When everyone else has cleared off the field after training, the great players are the ones staying behind, challenging each other to juggling games and shooting contests. Sometimes those games become as intense as the ones you see in the filled stadiums; players care about the bragging rights of the post-practice crossbar challenge like it’s a cup final.
After countless hours on empty fields and abandoned streets, where the stories stay as inside jokes, MLS is putting some real points into those competitions.
Nine players split into three teams — MLS, Atletico Madrid and Orlando City — will compete in the Skills Challenge presented by Target Tuesday, July 30 (8 pm ET stream on MLSsoccer.com, Twitch, Twitter and partner platforms).
To you it might just be a skills challenge. To the players, it’s a matter of respect, a badge of honor, to show you’ve got the extra touch of quality.
I pondered how each competition could go down, and who the favorites are going in.
Skill #1: Shooting challenge
Each player shoots from the PK spot toward 13 targets with varying point values in goal.
The favorite: Carlos Vela
Does 21 goals in 20 games still count as "in form," or is there another word for it? Vela's left foot right now would be a cheat code in N64 Bond. Prayers to that target in the top left when Vela steps up.
The challenger: Wayne Rooney
Manchester United and England’s all-time leading scorer, ummm, knows how to finish. It will be interesting to see how Rooney and Vela approach and divide their shot selection in order to maximize points, given your team can only hit each target once.
Keep an eye out for: Nani
Nani hasn’t been great from the penalty spot in his career, just 7-for-12, but he knows how to step up in big moments. He scored the deciding penalty in the 2008 UEFA Champions League final win over Chelsea. The Champions League final is the perfect training ground for the pressure-cooker that is the Skills Challenge.
Skill #2: Touch and Volley
Each player receives six crosses toward the penalty spot. A bicycle kick will earn 20 points, a first-time volley will earn 10 points, a touch-and-volley 5 points, or 3 points for a touch and half-volley.
The favorite: Wayne Rooney
The challenger: Joao Felix
Felix, Atletico’s $130 million offseason signing, comes into the competition as the wildcard. The 19-year-old is tremendously skilled, but I don’t think anyone knows how skilled yet. He may very well run away with all three challenges. He has excellent ball-striking ability and spatial awareness, so it will be particularly fun to see him take volleys out of the air.
Keep an eye out for...Nani
The Portuguese attacker is known for putting on a show, and he will have some extra motivation in front of his home fans. There’s a 20-point bonus at the end for the team that puts in the most style, too, so expect some stuff from Nani.
Skill #3: Passing
Each team, will all three players going at once, will have two minutes to hit targets, including short-, medium-, long-range, moving, and crossbar.
The favorite: Atletico Madrid
After failing to win the first two challenges, Atletico will come to the final stage with a chip on their shoulder (and potentially Diego Simeone’s voice echoing through their ears). Koke and Hector Herrera can both clip balls over distance, while Joao Felix should provide the more delicate touch.
The challenger: MLS
Jonathan dos Santos has made a career out of tidy passing, and Rooney is one of the best passers over distance in the history of the Premier League. (I’ve already put some skin on the line with my friends that the Englishman will hit the most crossbars.) Vela’s passing consistency could be the difference-maker here.
Keep an eye out for: Orlando
If I’m being honest, best case scenario in this whole thing is that Chris "Cash" Mueller crushes everyone and steals the show and does the money symbol from the podium with Vela, Rooney, and Felix beside him.
Final team results:
This isn’t a homer pick — MLS has the roster most suited for the Skills Challenge. They have two elite forwards, probably the top two picks if you were to pick players by draft, plus a technical center midfielder.
It'll be something when Simeone makes his players do sprints on the field after they lose.