By Ridge Mahoney
An All-Star Game, even one dosed with some competitive spice as per the MLS version, is an exhibition, plain and simple.
Yet those selected to play Wednesday at Reliant Stadium in Houston will face Manchester United, which in its two North American appearances so far has showed flashes of its elite Premier League status as well as typical preseason warts on fitness and cohesion. In selecting 11 players to augment the first XI determined by a vote, Coach Bruce Arena has the match itself in mind, not solely those players most deserving.
Commissioner Don Garber rewarded Brian Ching and Jaime Moreno for their years of service to the league by naming them as his two picks. In addition to injury scratches Kyle Beckerman and Jonathan Bornstein, several deserving players have been excluded from playing in the game.
Under terms of the collective bargaining agreement, 32 players must be named All-Stars; players named yet not selected to play in the All-Star Game will still receive the bonuses ($5,000 to $10,000 in most cases) stipulated in their contracts.
Whether or not they earn mention and get the bucks, there are a few who deserve it.
Arena picked the Quakes’ Bobby Convey to replace Bornstein, rewarding the former D.C. United star who has found his feet in the second season after his return from England. Last year, he labored through positional changes – he played central mid and left back as well as wide mid – and trying to kick-start a patchwork lineup. In 2010, he’s been a sharp and energetic attacker on the flanks, yet a smart and clever leader who can also defend.
Red Bulls’ central mid Joel Lindpere is quietly and efficiently knitting together a team still in transition. He’s safe and smart on the ball, tough in the tackle, and occasionally can come up with offensive plays like the slick move to the left flank and cross that set up Thierry Henry’s first goal for New York Thursday night against Tottenham Hotspur. With Henry’s arrival, Lindpere’s adaptability and experience will be increasingly important.
Another player in his second MLS season, Chris Birchall, arrived last year out of shape and found it tough to crack the Galaxy lineup. This year, the scoring exploits of Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle and a rock-solid defense have created a niche that Birchall, a strong and savvy center mid, has filled admirably.
RSL newcomer Alvaro Saborio would be on the All-Star Game roster if not for the selections of Ching and Moreno. Signed to replace Yura Movsisyan, who left for Denmark as a free agent after helping RSL win MLS Cup 2009, he’s sparking the attack and scoring goals. His presence has made up for a disappointing half-season performance by Robbie Findley. The prowess and instincts Sabario showed to American fans playing for Deportivo Saprissa and the Costa Rican national team have translated well to MLS.
Seattle’s commitment to play Isidro Metapan in a Concacaf Champions’ League match the same night as the All-Star Game preclude the participation of any Sounders, whose struggles this season have drawn headlines for all the wrong reasons. Yet Fredy Montero has recovered from a rough start to score six goals and register seven assists, which ranks him amongst the league leaders. Those are good numbers for a team with a bad (5-8-4) record.
A bunch of rookies are playing very well but it’s hard to make a case they are All-Star worthy. Tim Ream, Michael Stephens, Zack Schilawski and Andy Najar have all been excellent at times and rookie-shaky at others. Of the group, Galaxy midfielder Stephens – who has chalked up seven assists – is probably the best bet.