The MLS All-Star squad's formation during Friday's training session may have been a clue to how they will line up against English Premier League side Fulham FC for Saturday's Sierra Mist MLS All-Star Game, but MLS coach Colin Clarke isn't tipping his hand.
"I can't give you my starting 11," he said, revealing only how serious he takes Saturday's match. "You've already got eight of them."
Guaranteed to start are goalkeeper Matt Reis, defenders Greg Vanney and Jimmy Conrad, midfielders Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Ronnie O'Brien and Shalrie Joseph and forward Carlos Ruiz. In a brief drill, the team fielded what could have been Clarke's first-choice team in a 4-4-2 lineup. Though the original starting lineup was listed as a 3-5-2, Clarke would be allowed to make a switch because of elected starter Amado Guevara's absence, the FC Dallas coach simply bringing on a defender in the Honduran playmaker's place.
At the back for Friday's training session, Vanney and Conrad were in central defense, flanked by Chris Albright on the right and Frankie Hejduk on the left. With Ruiz out of training on Friday, Donovan moved up to the front line alongside Taylor Twellman and Simo Valakari slotted into the central midfield alongside Joseph. Dempsey and O'Brien took up positions on the left and right, respectively, in the midfield. With Ruiz due to start, Clarke could shift Donovan to the left side and pair Joseph and Dempsey in the middle or leave Dempsey on the left and use Donovan as an attacking midfielder.
After practice, Clarke said he's impressed with the players he has, especially in light of the crowded schedule they've had to deal with recently.
"We're still trying to get our legs back. It's been a hard couple of weeks on the boys, with the Gold Cup and one thing or another, but they look sharp," Clarke said. "I think they're having fun and they're looking forward to the game."
Target on McBride's back?: The consensus among the MLS All-Stars is that Saturday's match should be a competitive affair. Also, the home side can't wait to get their hands on Fulham -- and former Columbus Crew -- forward Brian McBride.
"I'll have fun playing against Brian tomorrow," said FC Dallas' Vanney, who played against McBride from 1996-2001 while with the Los Angeles Galaxy. "It's been a long time since we've had a go at each other."
Added Kansas City Wizards' Conrad: "I'm aware of what he can and can't do, as opposed to some of the other guys. At least I know what Brian's strengths and weaknesses are, and the same with Carlos (Bocanegra).
"There will be some joking at the start, but once the game gets rolling, I think it's business."
The Galaxy's Donovan is hot on McBride's heels in the goal-scoring column for the U.S. national team. He said McBride's excitement about playing the All-Star match in Columbus has been obvious in recent national team camps, though McBride hasn't talked much about it. Donovan also recognizes the importance of this match for the Illinois native's shot at a starting role with his southwest London club.
"He has a good chance now to get in the team and stay in the team," Donovan said. "He played really well at the end of last year after not playing hardly at all, and it's going to be a good chance."
O'Brien keeps it light: If any player knows how to enjoy himself at an event like the MLS All-Star Game, it's FC Dallas' O'Brien. With Friday's training session all but over and players clustering to pass a ball around or talk, O'Brien took a series of 30-yard shots on a goal defended by Colorado Rapids forward Jeff Cunningham.
O'Brien rattled several shots off the woodwork and tried to chip the diminutive striker, who scrambled backward to tip away the shot that seemed destined for the upper corner. At one point O'Brien declared, "I've been known," to hit such long-range blasts.
"Give me a bag of balls and put somebody in goal, and I'm the happiest player in the world," O'Brien said. "The boys are pretty light-hearted, yesterday and today. Tomorrow's the important thing."
After taking care of business against Fulham on Saturday, O'Brien and FC Dallas have an even more serious matter to attend to: stopping their three-game losing skid. O'Brien plans to make a brief trip back home to Dallas before returning to Columbus for Wednesday's Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match against the Crew. Then, the club opens Pizza Hut Park on Aug. 6 against the MetroStars.
"To be honest, I think Wednesday's more important for us -- the Open Cup game," O'Brien said. "Obviously, it's important to have a win on our home opener, but it's more important to go in with a bit of confidence.
"We've had a bad month, really. We haven't won a game in a month. Hopefully, Wednesday, we'll put in a good show and get back on the right foot."
One test at a time: New England Revolution defender Michael Parkhurst, a late injury replacement for the MLS All-Stars, didn't show up for training on Thursday or Friday, but he had a good excuse. He had to take a philosophy exam.
Parkhurst, the only MLS rookie set to make an appearance on Saturday and one of only two All-Stars to have played every minute of the season thus far, was chosen to take the place of Galaxy defender Tyrone Marshall, who was injured on Wednesday, just a day after replacing injured Revs forward Pat Noonan.
Parkhurst is taking courses at Stonehill College just outside of Boston and had a midterm scheduled for Thursday evening. He said he would have skipped the exam -- though he doesn't know what the consequences would have been -- but fortunately, he didn't have to.
"They tried to call me yesterday afternoon, but I didn't get the call, so I didn't end up finding out about All-Star until ... last night. They tried to get me on a 7:30 flight, but I had a philosophy exam," Parkhurst said. "Luckily, I was able to get out this morning."
Since getting the call, Parkhurst has been caught up in a whirlwind.
"I'm in awe a bit, being a rookie," he said. "The last 24 hours have been going by quick."
All-Star trophy delayed: After a long, arduous journey, the literal star of Saturday's show arrived in Columbus on Thursday morning. The new All-Star trophy, which features a half-globe in the center of a star, was unveiled Thursday at a luncheon at the Westin hotel in downtown Columbus. The trophy revealed Friday almost didn't make it, and a second replica trophy won't arrive in the United States until next week.
Dublin, Ireland-based silversmith John J. Cooke hand-crafted two trophies to be used this weekend. One, which made its first appearance Friday, is intended to be a perpetual trophy that will reside at the MLS headquarters, while another replica version, made from the same sterling silver that composes the perpetual trophy, is meant to be given to the winner of the All-Star Game each year.
Unfortunately, the production of the unique-looking trophy presented challenges, resulting in a delay in its arrival to New York. The perpetual trophy reached New York at the beginning of this week, but was held up by U.S. customs for two days before finally being delivered to MLS headquarters and then sent on to Columbus. Meanwhile, issues with the replica trophy continued, and it won't cross the Atlantic in time for Saturday's match.
In the event that Fulham are victorious on Saturday, the most likely scenario is that they will be given the perpetual trophy temporarily and will eventually return it to MLS in exchange for the replica.
Jason Halpin is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.