There are some parts of the American take on the beautiful game that just won’t be transferred to England. Strapping cameras to referees is one, the MLS SuperDraft – where players are traded, assigned and picked from colleges – is another, and finally, there’s the annual MLS All-Star game between the league’s 20 best players and a club from another country.
Since switching from the East vs West format in 2005, the MLS had chosen a British team every year as the All-Stars’ opponents, but this year, Italian giants Roma broke that trend by travelling to Kansas City to play against the cream of America’s footballing crop, coached by Kansas boss Peter Vermes. The involvement of a non-British club follows the increasing glamour the All-Star game has attracted; while the likes of Fulham and West Ham United were early opponents, Manchester United, Chelsea and now Italian sides are becoming open to the idea (no doubt attracted by the revenue opportunities associated with the game).
Vermes and MLS Commissioner Don Garber had picked a strong squad including the likes of Thierry Henry, Marco Di Vaio and Landon Donovan, and while Roma brought their star-studded first-team – among them captain Francesco Totti and fellow Italy internationals Daniele De Rossi and Federico Balzaretti – the most familiar name to US football fans was national team midfielder Michael Bradley, who has been playing in Europe since 2006.
There’s been much debate in the US as to whether the league would be better served by a return to the East vs West format of the past, but there’s still plenty of interest in this fixture: the 21, 175 who turned up to Kansas’ Sporting Park was the highest attendance in the stadium’s history.
Vermes opted for an experienced front-line, pairing Henry and Di Vaio (combined age 72) while Roma named Totti, Bradley and new signing Kevin Strootman in an impressive line-up. To the crowd’s dismay, Roma controlled the tempo from the start and took just four minutes to open the scoring; exploiting the All-Stars’ high defensive line, Strootman collected a through ball before beating Peruvian ‘keeper Raul Fernandez in the hosts’ goal (via an unfortunate deflection off Kansas defender Aurelien Collin.
The All-Stars struggled to recover from that early blow, and just three minutes later Roma almost doubled their lead. Totti, picking the ball up deep in his own half, curled an exquisite 30-yard pass in behind All-Star left-back Corey Ashe for Alessandro Florenzi to run onto, but the 22-year-old’s shot slid just wide. Vermes’ men were dealt another blow on 24 minutes when Graham Zusi, playing just behind the strikers, was forced off with an injury; he was replaced by Vancouver Whitecaps’ Brazilian magician Camilo Sanvezzo.
With the Italians continuing to dominate proceedings but failing to add to their lead, half-time arrived with the score still at 1-0. Just seconds after the restart, however, they made the All-Stars pay: Ashe once more failed to track Florenzi’s run, and Balzaretti’s centre from the left was clinically converted by the unmarked midfielder.
The All-Stars almost managed an immediate reply when Thierry Henry took on three defenders on the left before crossing towards Chris Wondolowski, but the San Jose Earthquakes frontman just failed to connect with the delivery. The hosts’ best chance arrived 20 minutes later, when an unwise short goal-kick from Roma allowed Landon Donovan to pinch possession back; the ex-Everton man rounded the last defender but fired straight at Morgan De Sanctis from close range.
It was a miss they were made to pay for. From Roma’s next attack, Bradley released the impressive Strootman with a brilliant one-touch pass, and the Dutchman’s pull-back was turned in by Junior Tallo. Rookie full-back DeAndre Yedlin – on as a substitute for the hapless Ashe – came close to pulling one back on 85 minutes, playing a delightful one-two with Wondolowski but skying the final effort at goal.
However, the All-Stars didn’t have to wait long for their goal. In the first (and only) minute of injury time, Sanvezzo curled a fine free-kick onto the head of fellow sub Omar Gonzalez, and the LA Galaxy defender summoned up enough neck power to beat De Sanctis’ deputy Bogdan Lobont and restore some credibility to the scoreline.
The final whistle blew soon after on an interesting contest that will divide opinion on whether the MLS is as close to Europe as it thinks it is. Make no mistake, Roma strolled to victory here, but, as Jeff Carlisle notes for ESPN, “[given] that the MLS players had a grand total of one training session, and that the Roma players are all eager to impress new manager Rudi Garcia, it was no surprise to see the visitors run out to a 3-1 victory.”
League Commissioner Garber used the game’s interval to announce plans to expand the MLS to 24 teams by 2020 (it currently has 19, with New York City FC set to join in 2015). That demonstrates an ambition that can only help the MLS close the gap on Europe’s elite in the near future, and, as Carlisle adds, “a loss in the All-Star Game isn’t going to change that.”
All-Stars: Fernandez (Rimando 45); Besler (Gonzalez 45), Beltran, Collin, Ashe (Yedlin 66); Johnson, Beckerman (Magee 45), Davis (Donovan 45), Zusi (Sanvezzo 24); Henry (C) (McInerney 57), Di Vaio (Wondolowski 45).
Roma: De Sanctis (Lobont 63); Torosidis, Benatia, Castan, Balzaretti; Pjanic (Marquinho 63), Bradley, Florenzi (De Rossi 63), Strootman; Totti (C) (Ricci 87), Tallo (Caprari 80).
Referee: Hilario Grajeda.
Game MVP: Alessandro Florenzi.