The Throw-In: CCL performance just as important as All-Star

HOUSTON – I’m exhausted and a bit dazed trying to make sense of what happened on Wednesday at Reliant Stadium.

What does the MLS All-Star team’s 5-2 loss to Manchester United mean in the grander scheme? What does it say about that continuously debated topic of topics, how far the game and the league here in the US have come?

First of all, I think we all need to calm down. The answer is, not as much as you think – and then probably a lot more than you realize.

This is the All-Star Game we’re talking about. It’s engineered to be a spectacle – and a grand one at that. The seven-year-old experiment of having one star-studded MLS team face off against a touring foreign club is still a delectable idea, and Commissioner Don Garber told reporters the format is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that Manchester United’s participation – at a huge NFL venue in a soccer-savvy city – were why Wednesday night’s match was the fourth-best attended all-star game ever in any American sports league.

Plenty of the 70,728 in the building would have told you they weren’t there to see if the MLS All-Stars could win the game (though granted, that sure would have been cool) – they were there to see the cavalcade of superstars on the Red Devils roster, and to be highly entertained. (Let’s be honest: Win or lose, seven combined goals is pretty damned entertaining.)

And yes, this was the MLS All-Stars’ worst loss since the game was switched to this format. But there’s just a little different feel when you’re playing Manchester United, isn’t there? No offense to Celtic, Everton, West Ham, Fulham, Chivas de Guadalajara – even Chelsea. The level of mystique is just a little higher when it’s Man. United. Not to mention that Sir Alex Ferguson’s men clearly had a chip on their shoulder after being upended last weekend by Kansas City.

Does this mean MLS still isn’t ready to tangle with the biggest of the big boys? No, not really. Let’s not forget, All-Star teams – no matter the level of talent – get less than a week of time to practice together, aren’t used to playing together and routinely line up in different positions.

So in a way, the bigger surprise is that MLS has held its own so well in six prior years, winning all but last summer’s matchup with Tim Howard and Everton (which the All-Stars lost on PKs). Face it, we’ve been a little spoiled given MLS’ run of success in these games. We were bound to take a beating sooner or later.

To boot, factor in the bizarro world feel at this year’s game. The squad’s head coach, Bruce Arena, only arrived here on game day and wasn’t able to run a single training session. A third of the squad wasn’t even in camp until Tuesday.

“It was a very peculiar All-Star [Game],” three-time participant Juan Pablo Angel admitted to MLSsoccer.com after the match. “Everything was a little bit different than it normally is.”

Then add the carnage of the Galaxy’s embarrassing loss at home to the Puerto Rico Islanders in CONCACAF Champions League qualifying on Tuesday night, which prevented Arena and Los Angeles’ four All-Star reps from arriving in Houston until 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday.

That’s the main takeaway: Don’t focus too much on the final result. A team of Manchester United’s stature is supposed to beat anyone at any time, preseason or no. And there were plenty of positives in the game itself, as my colleague Greg Lalas writes here.

The fact that MLS got United to agree to book the date? To me, that’s the bigger sign of our league’s growth in stature. Let’s not forget that we’ve also got more than a dozen European and Latin clubs touring all over the US and Canada this summer.

On its own, not so rare – that’s been going on for more than 15 years. What is different these days, however, is that these clubs now find it more or less mandatory to book friendlies against MLS teams on the calendar instead of just playing each other.

So where’s the negative? Well, the bad part wasn’t going on in Houston. It’s hard to wax philosophical about how far the league has come during an international exhibition game when, literally simultaneously, MLS is walking a very dangerous road in the competition where it has a real chance to make strides: the CONCACAF Champions League.

All three MLS teams who participated in first-leg qualifiers this past week blew big chances and made their work in the second legs that much harder – and they’ll be the first to admit it. The Galaxy, of course, must win by four goals in Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, Toronto and Seattle sweated more than they should have in respective 1-0 victories against Honduran and Salvadoran teams.

Forget figuring out how to beat a Mexican team in Mexico for the first time ever. MLS is in real danger of sending only two clubs to the group stage of the tournament. To me, that represents epic disaster.

MLS cannot claim to be any kind of giant until it first routinely dominates its own region – even the Commissioner admits that. International respect is best earned when you prove you are the biggest fish in your pond. Then you can start taking on more challenges.

“I believe we’ve got to win these games,” Garber said Wednesday night. “We’ve got to win the Champions League, we’ve got to get our clubs playing toe-to-toe against Mexican [clubs]. We’ve got to hope to someday be one of the best leagues – if not the best league – in the region.”

And right now, while we’re all loving the fact that we get the likes of Manchester United to play in our All-Star Game, it diminishes that achievement just a bit when the Galaxy don’t take a D2 club seriously. Or when Toronto and Seattle know they’ll have to sweat it out – figuratively and literally – in tough road games in Central America just to move on.

Garber says the league is looking at ways to both enable and encourage teams to compete better in the CCL, and from expanding rosters to working with CONCACAF on scheduling. Somewhere down the line, this needs to be as important, if not more so, than booking a sexy All-Star opponent.

Isidro Metapán is no Manchester United. But maybe it’s time we start looking at them the same way. That’s how we’ll measure respect.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.