a.k.a. homeland of the Cheap Seater -- wins the European Championship. Then Keira Knightly plays a bad-ass bikini-clad Guinevere (The Morte D'Arthur, be damned!). And now the big MLS All-Star blowout extravaganza is upon us. If Dio suddenly went on tour, this would go down as the greatest month since November 1998 when I met this girl in Amsterdam and ... well, never mind.
Truth be told (my editors love it when I start sentences that way), I'm not nearly as excited about the actual All-Star Game as I am about the MLS Legends game. I've never understood All-Star games. I just can't get psyched up for a made-for-TV exhibition where talented players go through the paces while trying not to get hurt. Maybe that's just me. Intersquad scrimmages among the benchwarmers are more competitive (unlike All-Star games, I have plenty of experience with these kind of games).
On the other hand, this weekend's 'Celebration' (though I think of it as 'Legends') match is arguably the most important game in MLS's nascent history. This is the litmus test. No matter what anyone tells you, this is certainly not an attempt by the league to capitalize on the '94 World Cup team's lingering star power, and is most definitely not an indictment of the league's current personality shortage: After all, now that Troy Dayak is celebrating red cards with such panache and newcomer Danny Szetela is giving those scintillating interviews, I'm sure the TV ratings are going to jump off the charts.
But, trust me, the Legends game is not merely an old-timers' match. This is an on-the-field progress report on how the league is doing in its professed effort to raise the level of soccer in America. Forget all that nonsense about the quarterfinals appearance at the 2002 World Cup. Those were different players, so it was a relative scale. There's nothing like direct comparison to see how far we've really come. With all the major parts of the 1994 World Cup team reunited to take on the world again, we can finally compare directly between then and now. We'll see if we've gotten anywhere, if all the blood, sweat, tears, and $250 million-plus losses have been worth it, if this league has really improved the quality of the American player. Because if Marcelo Balboa can't convert every single one of his bicycle kicks, we've failed. If Mike Burns hasn't learned how to use his left foot, we've failed. If Cle Kooiman is still sporting a mullet, we've failed. Oh yeah, we've failed big time if that's the case.
Anyway, here's how the two squads match up going into this epic contest:
USA: Eric Wynalda, Frank Klopas
World: Raul Diaz Arce, Carlos Hermosillo, Mo Johnston, Giovanni Savarese
In my one and only MLS start, against San Jose back in 1996, I absolutely neutralized the great Eric Wynalda. I hounded him, dominated him, ate him up and spit him back out. I think at one point in the second half, he got so frustrated he kicked me as hard as he could. It was the only shot he had all game. No matter how many times Waldo reminds me that he played in the World Cup and the Bundesliga, I never get sick of that story. (It's the only one I've got.) Anyway, I never dominated Diaz Arce, Hermosillo, Savarese, or Johnston, although I think I held my own with Mo in a bar once. Without Earnie Stewart, the true hero of the '94 World Cup team, the U.S. is in trouble up top. Advantage: World.
USA: Thomas Dooley, John Harkes, Cobi Jones, Hugo Perez, Tab Ramos, Mike Sorber
World: Mauricio Cienfuegos, Marco Etcheverry, Peter Nowak, Mauricio Ramos, Carlos Valderrama, Robert Warzycha
On paper, this looks like a no-brainer. After all, the World team has five No. 10s. Literally. Cienfuegos, Etcheverry, Nowak, Ramos, and Valderrama are all going to wear the No. 10 on their jerseys. Problem is that a team with five No. 10s is as oxymoronic as a band with multiple lead singers (the exception being Anthrax, of course). Within five minutes, it disintegrates into a primordial soup of pouting ballhogs, even when facing the likes of Dooley, who is now 67 years old, and Ramos, who finally solved his chronic knee problems by chopping off his left leg. Plus, No. 10s notoriously don't play defense, so maybe John Harkes' dribbling moves will work better than his jokes on "MLS Wrap." (Sorry, Harkesy.) Advantage: Push
USA: Marcelo Balboa, Mike Burns, Paul Caligiuri, Fernando Clavijo, Cle Kooiman, Alexi Lalas
World: Richard Gough, Martin Vasquez, Frank Yallop
Like it or not, U.S. soccer owes much of its success to hair. Celo's locks, Alexi's goatee, Cle's mullet, and Caligiuri's shampoo-ad-perfect coif did more for soccer in this country than any of Eric Wynalda's goals. (Burns' receding crewcut brought in the traveling salesman demographic.) But back in '94, the U.S. defense was strong, fearless and cohesive. Today, they're muckity-mucks in the soccer world -- GMs, national team coaches, team administrators. Still, you can take the Celo out of the tackle, but you can't take the tackle of out the Celo. The World team boasts a lad more comfortable in a Scottish kilt, a Canadian national team coach, and an American who became a Mexican and then became an American again but will be considered a Mexican for this match. Sounds like a WTO meeting gone horribly wrong. Advantage: USA
USA: Tony Meola, Juergen Sommer
World: Jorge Campos
Goalkeepers are like fine wine: They get better with age, e.g. Tony Meola, who is having a terrific season. Jorge Campos, however, is like a bottle of mescal -- loco. Advantage: USA
World: Michael Emenalo
This guy's name appeared on the press release, but heck if I know who he is.
The World's coach is American (Bruce Arena) and the US coach is Serbian (Bora Milutinovic). Go figure. Bruce won two MLS Cups and guided the U.S. team to the quarterfinals. Bora presided over the worst team in MLS history (1999 MetroStars) and has a reputation for getting mediocre teams into the World Cup, where they promptly crash out. Advantage: Push
Mortal Lock: If I'm right, Tino, I want this to count. US over the World.
Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views and opinions expressed in this column views and opinions are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.