Breakdown: MLS vs. Fulham FC
We know that Brian McBride will be both starting and wearing the captain's armband for Fulham on Saturday afternoon.
We also know that Colin Clarke will be putting out a starting team with difference makers like Landon Donovan and Carlos Ruiz, among eight guarantees in his starting lineup after being voted into the 2005 MLS All-Star Game.
Other than that, this game is a complete toss-up. Since no other MLS All-Star team has played an English side, there's nothing to look back on for reference. Do you take into consideration that Fulham lost to the Columbus Crew 2-1 on Wednesday night? Or, would you place more emphasis on the fact that there are several tired bodies from the U.S. national team who'll be playing for the MLS All-Stars?
There's no easy answers. And in a week that saw rookies Chris Rolfe and Bobby Boswell score against, a-hem, AC Milan and Chelsea on consecutive evenings, it makes anything seem possible.
The best way to look at Saturday's match is to break down the game not in a futbol manner, but in true football style.
When Fulham has the ball ...
The name that has flowed off the lips of the MLS players has been that of Luis Boa Morte. The quick, left-sided player will likely be the one that gives the MLS All-Stars the most fits. The more that Fulham possesses the ball, the more Boa Morte will roam into a left wing type of position in the same way that DaMarcus Beasley used to with the Chicago Fire. It'll be the responsibility of Los Angeles Galaxy right back Chris Albright to slow him down, which will likely keep the attacking-minded defender more at home than not.
Boa Morte will not be the main personality in Fulham's attack, though. That player will be Claus Jensen. The Danish international will be the one that holding midfielder Sylvain Legwinski looks for whenever he wins a ball at midfield or receives a pass from one of his team's four backs. After tearing his hamstring last season and therefore missing most of the 2004-2005 campaign, the creative midfielder is poised for a strong season. For now, though, he'll be New England Revolution midfielder Shalrie Joseph's problem. The powerful holding midfielder will have to keep from diving in and display the type of discipline and savvy that has helped develop him into one of the league's best in a relatively short period of time.
Jensen will have a bevy of options. He can always play out wide to Boa Morte and do the same thing on the right side when Collins John is in the match since the Dutch international might or might not start as a front-runner. More than likely, Canadian international Tomasz Radzinski will get the nod up top. That being the case, he'll be the underneath guy who Jensen can combine with and find between various seams in the U.S. back four.
As U.S. fans know all too well, McBride is a major presence up top as a target striker. The Columbus Crew's all-time leading scorer wins nearly every ball played to him from out of the back, as well as the ones he encounters in the box off of serves from the flanks and free kick opportunities. Having McBride in the lineup gives Fulham manager Chris Coleman several options as to how his team goes about their game plan.
"We have a lot of strong physical guys, but (Coleman) also brought in technical players," said former Chicago Fire standout Carlos Bocanegra. "We can play a few different ways because we have guys who offer different elements. We have Brian and some other guys who are big, strong and physical, like horses basically."
No one has ever called Kansas City Wizards defender Jimmy Conrad a horse, but he's one of the stronger center backs in MLS and is not afraid to mix it up. Defending against McBride will likely fall on his shoulders more so than Greg Vanney, who gives up three inches to his teammate on the U.S. national team.
Since Coleman is currently looking for the right combination up top, expect to see both John and Heider Helguson on the field at the same time. If that's the case, Helguson will assume McBride's target role, while John will play off of him and likely drift to the right side as much as he can to find space to work with. Columbus Crew defender Frankie Hejduk will spend much of his afternoon watching either Radzinski or John, as well as right-sided midfielder Steed Malbranque, who scored three goals in his side's last three games to end the 2004-2005 season.
When the MLS All-Stars have the ball ...
Just as it is with the U.S. national team, Landon Donovan will be the go-to guy for the MLS stars. In this case, he'll be surrounded by some weapons, mainly the FC Dallas duo of midfielder Ronnie O'Brien and striker Carlos Ruiz. The Los Angeles Galaxy playmaker has had a hectic schedule as of late due to the month he spent with the national team for the CONCACAF Gold Cup as well as the quick turnaround from playing on Wednesday night in Foxborough, Mass., against the Revolution.
However, these are the types of games that Donovan thrives on. And as the poster boy for MLS, he'll be expected to produce. What should help him is the fact that Joseph will be playing behind him in a holding role. The two-time all-star will be relied upon to quickly move the ball in transition and get it into either Donovan, teammate Clint Dempsey on the left or O'Brien on the right.
There is a chance Donovan could fill that playmaking role as an underneath striker, with Ruiz or Taylor Twellman alone up top. That could see FC Dallas midfielder Simo Valakari slot in alongside Joseph deeper in the midfield with the idea of winning the ball and pushing it forward.
Clarke will likely give Dempsey some freedom to make runs into the middle since he'll have Hejduk behind him filling in the space on the left side of the field. That also may allow for Donovan to stay higher as an attacker and clog the middle in order to limit the play of both Jensen and Legwinski.
Where the MLS All-Stars might be able to find some success is down the right flank, particularly is Boa Morte gets caught up the field. O'Brien might find himself in an interesting matchup with Denmark international Niclas Jensen, who just recently signed a two-year deal with the Whites from Borussia Dortmund. If O'Brien is able to serve in the type of quality balls that he's been known to unleash from the right flank in Dallas, it'll allow for Twellman to get some looks in the box. The high-scoring Revolution striker thrives on getting his head on driven balls, usually at the near post, and could end up being a favorite target for O'Brien.
Unfortunately for the MLS All-Stars, they'll have to deal with 6-foot-6 centerback Zat Knight, who gets to most balls in the area. The tallest defender in the Premiership will likely mark up Ruiz as Donovan will be playing a bit more underneath and looking to run on to through balls from the midfield, or keying on Ruiz with Twellman on the field for the same reason. If Bocanegra starts alongside of Knight, then the MLS All-Stars will surely try and use their quickness to break down the back four. That'll especially be the case later in the match once Jeff Cunningham enters the match.
It'll be important for the MLS side to be quick when counterattacking. Even though players like Donovan, Dempsey and Conrad are coming off of an intense schedule, the Fulham side has been going through two-a-days recently and just played a full match on Wednesday night. When countering, it's imperative that either Albright or Hejduk joins into the attack to give the MLS All-Stars numbers going forward. What helps ensure this is the fact that all four players in the back have played together in the past for the national team.
"We know each other well and know how to communicate together on the field," said Albright. "We should be cohesive in the back starting with Reis in the goal. And in a game like this, that's most important."
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at email@example.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.