the EPL in scoring with 72. And their 0.58 goals-against average was tops in the league as well.

There are certain things that are hard to overstate, and just how good Chelsea were in the summer of 2006 is one of them.

(Note: Players' team names reflect club for which they played during the 2006 season.)

PART I: “I wrote a preview for the game and I can remember getting emails from fans saying how dare I even suggest that the All-Stars could even hang with Chelsea.”
– Jeff Carlisle, ESPN.com

Alexi Lalas (ESPN): When the players realized and found out it was going to be Chelsea, with all due respect to Chivas Guadalajara and Fulham, I think this was a dramatic step up in competition.

Doug McIntyre (ESPN The Magazine): [Chelsea] were definitely the highest profile team they played. The game against Chelsea was the first time the MLS All-Stars had played a world class team, and Chelsea were the reigning Premier League Champions at the time.

Brian Straus (Sporting News): Even though it was the third time that the game was played under that format, it really felt like a coming out party.

Troy Perkins (D.C. United): At that time, a lot of European teams and countries thought the US was a hack league, wasn’t anything serious.

Jeff Carlisle (ESPN.com): I wrote a preview for the game and I can remember getting emails from fans saying how dare I even suggest that the All-Stars could even hang with Chelsea.

Straus: We were about a month out from a disastrous World Cup for the US. I think it was still a chance for people who weren’t so happy with the way the World Cup went to say, ‘OK, let’s see what our league can do.’

Carlisle: I think people were eager to see if the All-Stars could give the US player’s reputation a shot in the arm.

McIntyre: It was at a time when they needed it.

Grant Wahl (Sports Illustrated): The MLS players, in particular, were feeling like this was an important game. To look good themselves, to make the league look good, against a team like Chelsea that were really taking off under José Mourinho (right).

Jimmy Conrad (Kansas City Wizards): Anytime we have a chance to play any kind of foreign teams it is a good opportunity for us as players to represent the whole league and show that we’re growing and we’re getting better. Chelsea was the first real big opponent ... they are on another level.

Bobby Boswell (D.C. United): We were aware that they were a great team and they had just finished their EPL season, and we knew that they were going to be a tough team to play against. But you represent your league, your team, your family.

If the MLS All-Stars were to have any shot at taking down the two-time defending English Premier League Champions, they were going to need some extra motivation and discipline. Head coach Peter Nowak supplied just that.

Peter Nowak (head coach, MLS All-Stars): In the three days we spent together, there was a lot of talking about soccer, about improving our league, improving our players. I think it was very helpful to get the group together. It was about us going in the right direction as a league.

Carlisle: I was talking to Bobby Boswell afterwards, and he talked about how when the players all went to Chicago, Nowak (right) gathered them around and told them to treat this like business and not a vacation. It really set the right tone.

Conrad: He takes things very, very seriously. I’ve come off a few All-Star games where things were a little more loose, and I totally missed the memo that we were supposed to wear all of our team stuff to meetings. That’s the way Peter Nowak approached the game.

In one of the practice sessions leading up to the game, Nowak’s notorious intensity was put to the test.

Nowak: I’m making a two minute speech about who we are, who we represent, who they are, what they represent, and making sure we were going to be on top of it.

Joe Cannon (Colorado Rapids): Coach Nowak [was saying] there were no miracles in soccer.

Boswell: Right in the middle of Peter’s speech, Joe Cannon had his cell phone on and it was some girl pop singer’s ringtone and it started ringing and he acted like he didn’t know whose phone it was. I thought Peter’s head was going to explode.

Cannon: Everyone just laughed. The guys really liked the jingle.

Boswell: No one knew what to do because Peter was so serious but even he started laughing. That was one of the best parts of the whole thing, that one moment that kind of brought everyone back down to earth.

Nowak: That was probably my shortest speech ever.
 

––-
 

Part II: “I think the way they came out and the way we came out, it was going to be a competitive match.”
– Troy Perkins, starting goalkeeper

McIntyre: On the day of the game, there were lots of Chelsea jerseys, lots of international jerseys.

Carlisle: There were a lot of chants of ‘Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea’ in the first half.

Conrad: We went out in a 3-5-2, which was something Nowak was doing at the time with D.C. United and I thought it worked. We unbalanced them a little bit.

Straus: I think Peter Nowak was smart that day. He picked a lot of guys from his own team. He chose a lot of D.C. United guys that were familiar with each other than could really form a backbone.

Boswell: I think we had six or seven D.C. players that year. That was an advantage because we had guys who had a lot more experience with other guys on the field.

Conrad: I think [Chelsea] thought the game was going to be a little easier than it was.

When the game began, Chelsea were enjoying all sorts of opportunities offensively and seemed bound to get on the scoresheet quickly.

Conrad: They were pressuring us to see how we could handle a little bit of pressure and to see how much poise that we had. They drove us back a little bit.

Perkins: I think the way they came out and the way we came out, it was going to be a competitive match.

Boswell: It wasn’t like we came out there and they got on top of us and we were shellshocked, we knew there were going to be times when they were going to be dangerous in the run of play. Even if they scored a goal, we didn’t want to get too flustered against a team that could score more on you.

Conrad: We ended up making a pass or two that released pressure, and once you show the other team that you can do that they back off, and drop off five or 10 yards. Once we broke that early pressure, we started to settle in and connect some passes.

Carlisle: As the game went on, the crowd starting booing a little bit. There were a lot more chants of ‘USA, USA.’

Boswell: In a game like that, the longer you go without giving up a goal, I think the better off you are.

McIntyre: As the game went on it was scoreless at halftime, and then into the second half it’s still scoreless.

The teams entered the dressing rooms after the first 45 minutes still deadlocked. The MLS All-Stars had bent but not broken, and that trend would take a wild turn in the second stanza.
 

––-
 

Part III: When something like that happens, everyone’s wheels start turning. Without getting ahead of yourself, you said, ‘This is going to be interesting.’”
– Alexi Lalas, ESPN

McIntyre: Landon Donovan didn’t play in that game, Clint Dempsey didn’t play in that game ... it wasn’t even the best team MLS could have put out.

Conrad: [But then] Dwayne comes in and does what Dwayne does.

Wahl: The goal that De Rosario scored was world class.

Carlisle: That was a goal that only De Rosario could have scored.

Conrad: It was a great shot, and he has an incredible flair for the dramatic. I don’t know if I could have picked anybody else to score a goal in that situation.

Lalas: When something like that happens, everyone’s wheels start turning. Without getting ahead of yourself, you said, ‘This is going to be interesting.’

McIntyre: The interesting thing was that the fans really started to get behind the underdog. The place went nuts when DeRo scored.

WATCH: De Rosario nets the eventual game-winner

Straus: That was just a classic DeRo moment. It was a great way to define that game on a piece of pure skill by a uniquely MLS player. He’s one of the two or three best players in league history.

Dwayne De Rosario (Houston Dynamo): I had a lot going through my head, but at the time, I was just in the moment. I got the ball from [Ronnie] O’Brien, I turned, saw a little space, someone was pressuring me from behind, I took a touch and hit it. I didn’t second-guess myself.

Conrad: There was a sense of pride at that point. [Chelsea] knew, especially by the 70th minute, that we were trying to prove ourselves to them and to a lot of other people. With that kind of energy, and having gotten the goal to give us the boost, it was just a matter of seeing it out.
 

––-
 

Part IV: “The first thing Dwayne De Rosario said when asked about the standard of play in MLS was, ‘Well, we beat Chelsea last summer.’ It resonates.”
– Doug McIntyre, ESPN The Magazine

De Rosario: We were really shocked, and after the game we said, ‘Oh, we did win.’

Boswell: It’s not the chances that you create, it’s the ones you finish. The way the game went that day, we got the win because we finished our chance and they didn’t.

Lalas: We’d been fighting the good fight for a long time. Whether it’s on or off the field, the people involved in MLS are constantly having to battle against perception versus reality.

Carlisle: No one was going to argue that the MLS was better than the Premier League or anything like that, but it picked things up a notch on the respect meter.

McIntyre: You can say what you want, yes, they were in the preseason ... but to be able to beat them, and shut them out, no less, considering the amount of talent and money Chelsea have at their disposal, coming off two Premier League crowns in a row, I think it opened a lot of people’s eyes, particularly mainstream sports fans, that maybe they should give this league a chance.

Conrad: There are a lot of Euro-snobs over here in the States, who only follow the English Premier League, and it was a chance for us to maybe silence those critics. Not that we needed to win them over completely, but just to show us some respect.

McIntyre: I did a piece for [ESPN the Magazine] a year later in 2007 on what the mainstream sports fan should know about MLS. The first thing Dwayne De Rosario said when asked about the standard of play in MLS was, ‘well, we beat Chelsea last summer.’ It resonates.

Brian Ching (Houston Dynamo): To beat those guys, regardless, they’re in preseason I understand that, but it was a pretty special moment because all of America is watching and paying attention. We went out there and put in a good performance against a really good side.

Lalas: [The result] didn’t change everything, but it was a wonderful message that MLS has quality and on any given day, things like this can happen.

Straus: [I remember] what a curmudgeon José Mourinho was [after the match]. He legitimately looked upset about losing. You could tell it irked him that he lost to MLS.

McIntyre: José Mourinho was not happy ... that’s probably my lasting memory. In his press conference afterwards, he actually complained about some of the time-wasting tactics that the MLS players employed because they wanted to win.

Boswell: We were up for the challenge. Even though they played on one of the best teams in the world, it didn’t necessarily mean they were going to have their way with us. That was our mentality and it worked for us on that day.

Wahl: I don’t want to oversell it ... but it was a good day for soccer in America.