ORLANDO, Fla. – At its core, MLS All-Star week is a party, a chance for players, staffers and fans to gather around an enjoyable spectacle before the season’s home stretch. As Orlando City SC CEO Alex Leitão put it on Tuesday, “All-Star is not a game, it’s a celebration of soccer.”
That’s all well and good for the All-Star Team themselves, but only to a point, especially when Atletico Madrid is the opponent lined up across from them.
“It's going to be a complicated game. They're a strong team and there are no friendlies for them,” said Toronto FC’s Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo, who knows Atleti well, on Tuesday. “If we don't come out with the same intensity as them, they're going to beat us.”
It’s not just that this year’s All-Star guests are one of the strongest teams in Europe, it’s the manner in which they reached those heights. Los Rojiblancos have crafted a clear identity around defensive solidity, fearsome pressing and uncompromising intensity all over the pitch. With manager Diego Simeone and striker/provocateur Diego Costa epitomizing their take-no-prisoners mindset, Atleti generally give no quarter to opponents and expect none in return.
“Atletico under Simeone have been a fantastic team for many years now,” said Wayne Rooney, who was part of the most one-sided result in the All-Star Game’s modern history, Manchester United’s 4-0 win in 2011. “What I like about them is that they know their job. Simeone, you can see, works out the team on the pitch to get them in shape and organized. So probably one of the toughest opponents we'll play.”
Atleti hammered their bitter rivals Real Madrid 7-3 in an International Champions Cup match in New Jersey on Friday, an affair in which they led the 13-time European champions 5-0 at halftime. Joao Felix, the teenage phenom who joined up this summer on a club-record $140 million transfer fee and has been dubbed “the next Cristiano Ronaldo” by some, sliced and diced Real’s defense, hinting at new levels of attacking menace on top of Atleti’s established traits.
Safe to say that the MLS All-Stars took note, and have no desire to get embarrassed on the big stage.
“Because everything here is fun, but the game, we must play with 90 minutes’ concentration, because they don’t like to lose.”
Or as Pozuelo put it: “If we come out with the same intensity that Real Madrid had, then possibly they blow right past us. But we'll try to compete and play an honest match.”