Orlando is the destination. Atletico Madrid is the opponent. The 2019 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target is coming into focus.
Yeah, it's an All-Star Game, by definition an exhibition, but you play to win the game. Diego Simeone isn't one to play around and let his guys take 90 minutes off, even if it's preseason. James O'Connor's responsibility will be to put together a team that can 1) figure each other out quickly and 2) has the individual and collective quality to make it difficult on the La Liga power.
You'll get to have your say via the ballot, but here's my "Let's get a result, and be entertaining as hell!" XI as it stands. Before you get all indignant about snubs, bias and the like, this is not my official ballot. It's just a squad I think would give Atleti some trouble on the big stage come July 31.
We start up top because, while a result would be nice, All-Star Games ought to be about pure, uncut entertainment value. Gimme goals. Gimme highlight-reel moments. Gimme swagger. Gimme drama. Gimme Zlatan. There can be no other choice, even if you're not a fan of his antics.
Zlatan's not the first name on the team sheet, however. That's Carlos Vela, who is making mincemeat of MLS defenses, on pace to score 37 goals and dish out 17 assists. "On pace" is the laziest of analysis, but there's need to quantify or qualify Vela's performances or production right now. The man's on fire, and he's got years of clashes with Atletico Madrid to draw upon from his days in La Liga.
You could go Diego Rossi, Ignacio Piatti (assuming he's healthy), Alberth Elis or Darwin Quintero here. I'm going with Nani. The former Man U attacker can play in wide positions, providing service for Zlatan, or cut inside, combine and go for goal himself while Brad Smith overlaps. Plus, he's been Orlando City's best player. Gotta give the home supporters one of their own to cheer.
Alejandro Pozuelo | USA Today Sports Images
Paxton Pomykal has been very good. Mark-Anthony Kaye is killing it in Los Angeles. I'm going with the guys who I think are the best players in their respective positions.
Toronto FC's Alejandro Pozuelo with the aforementioned weapons at his disposal? Yikes. How about with Nico Lodeiro in support? Nobody in MLS blends attacking quality and midfield dirty work like the Seattle Sounders' No. 10. I can't wait to see how the Spaniard and Uruguayan compliment each other in both buildup and the final third.
Behind them, providing cover and line-splitting passes, is the LA Galaxy's Jonathan dos Santos, in my opinion the best defensive midfielder in MLS right now. Dos Santos also gives Atleti fits. In four matches against Madrid with Villarreal, the Mexican international banked four wins. That'll do.
At outside back, I'm going all-action. Minnesota United's Romain Metanire and Seattle's Brad Smith go touchline to touchline every match for their respective teams. Both can deliver the final ball, from a variety of angles. Both will be up for the physical challenge posed by Simeone's team.
In the middle, FC Dallas' Reto Ziegler provides experience, tactical nous and a cultured left foot. Next to him, Walker Zimmerman provides the physical dominance, both aerially and with his recovery speed. The LAFC man is damn good at emergency defense, too. That's gonna come in handy.
Stefan Frei | USA Today Sports Images
I would have gone Zack Steffen, but he may already be in England, depending on how the work-permit process goes. If not Steffen, the choice is fairly easy. The Sounders' Stefan Frei is the paradigm of consistency.