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A tale of two friendlies
August 7th, 2006 6:19PM

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Competitive league play is the working class of professional team sports, yet perhaps only in soccer can a gussied-up exhibition be gritty as well as glamorous. And when having a good time gets in the way of league play, questions must be asked.

So it proved to be last weekend, as MLS and its marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing (SUM), staged a pair of matches in which is distilled the future of the sport in America and also demonstrated how greed can grapple with good sense.

The MLS All-Stars gave Premier League power Chelsea its second straight test in visits to the USA Saturday and went one better than D.C. United did last year by leaving the EPL winners as blue as their shirts by beating them, 1-0, at Toyota Park, a classy MLS-driven venue all of 2 months old.

One night later, 2,000 miles away and set 74 years in the past, the Los Angeles Coliseum hosted the largest crowd in America to witness a club match. Spanish and European champion Barcelona and Mexican icon CD Guadalajara repeatedly thrilled 92,650 festive, colorful spectators while playing a 1-1 tie.

The All-Stars came to play; Chelsea really didn't and deservedly lost in front of a lot of fans who could have felt betrayed for paying for tickets priced as high as $100 to see the Premier League champions sleepwalk until Dwayne DeRosario's goal woke them up. Chelsea's 2-1 win over D.C. United last year was a battle.

Irony shrouded Chelsea's listless showing. MLS moved the All-Star date (from July 29) to accommodate a directive of the Professional Footballers' Association that EPL players be given a lengthy rest following the World Cup. And still very few of Jose Mourinho's players looked capable of even 45 solid minutes.

Drama and emotion overflowed at the final whistle. The MLS players celebrated lustily and keeper Joe Cannon drop-kicked a ball into the section of a stadium before bear-hugging anyone within reach.

Barcelona, also short of regular-season sharpness but far more committed than Chelsea, labored for much of the first half and nearly fell behind before rallying behind some typically wondrous moments by halftime substitute Ronaldinho. Chances abounded at both ends in the second half, Guadalajara keeper Oswaldo Sanchez saved superbly to thwart Barca several times, and Edgar Mejia cleared a Silvinho shot off the line.

The setting, in a legendary edifice built for the 1932 Olympic Games, neared perfection: a luminous gibbous moon, warm weather, streamers and scarves and flags and jerseys of both teams, and in grassy areas next to the stadium, a Salvadoran festival that launched fireworks into painterly splashes of the sky above the stadium's rim.

Yet there were glitches.

A hard, lumpy, patchwork Coliseum playing surface soured the proceedings. Varying shades of green in the grass detracted from the spectacle and a large rectangle of alleged turf looked like it had been spray-painted with brown mustard. Not lost amid the noise and excitement was the stark fact that Guadalajara shortchanged its fans back home and impaired its league campaign by playing the match at all.

Mexican league play opened on Sunday as well, and a Guadalajara team deprived of Sanchez and several other starters lost, 1-0, to Toluca. Guadalajara officials agreed to the conflicting matches, perhaps while blinded by the possibility of also playing Wednesday in the finals of the Libertadores Cup.

Upon being knocked out by defending champion Sao Paulo, they were forced into a compromise that produced a defeat and comments from players that they'd rather have been in Toluca. Guadalajara coach Antonio De La Torre arrived 15 minutes after kickoff in the Coliseum, having been flown from Toluca in owner Jorge Vergara's private jet.

Absurd scheduling conflicts for teams loaded down with league and cup commitments aren't unusual, and the final call was made by Guadalajara, but a team sacrificing a league match to play a friendly -- lucrative and prestigious as it was -- taints the integrity of all concerned.

MLS commissioner Don Garber angrily criticized the condition of the field and both coaches expressed gratitude that the rutted surface didn't cause any injuries. Just after the fireworks shot into the sky, the crowd jeered when two sprinklers went off behind one of the goals, and play stopped for a few embarrassing minutes.

Prior to the glamour game, CD Chivas USA and New England also played a 1-1 tie that featured its own special moment, a 25-yard rip from Jesse Marsch that flew past Matt Reis for the CD Chivas USA equalizer. Nobody in an MLS uniform resembled anyone who appeared in the second game, but Chivas fans are Chivas fans, and as their ranks swelled in the second half, roars and cheers greeted pleasing moments for the red-and-white. Both teams, mired at .500 with 6-6-8 records coming into the game, fought valiantly to get all three points but left tied on the scoreboard and in the standings. As players throughout the world know all too well, the league is usually a grind, not a glory.

Staging a staggering project like the three-match Barcelona tour -- two years in the making, according to deputy commissioner Ivan Gazidis -- while playing host to Chelsea personifies two critical facets of the MLS/SUM business approach: to promote international teams with grand appeal, but to also pit its league's stars against some of the world's best players.

Fans of the European game got a dose, and a whole lot of MLS devotees whooped it up. Glitches and conflicts notwithstanding, the weekend was one of progress.


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