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MLS, Fulham not taking All-Star Game lightly

This isn't the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. Unlike what happens at that sport's midsummer classic, home-field advantage in the 2005 MLS Cup will not be on the line come Saturday afternoon when the Major League Soccer All-Stars take on Fulham FC.

Nothing is at stake, really. Just like the scenario is for the Pro Bowl and the NBA All-Star Game -- two events that haven't registered on the Must See meter for years now. In fact, the MLS All-Star Game isn't, well, an all star game. There's not an East vs. West, a North America vs. the World, or any other gimmicky idea to try and create intrigue around the league's annual midseason festivity.

The MLS All-Stars will play together as a unit for one afternoon here at Crew Stadium and then disband, while Fulham FC will move on to yet another preseason exhibition match to prepare for their 2005-2006 season in the English Premier League. The winners won't get any additional bonus money or even a couple of autographed Bowling for Soup CDs, though they will get a trophy for their efforts.

Yet, there is something more at stake. At least there is for the MLS All-Stars. It's called pride. And not some corny, sports movie-themed, "the inches we need are everywhere around us" type of pride. But the type that has the league's best players taking this match seriously because they feel a responsibility to properly represent the true talent level of MLS and the pride they collectively feel for it. It's also why head coach Colin Clarke agonized over the selection of his replacement players a lot longer than you probably would think during the early part of the week.

In the larger scheme of things, the result from Sunday's match doesn't really matter. A 5-0 loss or a 5-0 victory won't serve as a true litmus test for how far MLS has gone or how far MLS needs to come. Just don't tell that to the players.

"We want to show how far MLS has grown and how good the players are in this league," said FC Dallas goalkeeper Scott Garlick, who will backup New England's Matt Reis on Saturday.

"Any time we can compare ourselves with good teams around the world, it's great for the league and exciting for the players," said Kansas City Wizards center back Jimmy Conrad.

It's a showcase for the players as individuals since so many have aspirations to play in what many consider to be the world's top league and join former MLS standouts like Carlos Bocanegra, Brad Friedel, Tim Howard, Brian McBride and Ryan Nelsen. In addition, the players also want to showcase the talent level of a league that is now in its 10th season of play.

"As MLS players, we are going to want to prove ourselves against a very good English team," said Colorado Rapids striker Jeff Cunningham, "as well as them not wanting to lose to us."

The last thing Fulham needs is another loss on this trip. Losing to the Columbus Crew 2-1 in a closed-door scrimmage on Wednesday night was not exactly what Whites manager Chris Coleman wanted out of his side that only has an additional two weeks to prepare for its opening day match in the EPL against Birmingham City.

Not only are many of the Fulham players, including former Columbus Crew star Brian McBride, fighting for starting positions, but they also do not want to let their own league down with a poor showing.

"The leagues care," said Los Angeles Galaxy playmaker Landon Donovan. "We learned that against Chivas two years ago. They were just as competitive as we were about the game."

In that match against CD Guadalajara in August 2003, the MLS All-Stars got goals from Ante Razov, Carlos Ruiz and DaMarcus Beasley in the second half to win by a score of 3-1. There were smiles throughout the day on the field and fun was had, yet it did not feel like an all-star game that afternoon. It was more like an international friendly between two national teams or a pair of top clubs.

That's exactly what should be expected once again this time around.

"When we played Chivas, it wasn't just some fun all-star match," said New England Revolution striker Taylor Twellman, who started up top with Clint Mathis in that game. "It was competitive. And at the end of the day, we wanted to win. In the first half, it was a bit of a feeling out process, but in the second half we gelled and really played hard. The result meant something."

In the heels of Los Angeles Galaxy's 2-0 loss to Real Madrid last week, the Chicago Fire's hard-luck 3-1 loss to AC Milan on Wednesday night and D.C. United's strong showing in a 2-1 loss to Chelsea, Saturday's match represents another chance to continue to showcase MLS.

"This is going to be a big one," said Clarke, who called in New England Revolution center back Michael Parkhurst to replace Los Angeles Galaxy defender Tyrone Marshall. "It'll be very important that we get a result."

Clarke's roster isn't in the shape that he'd like it to be since his own striker, Eddie Johnson, will not be able to start up top due to a lingering toe injury. He also will not have the services of MetroStars midfielder Amado Guevara, Real Salt Lake defender Eddie Pope and New England Revolution striker Pat Noonan, all due to injuries.

Fortunately, Don Garber made two good selections with his "Commissioner Picks" by selecting Twellman and D.C. United attacking midfielder Christian Gomez instead of going with sentimental selections -- Preki comes to mind -- that might not have helped the MLS side too much in the actual match.

Just as Bruce Arena did with the U.S. national team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup over the past month, Clarke will look to players like Donovan, Conrad and midfielder Clint Dempsey to lead from the outset of the match. The competitiveness that those players, in particular, bring to a match will set the tone.

"No matter how many games we've all played in lately or how quickly we've had to be thrown together," said Donovan after a short training session on Thursday afternoon, "I know that when we get onto the field, we're going to play to win."

Competitive. Playing to win. Something to prove.

Yep, this won't be your average All-Star Game.

Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at marc@oakwoodsoccer.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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