HOUSTON — Midway through the first half of the MLS All-Star Game, Manchester United were defending a corner kick and there looked to be moment of uncertainty. Just a sliver of disorganization amid the cluster in the mixer. Guillermo Barros Schelotto whipped in his corner and MLS tried to attack that moment. But a red-clad defender rose up and cleared the danger.
Suddenly, the tables were turned. The MLS side looked uncertain. And United recognized it in a split second, gushing forward in a counterattack that literally took your breath away. Nani, Ryan Giggs, and Jonny Evans—a center back!—surged 70 yards in unison with blitzkrieg speed and purpose: Get to the goal as fast as possible and score.
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“Wow,” my companion whispered. I think actually all 70,000-plus in the audience echoed his sentiment.
In the end, the play finished with only a faint chance, as the deathblow never materialized fully, but the episode showed the difference between the two sides. And it gave a hint at clarity for anyone looking for meaning in the 5-2 final result.
This was a team—one of the best in the world, no less—who had been training together for three weeks, had a long-standing understanding of each others’ tendencies, and they were taking on a collection of players who had trained once or twice.
Admittedly, there is politic way to spin the result. United simply outplayed and outshone the MLS All-Stars.
But they did not outclass MLS.
Yes, on the score sheet United romped to a 5-2 win. Yes, they dominated the first half-hour with incredible pressure and power. Yes, Kevin Alston’s error was cringe-worthy.
But if you only look at the surface, you miss some of the details that show that the scoreline was slightly tilted. For example, you won’t notice that the MLS side outshot United, 19-12. For another, you won’t acknowledge that keeper Edwin van der Sar’s acrobatics actually preserved United’s lead at several important moments in the first half.
You won’t see the gumption of Javier Morales, who came out fearlessly and really was the only MLSer who played up to the moment in the early going. You won’t see Marco Pappa, invisible in the beginning, starting to dance with the ball. Or Heath Pearce, pinned back for the first 30 minutes, foraging forward on the left flank and nearly finishing a cross turned in by Juan Pablo Angel. Or Chad Marshall finally playing the body and asserting himself in the middle.
You won’t hear the shift in excitement when Brian Ching nodded home his goal early in the second half. That moment ignited local pride in the 70,000-plus Houstonians in the stands: Their guy, the Big Kahuna who led the Dynamo to two MLS Cups, had scored. Even fans in red Man United jerseys jumped up and celebrated.
Suddenly: game on!
All that positivity and hope—could the MLSers pull a US-style comeback?—was stabbed in the heart by Tom Cleverley’s well-worked goal. A lovely chipped return pass on a give-and-go with Darren Fletcher was topped only by Cleverley’s classic sombrero and arrogant finish.
It was a goal, based on timing and understanding, that the MLSers could not have scored on this night. They simply didn’t have the chemistry of their opponents. They couldn’t have had it.
And so, ultimately, the result must have very little meaning beyond the fact that 70,000-plus soccer fans came out on a Wednesday night to exalt in the game and to honor their idols, both from Manchester United and MLS. Ryan Giggs fans can be Chicharito fans, Brian Ching fans, Paul Scholes fans and Landon Donovan fans all at the same time on a night like this.
An all-star game is an exhibition. And just as all the foreign sides that the MLS All-Stars have beaten over the years—Chelsea, West Ham, Fulham, etc.—have not lost any sleep over the defeat, neither will the MLS guys.
They’re going to need as much sleep as possible, actually. Because the backstretch of the MLS season begins now. Playoff spots are at a premium. This weekend’s games are the start of everything that matters. From here on out, everything means something.