The team that calls Avaya Stadium home usually wears blue, but red turned out to be the color of the MLS All-Star Game.
Arsenal fans turned out in droves, cheered lustily for every slick move and solid tackle by one of their players, and went home buzzing that Chubka Akpom had tapped home a winning goal in the 87th minute to win the game, 2-1.
If that name doesn’t ring a bell, no worries. His name was missing from the lineup sheet that supposedly listed all the available subs along with the 11 starters from each team. The Gunners – who left a half-dozen stars at home to recover from international competitions -- used 19 players. All-Star head coach Dominic Kinnear fielded 23 of the 26 players named to the squad and got a decent performance from many of them.
If the game was more show than substance, it fulfilled its purpose. While disjointed and scrappy at times, the game generated much to savor. Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, who pushed his players through two hard days of training prior to the game, gave an overall favorable review.
“I believe what is important for us in this kind of game is to analyze what aspect of our game we do well,” said Wenger, who is preparing the Gunners for an Aug. 14 Premier League opener against Liverpool. “ I feel that in the first half we did good in keeping possession and going very quickly on transitions behind, and had good penetrating runs in the final third, so that was positive.
“For me it’s a good opportunity as well to see many young players. Individually I would say in the first half [Alex Oxlade-] Chamberlain was very dangerous and exceptionally strong. The players who joined us just now like [Rob] Holding and [Granit] Xhaka did well. And I thought [Joel] Campbell in the first half did well.”
Both teams attacked from the outset, and Arsenal struck first when keeper Andre Blake misjudged a bouncing chip and defender Laurent Ciman clattered into Costa Rican international Joel Campbell as they dueled for the ball. ESPN could have shown a quick commercial during Campbell’s stutter-steppping, tap-dancing approach to the ball that he cleanly lashed left-footed past Blake, who dove to the correct side but was beaten for power.
Arsenal’s possession passing combined with quick transitional play unhinged the All-Stars on numerous occasions in the first half, but they scraped away scoring chances by impressive stops by defender Jelle Van Damme and an excellent save by Blake, who tipped over a blast by Mohammed Elneny.
Keegan Rosenberry and Andrew Farrell, who split time at right back, were stretched and challenged often. Left back Kellyn Acosta, a late addition to the team who ended up playing the most minutes (57) of any starter, needed a few minutes to recover from a wild tackle by Francis Coquelin that crunched his right ankle.
“I knew most of the first-half players and even some of the younger players,” said Acosta. “I’ve watched them on TV. It was pretty crazy playing against them. I never thought I’d see the day but it was just a great experience.
“I like the way they keep the ball. They’re very tactical and big on possession. That was my biggest takeaway of them. Even though they’re here for preseason, they handled the game the right way. They’re pushing and they got the result that they wanted. It was great to see them take the game seriously.”
New York City FC teammates Andrea Pirlo and David Villa put in the shortest stints of any starters, and both contributed several sparkling moments before leaving in the 32nd minute (NYCFC plays Colorado Saturday, though Villa is suspended). Pirlo clipped several elegant long balls; one of them dropped perfectly for Giovani Dos Santos speeding up the right flank, but keeper Petr Cech got down quickly to save the ensuing shot. Villa set up camp wide left and glided menacingly along the byline, once squeezing through two opponents to center a ball that was cleared.
Dos Santos moved to the left side after Villa was substituted, and from that flank ran onto a ball from Pirlo’s replacement, Sacha Kljestan, after he’d picked off a loose pass. Dos Santos centered the ball for Didier Drogba, who got off three shots amid a heaving ruck of players: Cech saved the first shot, Holding blocked the follow-up, and Drogba poked a third attempt inside the far post.
Said Wenger, “When I see him in the box and fighting with young defenders, I always think now there is danger there, because you know he will get the upper hand and score a good goal, and that’s what he did.”
The goal typified moments that personify games like these: a showdown of former teammates, in this case Chelsea. But true to his competitive persona, Drogba didn’t relish scoring against Cech all that much.
“I always think that a goal I score when we lose, to me it doesn’t count,” he said. “Just for the fact because I scored against Petr, the result matters more than my goal ... and it’s a bit disappointing for me to lose this game.”
A fleet of halftime subs gave the All-Stars a few openings, and Sebastian Giovinco got loose in the early minutes to wriggle past a challenge and drill a low shot Cech stretched to parry. Arsenal threatened also; Holding nearly won the game when he rose to a Granit Xhaka corner kick and headed strongly just over the crossbar.
Those moments and many others drew applause and roars from a crowd spangled by several iterations of Gunner colors – including the classic burgundy – as well as those of the home team. Those fans let loose a big cheer when Quakes keeper David Bingham, who replaced Blake at halftime, flew to his left and turned away a long-distance rip from Nacho Monreal. And they moaned in despair when the other Quakes’ All-Star, Chris Wondolowski, blazed a shot over the bar from about 15 yards out.
The general choppiness of play notwithstanding, Arsenal often displayed the fluidity inherent in the team during Wenger’s long tenure, and in the 87th minute the Gunners got the goal and result they wanted. Chris Willock deked and dipped to retain the ball in the penalty area as Monreal ran up the left side. When the ball came to him, Montreal slid it square and Akpom tapped it in.
Enough time remained for the All-Stars to steal an equalizer, but Holding -- the only man to go 90 minutes -- broke up a sweet exchange between Clint Dempsey and Cyle Larin to snuff out a scoring chance.
“When we got it down and knocked it around, it was fun and sharp,” said All-Star midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who not only buttressed the midfield so Pirlo and Kaka could put on the dazzle but hit a few telling passes of his own. “It could have gone either way.
“A lot of them have been playing together for a while, so that brings some challenges. Not many of us have played together. Dom was huge on let’s have fun, let’s be competitive, and let’s go home healthy. And we checked all his boxes.”