[MLS ALL-STAR GAME]It’s been a heady couple of days building up to the MLS All-Star Game, with Coach Hans Backe -- a perfect 2-0 against Manchester United during his stint as a Manchester City assistant -- talking about tactics and film study, and a few players referring to the 5-2 pasting inflicted by Man United in last summer's midsummer classic. Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler is also undefeated, having played in a 1-0 defeat of United last year in a friendly.
All of that makes for lots of Web hits and breathless preview material, but little of it is relevant. If MLS and its marketing arm, SUM, really wanted the All-Star Game to be competitive, it would put up a pot of a few million dollars for the winning team.
Lacking that incentive, watching how the young American All-Stars budding for places in the national team – Sean Franklin, Tim Ream, Juan Agudelo, Tally Hall, etc. – fare against top-class foreign players, even in a friendly setting, is what I’ll be watching. Regardless of how fit and motivated are the United players, they are clever, and will be quick to spot errors in positioning and technical flaws that they can exploit.
That’s why the absence of lanky, speedy FC Dallas winger Brek Shea, who is committed instead to play a Concacaf Champions League match in San Salvador against Alianza, is especially disappointing. If anybody needs a fresh crack at proving himself against good international players, regardless of the setting, it is him.
Many were the cries for his inclusion to the national team last year, so strongly did some believe he would soon fill a void on the national team of a left-sided mid with pace, confidence, and a knack for slashing open the opposition. It’s a facet of attacking play the USA has sorely missed since DaMarcus Beasleywent off the radar after the 2007 Concacaf Gold Cup and though Shea’s traits are different than those of Beasley, or other young candidates such as Alejandro Bedoya, he certainly has a good base of skills on which to build.
Shea debuted for the USA last October against Colombia and labored through a miserable first half before being substituted. He came back two months later to play against Canada and hasn’t been selected since.
One could argue that Shea’s game will grow by playing in the Concacaf games, and at his age and moderate base of professional experience, he’ll certainly derive some benefit for a tough away encounter in Central America. But I’d like to see him working the flank against United, maybe nicking the ball past Nani or running at Rafael, or cutting inside to challenge Rio Ferdinand. Since United’s backups could start in MLS, Shea would gain valuable experience against just about any of them.
At the other end, the more that Ream and Franklin see up-close of Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, Ryan Giggs, Federico Macheda or Park Ji-Sung -- not to mention Javier Hernandez, who has rejoined United after taking a long break following the Gold Cup – the better off they’ll be in the long run. No matter which players line up on the United back line, they won’t be too lenient in dealing with the brightest young light of the U.S. team, Juan Agudelo, so he’ll need to be on his game as well.
Another regrettable absentee is Omar Gonzalez, who is wearing a protective plastic mask as his broken nose heals. (He and Hernandez could well be battling each other for the next decade.) Like Shea, he struggled through a rough U.S. debut when handed a far tougher assignment against Brazil a month after the 2010 World Cup.
The All-Star Game is a high-powered, hyperbole-swollen exhibition, and there’s nothing wrong with that when it gives young American players an opportunity to play with and against some truly outstanding talents.