The problem with all-star games is this: An all-star team is not a team, it’s a collection of talented individuals. And in soccer, individuals don’t win games. Teams do.
So putting together an MLS All-Star team to take on the champions of Europe is not an easy task. No matter how much coaxing and cajoling Peter Nowak does in the days leading up to Chelsea’s visit, he’s always going to be behind the proverbial eight ball, preparation-wise.
And lest you dismiss the whole event with a thoughtless, “Yeah, but the European teams don’t really care, anyway,” let’s please remember the humbling 180 minutes Manchester United have doled out the past two seasons. They came for blood and got it; there’s no reason to think we’ll see any different attitude from the Blues.
I’m building my MLS All-Star team with all that in mind, then. Which means there are four keys:
1. Simplicity. We’re not trying to reinvent the game, and don’t have the time to do so, anyway. So my team will be built around guys who’ll know exactly what their responsibilities are when they step out on the pitch.
2. Compactness. The most regrettable trait of the last two MLS All-Star teams was the amount of space they allowed the Red Devils to find both in midfield and attack. That can’t happen again.
3. Clinical finishing. Chelsea, even in preseason form, are not going to give up a ton of chances. I want guys who are going to make the most of the looks they get.
4. Ball recovery. Chelsea may have been the Champions League winners this past season, but they were hardly the most skillful. They commit plenty of midfield turnovers, and I want my guys to win that second ball, then hit hard on the counter.
Let’s build from the front:
FW: Kenny Cooper (New York) – Arguably the league MVP, and unquestionably the most clinical finisher in the league this season. As measured by OPTA, Cooper has had six “Big chances” this season, and converted them all. He’s at his best running into seams in transition, but also has the size and physicality – in flashes, anyway – to help in hold-up play and on set pieces.
FW: Thierry Henry (New York) – Henry was the best player in the league before his injury, and there’s no reason to think he won’t return to full health soon. You don’t need me to list his attributes as a player; he simply does it all. The fact that he and Cooper will have had so much time working together is a built-in advantage.
Toughest omissions: Chris Wondolowski (San Jose), Saer Sene (New England)
LM: Roger Espinoza (Sporting KC) – Espinoza plays more centrally for SKC than he will for my all-star team, but has the motor, instincts and experience to play out wide – he did so at the World Cup, after all. He’s also one of the best in the league at winning the second ball, a nonstop pest defensively and an underrated, skillful passer in possession.
CM: Dwayne De Rosario (D.C. United) – The hero of the MLS All-Stars' 1-0 win over Chelsea in 2006, he’ll be playing deeper with my team than he does with United. But that’s OK, since DeRo won two MLS Cups and a Supporters' Shield at that spot in San Jose and Houston, and works as hard to facilitate the attack as he does to create it. There's also his experience – a dozen games or so – playing with Henry. Mostly, though, he’s a winner, pure and simple.
RM: Marvin Chávez (San Jose) – The best pure right midfielder in the league, Chávez will run all day, get stuck in on both sides of the ball and punish the overlapping left back if he sees daylight. He’s also very, very two-footed, something that has taken more than one defender by surprise. I want Henry pinging diagonal balls into space for him for at least the first 60 minutes.
DM: Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle) – Alsonso is the best ball winner in the league by a wide margin. He also has tremendous range, but will be asked to reign it in a little bit as the “1” in my 4-1-3-2 (he usually plays in more of a flat-four midfield in Seattle). My major concern is giving up attacks right down the gut. With Ozzie there ... well, Chelsea, I invite you to come at me, bro.
Toughest omissions: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Kei Kamara (SKC), Martín Rivero (Colorado), Nick DeLeon (D.C.)
LB: Gonzalo Segares (Chicago) – Little-known fact: Segares actually leads MLS in “Big Chances Created.” With Espinoza cutting central, that will leave the entire left flank open for Sega to bomb forward, combine with Henry and trying to get service to Cooper, or Chávez at the back post, or DeRo making the third run. His veteran savvy means he’s unlikely to get caught out as well.
CB: Jámison Olave (RSL) – Amazing in the air, great anticipation in combo play, world class recovery speed, and a thousand-mile stare that will scare little Eden Hazard to bits. Olave’s also very composed under pressure and is able to play comfortably out of the back. That said, he also knows when it’s time to boot it into touch.
CB: Jay DeMerit (Vancouver) – DeMerit’s back to his 2009-10 form when he was a starter for the US national team. The Whitecaps captain has “been there, done that” against the likes of Chelsea, and is still very much in his prime. He has the physicality and savvy to match Premiership attackers, and – like Olave – is a threat in the air.
RB: Steven Beitashour (San Jose) – Not so quietly on his way to having the best attacking season of any fullback in MLS history, Beitashour’s a spectacular crosser of the ball with either foot. He also reads the game well defensively, and obviously knows how to combine with Chávez. He’ll have his work cut out for him physically, but I’m willing to risk it for those delicious crosses.
Toughest omissions: Jeff Parke (Seattle), Chance Myers (SKC), Aurélien Collin (SKC), Alain Rochat (Vancouver)
GK: Dan Kennedy (Chivas USA) – No matter how simple we keep it, no matter how compact we stay, no matter how good we are at winning the ball and defending set pieces, Chelsea are going to get their looks. They’re a quarter-billion dollar team, after all. So I want a ‘keeper who routinely makes stunning saves, and rarely makes mistakes. That describes Kennedy to a T.
Tougest omissions: Andy Gruenebaum (Columbus), Ryan Meara (RBNY)
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com.