LOS ANGELES – That was fun, right?
Even the most stubborn All-Star Game skeptic surely had to give at least a grudging nod on Wednesday night after the best of MLS and Liga MX cut and thrust across the pitch at Banc of California Stadium in front of a rambunctious crowd of 22,118.
The 1-1 final score after regulation was a reasonable reflection of the run of play, and then in true Hollywood style, the ensuing penalty-kick shootout set the stage for Matt Turner and Ricardo Pepi to steal the show.
Here are three observations from a glittering night in Exposition Park.
Over the decades we’ve seen MLSers face one another in East-West and “US vs. the World” formats in this event, then big-name clubs from overseas invited in to supply some international flair. All have offered various pros and cons. But I’d argue that nothing hit the spot quite like this affair.
In some years the All-Star Game either struggled to supply the vibrancy or intensity that gets spectators excited, or at the very least intrigued. Then the prospect of hastily-assembled MLS squads keeping pace with world-class talent from the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid brought interest, but also angst at the prospect of humbling scorelines.
On Wednesday night, however, the two squads showcased the speed, fluidity and star power we see in their week-to-week league action, elevated by the chance to gain a measure of pride and roared on by fans who have grown familiar with the history and character on both sides. MLS and Liga MX leaders probably already loved what they gained from this soccer summit even before the opening whistle, and the engaging flow of play can only seal their satisfaction.
Oh, and the players relished it, too.
“I think this match was highly anticipated by both teams, and then the fans. The atmosphere was great, the quality of soccer was really good,” said MLS All-Stars captain Cristian Roldan postgame. “I thought there could have been a little bit more goals, but at the end of the day it was a great overall All-Star game."
What a summer it’s been for the New England Revolution goalkeeper. The late-blooming talent’s unlikely rise to MLS and US men’s national team stardom was already an incredible tale well before he backstopped the USMNT’s Gold Cup triumph and the Revs’ run to the top of the Supporters’ Shield race. And now he’s an All-Star MVP, thanks in large part to the two PKs he saved in the shootout.
“For a normal match, I think I’d have a little bit more data. I’d watch penalties, I’d know the shooter, I’d be a lot more familiar with them,” Turner told reporters postgame.
“But in this particular scenario, I was trying to think back to the games I looked at before we played Mexico in the Gold Cup final. And really, nothing was coming to me. So I just sort of tried to shut my mind off, use my instincts, tried to read cues from the way they were approaching the ball.”
Producing the goods in a high-profile moment while more or less flying blind showed that the New Jersey kid has a few more chapters in his saga.
It can only bolster his standing in the eyes of USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter, who was in the house to witness Pepi make Turner’s good work stand up by blasting the match-winning penalty past Nahuel Guzman, the wily Tigres ‘keeper who’d iced him in the very same goal in the Skills Challenge presented by AT&T 5G the night before.
However you arrived at the Banc, you could see long before you reached the stadium gates just what a fiesta del fútbol this evening would be in this deeply Hispanic metropolis.
The adjoining streets and plazas were packed as attendees took in the many pregame entertainment options, as well as classic LA features like hot-dog carts, street tacos and homespun merchandise sales of questionable authenticity. And once inside the stadium, it became clear just how much Mexican flavor was representing, right down to the banda music that blared when Jonathan Rodriguez scored the game’s opening goal.
While the black jerseys of host club LAFC were everywhere too, the overflow crowd was spangled with Liga MX colors and crests from América to Tigres, with many proudly brandishing sombreros and tricolor flags as well. The big cheers that greeted the MLSers’ eventual victory underlined the groundswell of support for the home league, but there was no mistaking the power and vibrancy of the southern neighbors’ soccer culture.
The marketing of this matchup had urged fans to “representa tu liga,” and it seemed that Southern California’s Mexican-American and Mexican expatriate communities took it seriously.