28 July ~ Respected New York Times journalist George Vecsey previewed last night's Major League All-Star game against Manchester United in New Jersey as an "increasingly meaningful liaison". He was far from alone in the US media this week in trying to talk up as a significant challenge a game that's just one more stop on United's brand-enhancing, cash-generating tour. But any question of the game being an encounter from which we could glean anything other than shallow conclusions about MLS or Manchester United (apart from confirming that Ashley Young will not bring them any closer to Barcelona this season) was moot by half-time, with United almost walking their way to a 2-0 lead with goals from Anderson and Park Ji-Sung.
Dimitar Berbatov added a third shortly after the interval in that casual fashion suggesting he'd rather be ordering a portion of fish and chips, and the usual flood of second-half substitutions rendered the contest as a competitive clash of 11 versus 11 absolutely void of all tension and interest. Danny Welbeck rounded off the scoring with a long-range shot. Any meaning spotted by Vecsey in this liaison must have evaporated in the smoke of the pre-match fireworks, whose sparks and explosions inspired most of the night's biggest cheers, alongside two parachutists landing on the field and a linesman getting knocked over by the ball. It was one of those crowds where you felt they'd cheer either side scoring. Which is all very nice, but somewhat parallel to the whole point of having two sides at all.
Indeed journalists struggled all week to scratch at the concept of this game's meaning. After all, they had to write about something, because a picture of Thierry Henry and Michael Owen holding a football scarf at the top of the Empire State Building will only take the story as far as a two-line caption. Henry was asked if he thought the All-Star team would be out to avenge last year's 5-2 defeat against United in Houston. His response was the equivalent of a Gallic shrug that forecast the game's final score all too well (Henry left the game at half-time). The younger MLS players tried to stress the thrill of being selected as an All-Star, and what a big deal it was to play against the likes of Wayne Rooney. But the sub-text of that was merely: "I go to bed dreaming that I score three miraculous goals and Sir Alex takes me back on the plane to England."
Other searches for meaning centred around the fact that David Beckham would be playing against his old team, but attempts to breach new understandings of the human condition foundered, as ever, upon David's uncomplicated approach to life's conflicts and contradictions. He still has a huge respect for the team and Sir Alex. Obviously. His influence on the game was minimal, unless you count his failure to track back on Anderson for United's first goal. Still, he was one of the few players not to get subbed off, so he can still go the full 90 with his hands on his hips, still wondering after four years why MLS defenders aren't as good as those lads he used to play with in Europe.
And the real meaning: $2 million (£1.2m) for Manchester United, to add to the $8m for their other four games in North America. For MLS, it meant lots of media coverage merely because their select XI was playing Manchester United. All credit to them for attracting such a highly valued team two years running, and for staging the game in a 25,000-seat MLS stadium when they could have sold many times more tickets by playing in an NFL venue. But you can't help but wonder if all that extra publicity is doing the league much good. They got hammered for the second successive year, emphasising a talent gap we all know is there, but which they should maybe draw attention to as little as possible.
Meanwhile, United get to show their adoring North American audience just what they can do to America's supposed best, winning more new converts on the way, and providing little incentive to switch for that potential market still shunning the domestic game in favour of what comes via their satellite dish. It's not necessarily a bad idea for MLS to measure itself against other leagues, but thrown-together All-Star teams who only have two days of training as a unit are not a true gauge of the league's talents. Maybe next year it would be a good idea to invite back lesser English teams previously defeated by the All-Stars, like West Ham, Fulham and Chelsea.
There were fireworks after the game too for the couple of thousand who stayed around to watch United pick up the massively prestigious All-Star trophy. It was the least they deserved for having paid well to see a pedestrian exhibition game, and belated compensation for an all-round lack of heat, fire and fizz on the football field. But I still don't get the meaning of fireworks. Ian Plenderleith