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

Comments (11)
Comment by Efficient Baxter 2011-07-28 12:07:55

Ian - I realise you had a slant on this right from the beginning, but the All Stars were arguably the better team in the first half and would not have been too flattered if it were they who went in 2-0 up. One of the All Stars' defenders was doing a great job on Rooney, but then had to go off injured, giving the striker a bit more space. Beckham had a good game as well, drawing the games' two best saves from Anders Lindegaard and almost scoring again with a late free kick.
Despite the scoreline (skewed by a poor second half) the game was a much closer contest. Even if it was just a money spinner for Man United, I was impressed at some of the MLS talent on show.

Comment by jasoñ voorhees 2011-07-28 13:09:49

Ian, excellent as always, and I would like to add the $10 that Red Bull Arena was charging for parking and the tickets they were selling for $25 to see Manchester United [i]practice[/i].

Little did I realize, that at the end when Chicharito was running sprints with the trainer, that he had actually suffered a concussion in the session. Here I had been at the rare practice session where the most dramatic and reported-on thing happened and hadn't even noticed. Hell, no one even noticed, not even the trainer or Chicharito.

Comment by Efficient Baxter 2011-07-28 13:22:51

Are you sure Jaso? I'm sure news of Hernandez's concussion and night in hospital came before the game. I may be wrong - I've a month old baby in the house and time no longer feels linear.

Comment by imp 2011-07-28 13:32:45

When I say they walked into a 2-0 lead, I'm talking about how they absorbed the pressure (most of those MLS chances were long range efforts), then quickly stepped up a couple of gears to go down the other end and score. Brad Davis had an okay game in midfield, but Jamison Olave got skinned several times by Rooney before the nice innterception he got injured on. But the overall tenor of the game was nothing that remotely approached a serious contest.

Jason - that idea of charging money to watch training sessions is a nice little import from NFL. Beats me why anyone would bother going. As EB says, the Chicharito concussion was publicized shortly before game start.

Comment by dubisaweapon 2011-07-28 17:09:30

Ian is spot-on here. The only "real meaning" of last night's game was the all-mighty dollar bill. In terms of financials, the game was no doubt a big success. Man U gets their $2M, and the MLS gets a prime-time TV slot and a bevy of corporate sponsors lining up to get their name attached to the party. Indeed, as a fan who made the trip to Red Bull Arena, I witnessed first hand the sponsorship bonanza in the AT&T "Fan Zone" showcasing the official car of the MLS All-Star Game (Volkswagen) as well as the official tequila (El Jimador).

But to try and call this game and the other exhibitions between European clubs and MLS sides an "increasingly meaningful liaison" ala George Vecsey is downright farcical. The MLS teams have been getting pulverized left and right, with Man U themselves demolishing the Seattle Sounders 7-0. That's simply not competitive football. The MLS may appreciate the attention these games bring, but by continuing the showcase just how inferior of a product they've got doesn't seem like a wise long-term business strategy.

Comment by radmonkey 2011-07-28 20:07:15

Yes, of course theres a talent gap between MLS vs Man U, insofar as theres a talent gap between Man U and the rest of the EPL. Theres also an even bigger talent gap between Barcelona and the rest of the world.

But I hope people realize what an all-star game means. It means throwing together 20 players who have never played together. Training for one day and sending out to play an actual team. it's like sending kids to slaughter. It's like sending the all-star Territorial army vs the Green Berets after one training day. The result is obvious.

Also, I doesn't matter if MLS teams beat Manchester United in pre-season or lose to them 7-nil. Not really, Europhiles well scoff and say "it's preseason" if Man U lose. While MLS fans will say "well of course we lost, we played our reserves for half the match and Wayne Rooney thrashed them the same way they would thrash Wigan's reserves during a league cup match".

Kansas City beat them last year, does it mean anything? Not really. The Chicago Fire completed dominated Man United's reserves on the 23rd in the first half. Does that mean anything? Nope. SAF subbed in his 1st team while the Fire played it's bench and Manchester United rattled off 3 goals vs guys not good enough to see the pitch on the 2nd worst team in MLS. *golf clap" Bravo, good lads. Way to teach those colonialist how real men play football.

Anyway, the people I talked to at the Chicago vs Man U game, were actually impressed that the Fire dominated most of the first 70 minutes of play. It was only when Rooney and Nani were subbed in when you noticed a gulf in class. It was also only when Vidic and Ferdinand were paired together, than they actually managed to shut down the Fire's attack. It was an ok game, I've seen far better entertainment value in several MLS matches this year. But since I only paid $10 dollars to the see the spectacle, I didn't feel ripped off. Perk of being a MLS season ticket holder.

Is anyone going to mention San Jose beating West Brom? Now theres a fair match.

Comment by G.Man 2011-07-28 22:08:12

Glad to see Americans do the same post-friendly trophy 'n' fireworks combo South Africans do. I was in Johannesburg over the weekend and had opportunity to see the final of the Vodacom Challenge Cup between Tottenham and Orlando Pirates (Pirates won against Kaizer Chiefs to qualify; Spurs lost to Chiefs and drew with Pirates to get there!).

Spurs won the final 3-0. I took pictures of the presentation of the cup for my Spurs-supporting friends, who must have been filled with joy at winning some silverware at last.

Comment by djw 2011-07-28 22:34:06

These types of game highlight one point to me; that in the modern day Man Utd see their real competition as being the likes of the NY Yankees and the Boston Celtics rather than Chelsea or Arsenal. It all shows what the game is now about at this level, the mighty dollar. Sad.

Comment by The Exploding Vole 2011-07-29 10:28:04

It is a minor, pathetic quibble, but I wish a writer of Mr Plenderleith's oeuvre would "centre on" rather than "centre around".

Comment by Soccer_Nobody 2011-08-02 14:08:00

Ian, a few thoughts. First, there is a massive discrepancy in talent between Manchester United and Major League Soccer, but that’s like the old cliché about comparing apples to oranges. Manchester United is one of the most successful clubs in soccer history, while MLS was founded in 1996 and is a growing league with a tight salary cap (David Beckham’s contract notwithstanding). Wayne Rooney’s salary is higher than each team’s budget, so the gulf in talent should not be too surprising. But to suggest that these games in any way represent MLS is erroneous.

First, as you concede, the All-Stars hardly featured the league’s best players. Landon Donovan and Charlie Davies were two notable absences, and as you pointed out, the All-Stars had not trained together beyond two days of media events and stretching exercises. But if you look deeper into Manchester United’s victories against MLS clubs during this tour, you’ll find that many teams appear disinterested at the prospect of facing their European brethren. With MLS fixtures becoming increasingly crowded, thanks to international friendlies and tournaments like the CONCACAF Champions Cup, teams often play their starters for a half before rolling out reserves, trialists, and youth players. When the Philadelphia Union defeated Everton last week, it was through a goal scored by a seventeen-year-old academy player. The Chicago Fire led at halftime in their 3-1 loss to Manchester United, but the match included twenty-one substitutions, so how seriously should we interpret the result? Sure, the Red Devils thumped the Seattle Sounders 7-1, but six of those goals came in the second half against the Sounders’ second team. Rooney tallied a hat trick, but shouldn’t that be expected when one of the world’s best plays against the second-string from a lesser league?

Ultimately, you conclude that these matches are all about money, since Manchester United earns $2 million per appearance. But in criticizing MLS for being exposed as substandard, you fail to recognize that MLS teams also make a lot of money from these friendlies. These matches fill NFL stadiums and earn loads of extra revenue for the cash-strapped league. So if the league takes a few black-eyes on the pitch, it’s to bolster their bottom line. Manchester United might be exploiting the defenses of MLS teams during their North American tour, but I’d suggest that relationship is reciprocal, MLS exploits Manchester United at the gate and merchandise stand.

Comment by imp 2011-08-03 15:30:15

Soccer Nobody wrote: "But to suggest that these games in any way represent MLS is erroneous." Which is why I did exactly the opposite (please re-read carefully my penultimate paragraph).

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