Major League Soccer is treating itself this evening. At Real Salt Lake’s Rio Tinto Stadium, the league’s finest play Premier League side Everton in the showpiece 2009 MLS All-Star game. Having defeated West Ham United this time last year, MLS will be looking to put in a top-class performance against superb opposition. Rights and wrongs of All-Star football notwithstanding, it’s a huge night for MLS commissioner Don Garber.
Under David Moyes – perhaps the best manager in the Premier League – Everton swept aside an injury crisis and a slow start to reel in Aston Villa and secure fifth place in England last season. They play a very physical, very clever game. Marouane Fellaini has wayward elbows, but also plays a key role in the Everton attack. At set pieces, he teams up with Tim Cahill to create a cluster from which one breaks to join Joleon Lescott in attacking the ball – just one of the team’s cunning and very effective ploys.
Everton’s strategy is energetic, precise and deadly. Cahill and Fellaini contribute goals to supplement those from the strikers (when fit) and Mikel Arteta (also when fit) has an excellent range of passes and a mean free-kick. In the midfield, Phil Neville provides the “hustle” and Steven Pienaar, so good for South Africa in this summer’s Confederations Cup, has the touch, vision and pace to open up defences.
But what will they be up against?
The All-Star First Eleven (not necessarily the starting eleven – that’s down to the coach) is selected by a vote, weighted equally between the fans, players, media and MLS coaches and general managers. The coach then adds five players of his choice, and commissioner Garber selects two to make up the matchday squad of 18. Unsurprisingly, Garber called up Javier Morales and Kyle Beckerman, midfielders for host club Real Salt Lake.
The aforementioned coach is 2010 All-Star host Houston Dynamo boss Dominic Kinnear. Born in Glasgow, Kinnear is a naturalized American having emigrated as a child. He picked up 54 caps for the US national team and has excelled in his coaching role since taking over from Frank Yallop at San Jose Earthquakes in 2004. He led the Quakes to the 2005 Supporters’ Shield (first place in the regular MLS season). When the Earthquakes moved to Houston and became the Dynamo, Kinnear steered them to MLS Cup glory in their first two seasons, 2006 and 2007. They’re shaping up well this season too, sitting in first place in the single table ahead of rampant Eastern Conference leaders Columbus Crew.
There are notable absentees from the original All-Star roster – absentees which, in truth, take the edge off this game slightly. Some are injured, some being rested, but all would have played a key part and deserve to be seen as MLS representatives. Some of 2009’s brighest talents are missing. Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s goals helped Columbus build a platform from which they’ve sprung to the top of the East, while Shalrie Joseph’s versatility has enabled him to make a huge contribution to New England Revolution’s otherwise substandard season. Dynamo striker Brian Ching, a US national team regular, is one of Major League Soccer’s best goalscorers.
But perhaps the biggest loss for the All-Star concept is Dwayne DeRosario. DeRo’s Toronto play in the CONCACAF Champions League this evening and he has been replaced by Cuauhtemoc Blanco. DeRosario is in a rich vein of form for the reds and, at his best, has a level of skill and finishing rarely seen elsewhere in MLS. More to the point, “DeRo” is possibly the league’s biggest one-man brand outside you-know-who. From a footballing and marketing point of view, DeRosario will be missed tonight.
However, there are still several players to keep an eye out for at Rio Tinto. I’ve selected my favourite six below, but honourable mentions should also go to Kasey Keller in goal and All-Star defenders Wilman Conde (Chicago Fire) and Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo), 2008’s Rookie of the Year.
Davy Arnaud, Kansas City Wizards
Texan midfielder Davy Arnaud is a talented player for Kansas City Wizards. A United States international, Arnaud has an excellent all-round game, combining a competent football brain with good passing ability. But it is his lethal eye for goal which sets Arnaud apart from other quality midfielders in Major League Soccer. He rarely scores run-of-the-mill goals, preferring to light matches up with spectacular 30-yarders which invariably earn him popularity among MLS supporters.
Arnaud was the Wizards’ top scorer in 2008, bagging seven goals from midfield despite missing games due to a pre-season injury. This season, 29-year-old Arnaud is already sitting on five goals – typically breath-taking screamers – and has thrown in an assist for good measure.
Kyle Beckerman, Real Salt Lake
Kyle Beckerman is the captain of MLS side Real Salt Lake, whose Rio Tinto Stadium is hosting this year’s All-Star match. Arguably the most under-rated player in the league, he was added to the roster as one of Don Garber’s picks along with colleague Javier Morales. The impeccable midfielder has all the attributes of the modern holding player but operates in more of a box-to-box manner, enabling him to demonstrate his blockbusting shooting ability on a regular basis. He is calm and assured on the ball, good at breaking up the play of the opposition and a rousing skipper.
Having previously been involved with the ill-fated Miami Fusion franchise, 27-year-old Beckerman has almost 150 Colorado Rapids appearances under his belt and joined RSL in 2007. He has nine United States caps and scored his first international goal against Panama in this month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. And if you don’t spot him because of any of that, you’ll spot him because of his mighty dreadlocks.
Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Chicago Fire
Mexican Cuauhtemoc Blanco is one of Major League Soccer’s most controversial characters. At 36, he still manages to divide opinion. He is Chicago Fire’s designated player, signed from Club America in Mexico in 2007. In his time there he amassed over 300 appearances and 125 goals – not bad for an attacking midfielder. He has 102 Mexico caps and 35 international goals. He can’t always manage 90 minutes, but the veteran is still going strong and proves a vital attacking force for the Fire, picking up four goals and seven assists in his 14 appearances so far this season.
But it’s not all about outrageous skills and deadly passing. Blanco is also much-criticised, thanks to his occasional diving habit – something with which American football remains uncomfortable, as Freddie Ljungberg found to his cost at the weekend – and a penchant for speaking his mind on the pitch. One bizarre moment this season saw the Mexican enigma give his match shirt to referee Jair Marrufo as a “thank you” gift after a game. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t go down too well.
Fredy Montero, Seattle Sounders
The brilliant Fredy Montero is possibly the next MLS player to get a big move to Europe. Just 22-years-old, his goalscoring record makes terrifying reading for defenders. He has 27 goals in 56 games for Deportivo Cali – the club in his native Colombia to which he (officially) remains contracted – and now has nine goals in 16 appearances in his debut MLS season with Seattle Sounders, helping the expansion club to a blistering start to life in the States’ flagship league.
It’s been an eventful few months for Montero. His pace and fleet of foot have taken MLS by storm and attracted interest from the Premier League, with Fulham reportedly considering an approach. But he has also betrayed his fiery temper, drawing a red card for elbowing Chicago’s Gonzalo Segares. More worryingly, he also faced sexual assault allegations earlier in the season – a feat matched by Sounders team-mate Nate Jaqua.
Freddie Ljungberg, Seattle Sounders
A familiar face to fans of European football, Freddie Ljungberg is a highly-decorated former Arsenal wide midfielder. He earned his fame for his goalscoring ability, changeable hairstyles and pace on the ball, looking more than comfortable in a Gunners side which featured some of the best players of the last decade. The Swede moved to Sigi Schmid’s Sounders as their designated player for the 2009 season, and has now played 14 games for the club, contributing two goals and five assists.
Like team-mate and namesake Montero, Ljungberg has also been known to lose his temper. He famously and unwisely squared up to Viking-like defender Olof Mellberg on international duty and, more recently, a referee who booked him for diving last weekend against Chicago. He may be past his best, but Ljungberg is in good form and seems to have shaken off the injury problems which blighted his last days in the Premier League.
Landon Donovan, LA Galaxy
Finally, we come to Major League Soccer’s top player. Though he has at times disappointed for the national team and in his three spells in Germany, Landon Donovan is one of the USA’s greatest ever outfield players. A football natural, Donovan is quick of brain and foot, efficient in front of goal and a prolific set piece taker. His brilliant performances in the recent Confederations Cup in South Africa won him many fans both domestically and abroad, and attracted the attentions of newly-promoted Serie A side Livorno.
Despite the distractions which stemmed from a loan at Bayern Munich, the return of David Beckham and his own prominence in Grant Wahl’s excellent book The Beckham Experiment, Donovan has found the net eight times this season for a Los Angeles Galaxy team which is really beginning to come into its own.
There is plenty of MLS talent on show this evening, but one can’t help but think the All-Stars would have been a better prospect on and off the pitch had the likes of DeRosario been available. Kinnear should be able to put together an excellent side and give Moyes’ men a run for their money and it’s not a result I’d like to predict.
Can the 2009 MLS All-Stars beat Everton?