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Sparkling MLS All-Stars Highlight An Expansion Problem
by Paul Gardner, July 28th, 2008 7AM

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There was good news and there was not-so-good news to report from the MLS All-Star Game. Mostly it was good news. The soccer was good -- attractive, attacking stuff, with five goals to show for it -- and the sunshine, the color and the lively fans produced a terrific atmosphere. Everything combined to give -- at least visually -- a sparkling telecast.

And the result was the right one, too, a merited victory for MLS. So, after the game, we got the usual words of praise from the visiting coach. Alan Curbishley told us that we're coming along nicely. Considering this is the fifth time that MLS has downed the foreigners I think we could do without these patronizing remarks.

The more so since most -- I'm tempted to say all -- of the skillful and exciting soccer, the intelligent soccer, came from the MLS All-Stars. West Ham showed little other than the commonplaces of a middle-table EPL team. A team almost designed to make the MLS look good.

But that's English soccer. As a counter to the dullness of West Ham, we got reports that the English did, too, shine -- well one of them did. We were told that David Beckham had led MLS to victory. What bosh -- the game's official MVP was Cuauhtemoc Blanco, which was about right. But, for sure Beckham had a good game; he was on the field for 90 minutes (and don't tell me that wasn't in the contract) but the main thing was that he was playing with high-class players -- Christian Gomez, Juan Toja and particularly, Blanco. You could almost define that as a dream midfield -- certainly in MLS terms. The ball moved smoothly and effortlessly and dangerously. As did the players. There was understanding, there was anticipation, there was ingenuity.

With all that going on, there was, at last, a real role for the limited Shalrie Joseph, who stuck to what he does well, winning the ball, picking up loose balls -- and then giving the ball to one of the creative guys.

Dare one hope that Coach Steve Nicol saw the advantages of having the sort of creative midfield players whom he so consistently eschews for the Revs? Maybe that's over-reaching -- but whatever Nicol draws from this fascinating game, there were plenty of other lessons to be pondered for MLS in general. Which is where the worrying aspects surface.

The All-Stars roster contained nine Americans and nine foreigners. But of the nine Americans, five were defensive players -- compared with only two of the foreigners (both Canadians). Up front, the foreign contingent was Dwayne De Rosario and Juan Pablo Angel, while the USA has Edson Buddle, Kenny Cooper and Landon Donovan.

But it is in midfield that the problem emerges. The foreigners had Toja, Blanco, Gomez, Beckham and Joseph. The American had Steve Ralston -- though one can always make a case for counting Donovan as a midfielder rather than a forward.

But the midfield disparity is worrying. Yes, one can say that the best American midfielders don't play in MLS. But who are we talking about? A midfield made up of Clint Dempsey, Freddy Adu, Michael Bradley and DaMarcus Beasley would not come even close to matching the MLS foreigners.

So, surprise, surprise -- yet again it is shoved under our noses that we simply do not produce creative midfielders. Unfortunately for MLS and the fans it wishes to nourish, it is precisely that type of player who is needed to turn on the excitement and the high-class soccer.

This is a crucial point as MLS surges forward into its expansion mode. More teams means more players. Where are they to come from? In the next two years at least 20 more pro level American players will be needed. It will be difficult to find them. The colleges will contribute the bulk of them, I suppose, and, as usual, the majority of them will be inadequate. Because the few who look like making the grade are likely to go straight off to Europe.

In the meantime, our youth system -- aided and abetted by the colleges - will go on turning out Maurice Edus and Michael Bradleys and Ricardo Clarks -- competent enough, but unimaginative and not players likely to pour forth much in the way of inspiring soccer.

As things stand -- and I see no possibility of anything changing quickly -- MLS expansion must mean a decline in the caliber of play. The only short-term way to avoid that is to increase the salary cap and the foreign quota.

The long-term solution is so screaming obvious and I have written about it so often that I cannot be bothered to go into details yet again. All we have to do is to develop and use the abundant raw talent -- ALL of it -- that we already have.

Maybe the talent-shortage is actually good news in disguise if it irrevocably forces our youth development system(s) to broaden its talent base.

There is also the possibility -- utterly remote, I fear -- that another offering of apparently bad news from the All-Star game might end up with a positive influence. Actually, I don't find this bad news -- rather, silly news. I'm talking about the snafu over the playing of the anthems. Maybe the organizers should have been more specific, maybe the anthems should have been played in a different order. Certainly, the naughty Canadian fans shouldn't have booed the Stars and Stripes.

They now know that -- according to a pompously moralizing editorial in the Toronto Globe & Mail -- their behavior was "disgraceful." Oh, calm down guys -- the real culprit here is not the fans, but the ridiculous tradition that calls for the playing of national anthems at these events. The question is not the order in which they were played, but why they need to be played at all.



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