HOUSTON -- The smaller-market Kansas City Wizards found a way to sneak a little influence into this week's MLS All-Star game after all.
The Wizards felt slighted last week when no member of the club was selected for All-Star duty. But they kicked up a hornets nest around the Manchester United camp by laying a highly public lick on the global soccer heavyweights, who are currently touring North America. Even though it's just preseason for Sir Alex Ferguson's proud men, Sunday's 2-1 loss to 10-man Kansas City must surely sting.
It was certainly greeted unkindly back home, where the headline writers in England sharpened their teeth and described it as "embarrassing" and as a "preseason shocker."
So, even if the fabled English giants will be something less than at full strength as they test the MLS All-Stars, they're sure to bring an extra helping of motivation into Wednesday's contest. Kickoff beneath the closed roof of Reliant Stadium is set for 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2 and TeleFutura).
MLS goalkeeper Nick Rimando is certainly aware that Manchester United may be in a mood to protect its name and reputation, but said the MLS players are excited about the chance to tests themselves nonetheless.
"I grew up watching Manchester United," said Rimando, who backstopped Real Salt Lake's 2009 MLS championships. "They are one of the best teams in the world, and they are some of the best players in the world, so to play against them in this game is a great opportunity."
For the sixth consecutive season and the seventh time in eight years, MLS rolls out the format that pits its A-List bunch against a high-profile foreign side. This year's game has scored a coup by landing perennial English Premiership and Champions League contender Manchester United.
Forbes magazine ranks Manchester United as the richest club in the world in any sport, valued at $1.84 billion. (The five-time Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys are No. 2 on the world list, followed by the New York Yankees).
However, while it's nice to have a name like United's to trumpet in the headlines, make no mistake about one thing: The bunch in the familiar red tops Wednesday will bear little resemblance to the group that soon goes hunting for English and European hardware.
The list of Red Devils not available at the moment is as impressive as it is extensive; Ferguson has provided extended recuperation time for players coming off World Cup duty. It's a concession to a grueling season ahead, one that stretches from an Aug. 16 Barclays Premier League opener through late May 2011. Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Owen Hargreaves, Ji-sung Park, Michael Owen, Nemanja Vidic and Michael Carrick are among those not in Houston, either injured or still on holiday. Making matters worse, Darren Fletcher and John O'Shea may now miss Wednesday's match after collecting minor ailments Sunday in Kansas City.
Veterans Ryan Giggs, with a club-record 838 appearances, and Paul Scholes will be the biggest names among the visitors from Old Trafford on Wednesday.
An interesting sidebar revolves around a man yet to make his first appearance for Manchester United, newly signed Mexican sensation Javier Hernandez, more commonly known as "El Chicharito." Man United's first Mexican signing was also given some time off after the World Cup (where the 22-year-old scored twice for his country), so his first training session with the storied club came Monday at Reliant Stadium.
Hernandez hopes to play Wednesday and Ferguson says he is eager to see the young striker play, so El Chicharito seems sure to make his United debut at the mammoth Reliant Stadium. The promise of a Hernandez appearance can only help to drive up attendance, which already is close being sold out.
All-Star matches in the past few years have been used to reward clubs for pushing forward on the league's important soccer-specific stadium initiative. The last five have been at Columbus' Crew Stadium, Chicago's Toyota Park, Colorado's Dick's Sporting Goods Park, Toronto's BMO Field and Real Salt Lake's Rio Tinto Stadium, all of which are smaller venues of 20,000 or so, more befitting the MLS model. League officials did consider Robertson Stadium, the Houston Dynamo's 28,000-seat home on the University of Houston campus. But when Manchester United was secured as the opponent, 70,000-seat Reliant became the only sensible option. Thus, Wednesday's crowd is sure to be the largest to witness an MLS All-Star contest since 78,416 saw the league's first midsummer contest in 1996.
Los Angeles Galaxy coach Bruce Arena will guide the MLS All-Stars, who have done well in this format. Mexico's Chivas Guadalajara, Scotland's Celtic and England's Fulham, Chelsea and West Ham United have all fallen to MLS' best and brightest in this format. Everton severed the streak last year at Rio Tinto Stadium, as U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard was the star in a tiebreaking penalty-kick decider.
"I think the MLS has always been successful [in this format] and the intensity level has been high, but I don't think the tackles have ever been over the top," said Houston Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear, who is assisting Arena on Wednesday and running the MLS practices until the Galaxy boss arrives. "If this game gives the opportunity for players to impress on either side, then that's the competitive nature of the game coming out."
Arena's MLS All-Stars will be at something less than full strength because of injuries and quirky scheduling. Real Salt Lake's Kyle Beckerman, who captains the reigning league champs, returned to his team's starting lineup last week but won't play in the match. Plus, Arena figures to use his four Galaxy All-Stars only sparingly. U.S. international star Landon Donovan and Galaxy teammates Edson Buddle, Omar Gonzalez and Donovan Ricketts will play in a CONCACAF Champions League match on Tuesday night and then fly into Houston on Wednesday for the All-Star contest. Buddle leads MLS with 12 goals, having just returned from South Africa along with Donovan. MLS officials say they knew about the Champions League fixture date and potential conflicts but had limited options because of Manchester United's schedule and other potential conflicts. (For that very reason, look for MLS to revert back to a weekend format next year, rather than the midweek format used since 2006.)
GK: Donovan Ricketts, Nick RimandoD: Omar Gonzalez, Chad Marshall, Jamison Olave, Kevin Alston, Heath Pearce, Wilman Conde, M: Dwayne De Rosario, Javier Morales, Marco Pappa, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Sebastien Le Toux, David Ferreira, Brad Davis, Shalrie Joseph, Jeff Larentowicz, Bobby ConveyF: Edson Buddle, Landon Donovan, Juan Pablo Angel, Brian Ching, Jaime Moreno