Blowout or barnburner? The 2006 All-Star Game scheduled for Saturday (6:30 pm ET on ESPN) at the sparkling new Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill., could go either way.
Both Chelsea and the MLS Al-Stars are shorthanded and shortchanged in different ways. Chelsea is barely a week into its preseason training, the perpetually disgruntled William Gallas is a no-show, and left behind was goalkeeper Petr Cech as he recovers from shoulder surgery.
The All-Stars will train together just twice, although Coach Peter Nowak does have eight of his own D.C. United players on the 20-man squad. Yet absences have riddled his team far beyond the injury withdrawals of Eddie Pope, Landon Donovan, and Pablo Mastroeni.
New England dynamo Shalrie Joseph would be an ideal candidate to subdue Chelsea's potent midfield of Michael Ballack, Frank Lampard, Michale Essien, Arjen Robben, Joe Cole et al, but he's headed for Los Angeles, along with striker Taylor Twellman, midfielder Clint Dempsey and the rest of the Revs. They have a league match Sunday with CD Chivas USA, and rather than reschedule it, MLS officials decided it should go ahead as the opening act for the opener of Barcelona's three-match U.S. tour. The opponent is CD Guadalajara, and yes the game will count in the MLS attendance calculations.
Yet a few of the Chivas del Norte players could also have been useful against the English champ. Ante Razov leads the league with 12 goals, forward partner Francisco Palencia has played against a few European stars in his days with the Mexican national team, and Juan Pablo Garcia has just the pace and guile to test players still well short of full-match conditioning.
A full-strength MLS All-Star squad might have a decent shot at knocking off Chelsea, but the exclusion of perhaps a half-dozen vital players has the MLS lads deep in the yogurt as it were. The question can be asked: Why bring one of the world's top teams to showcase your league while impairing your players' chances to win?
Fans may gnash their teeth at the illogic, but Nowak has his own concerns.
"We have to understand this is not the selection of Peter Nowak," he says, of adding several D.C. players to the initial 11 selected in balloting and replacing those who are injured. "You have to respect the voting, you have to respect the general managers, the fans, the players, the media, how they feel about the players. That's the selection we've got.
"Me as the coach of the All-Star team is a reflection of how my team played the first stretch of the season [13-2-6]. It's always an honor and privilege to be the coach of such a talented group of players."
Chelsea certainly has the edge in talent but the club took a preseason trip to the United States last year and had to rally from a 1-0 deficit to beat D.C., 2-1. Nowak has more talent at his disposal this time, but melding players into a unit cohesive enough to hold up against a European power is a lot to ask.
Yet with United teammates Christian Gomez and Jaime Moreno leading the attack, and some midfield punch in Dwyane DeRosario and Ronnie O'Brien, the All-Stars won't lack for firepower. Or motivation.
"It's definitely exciting to play a team like Chelsea," says Moreno, who has played in several of the various All-Star formats used by the league since its inception in 1996. Moreno left EPL club Middlesbrough to sign with MLS in June of that year and whenever an all-time MLS Best XI is mentioned, he's on it.
"As a player, as a professional," Moreno says, "you always take this kind of game with the same mentality and as serious as any game, because you don't want to lose. It's special playing a team [that won] the last championship in the English league.
"You want to prove [MLS] is getting better and it's a great time for us to prove it."
MOURINHO'S TAKE. The match with D.C. United last year gave Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho a rare, up-close look at MLS. While stressing the primary importance of the match is to start sharpening his players for the start of the EPL season in two weeks, he appreciates the value of playing a competitive match that he anticipates will indeed be competitive if not full-blooded.
"We don't have a lot of MLS in Europe to be fair," says Mourinho, who has won back-to-back Premier League titles in his first two seasons at Chelsea. "But what I really enjoy when I come here and I play is that they always play with a very good tactical approach.
"Last summer was a very good experience in Washington, D.C. They play like they have the same level you are. The tactical point of view is they really want to play top-level, top-quality football, so when they have an improvement in individual terms, the tactical approach of the game is very, very positive, very enthusiastic, the pace of the game is very high."
But as Nowak points out, the skill level of an MLS All-Star team won't be as high as when Marco Etcheverry, Carlos Valderrama, Mauricio Cienfuegos, Preki, and yes, Peter Nowak led the way. Yet as coach Nowak has always emphasized the collective rather than the individual.
"We don't have too much time like I had last year to prepare the team for a Chelsea game," he said. "If you know me, I will try to get these guys going and make sure we choose the best way to compete.
"Every All-Star Game is something every player appreciates. This is not a game to have a couple of days off and have a good time together. This is a game where we want to get better. To play against Chelsea or Chivas Guadalajara or Fulham last year, there's always something to learn."