A rather relaxed approach to this unique All-Star format had worked fine for Major League Soccer -- until mighty Manchester United put a 5-2 beatdown on the backpedaling MLS squad a year ago. Now the league seems to be throwing a little more determination into its All-Star act. Hans Backe, the New York Red Bulls coach overseeing this year's team, seems to have something up his Swedish sleeve. But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet. First, here is a 10-point primer for the July 27 All-Star contest at Red Bull Arena, where Manchester United once again provides the opposition.
1. The novel format: Early MLS All-Star events featured the East-West format, so familiar from other sports, but the volume of "true" stars was less than inspiring. They later tried a U.S. vs. the World bit, but that was a slow-boiler, too. So in 2003, the popular Mexican side, Chivas de Guadalajara, traveled here to face a more select collection of MLS All-Stars, and league officials sensed they were onto something. Since then, Fulham, West Ham, Chelsea, Everton and Manchester United have visited from England to face the All-Stars in a format that has just enough razzmatazz mixed with competitive bite. Scottish giant Celtic made an appearance, too. League officials keep trying for one of the Spanish heavies, Barcelona or Real Madrid, but just can't seal the deal. Then again, no one is complaining about a repeat appearance by Sir Alex Ferguson's club, among the world's wealthiest and most decorated.
2. Big success, then a big thud: MLS claimed the first five matches in this format, highlighted by a 1-0 surprise over Chelsea at Chicago's Toyota Park in 2006. Nobody seriously considered these real matches. These visitors, after all, are just into their preseasons, not fit and not sharp. Still, since a modicum of competitive spirit draped the event, there was a little swelling of MLS pride for winning five in a row. A 1-1 tie against Everton in 2009 became the first blemish. Then Manchester United delivered last year's hammer blow, when things unraveled so spectacularly against a major step-up in opposition quality.
3. "Oh, now we get it:" Seconds into last year's match at Houston's Reliant Stadium, MLS felt the full force of a Manchester United side that meant business. MLS right back Kevin Alston coughed up possession and the merciless Red Devils were ahead. The English side went up 2-0 after 15 minutes, which is about the time the MLS selections seemed to realize they weren't in a nice little friendly and began leaning into the effort. Not that it helped much. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez made his ballyhooed Manchester United debut in the second half and put the cherry on the 5-2 rout with his first of many goals for the club.
4. Change in selection mechanisms: Lesson learned, MLS tweaked the player selection processes. Previously, fans, media, coaches and MLS officials voted for the team. But popular vote, as we all know, rarely creates a collection that can truly compete on the field; these assemblies are heavy on "legacies" and unbalanced by too many attackers. So this year the Red Bulls manager was handed carte blanche, able to choose pretty much anyone he wanted. He remained faithful to a fan vote of a ceremonial "First XI," but they won't necessarily start. Backe announced his picks Monday, attempting to select personnel around a game plan that, he believes, gives MLS a fighting chance.
5. Omissions: Some supporters cranked the incredulous meter up to 11 upon news of Backe's picks, especially the Osvaldo Alonso "snub." Only, it wasn't a full-fledged snub for Seattle's busy-bee holding midfielder. Players from Seattle, Dallas and Toronto are involved in CONCACAF Champions League matches next week (nice scheduling by all parties, eh?), so there was no reason to choose them. A vote among players will select six additional names to fill out a full complement of 32 "All-Stars" and Alonso is likely to be on that list. (The extra names are a collective bargaining requirement tied to player bonuses and such.) At any rate, Philadelphia's Carlos Valdes, Vancouver's Eric Hassli and Davide Chiumiento, L.A.'s Todd Dunivant and D.C. United's Charlie Davies were (rightly or wrongly) getting the most "He was robbed!" sentiment from fans.
6. Meanwhile, uh, Corey Ashe?: Meanwhile, a few MLS choices raised a curious brow. They do appear to be strategic, but that hasn't tamed the ire of fans who wanted their guy picked. The selections of Houston's Corey Ashe and teammate Geoff Cameron seem to have kicked up the biggest dust storm of consternation. Ashe has been adequate at left back since moving from the midfield earlier this year, but he's still learning the position. Cameron was selected as a defender (having played there before) even though he's a midfielder at Houston. And Bobby Convey was chosen to play left back, even though he has publicly complained when asked to man that position for San Jose. Backe especially likes Convey, whom he described as an "easy pick." Colorado's Omar Cummings isn't what he was in 2010, but he got an invite. And then there was Matt Besler, proof that the selection process remains imperfect. The developing young center back was a fan pick -- selected through text message voting that was heavily influenced by some clever marketing.
7. It seems to be about speed: Some of the MLS choices may seem a bit off, but Backe has a plan, apparently. He prioritized technical ability and speed in his criteria. Backe wanted players who are precise on the ball to help prevent those costly turnovers against United's relentless pressing. From there, he tilted toward speed, which helps explain the Ashe selection. The dude is fast. And Backe might be setting up Geoff Cameron to stretch his long legs at right back. Cummings isn't scoring this year, but he's got great pace, too. Same for young Juan Agudelo, who doesn't even start consistently for Backe at New York. The pacey Landon Donovan was picked as a forward rather than a midfielder, so it looks like some sort of 4-3-3 might be in the works, perhaps with Thierry Henry at striker.
8. MLS in it to win it: Backe sounds confident of his plan and his picks. And he seems serious about it all, too. "This league is quite good, and I think we absolutely can match up against Man-U in a preseason game," he told MLSsoccer.com's ExtraTime Radio. "And it's important for the league to get a good result." He's also been having some fun with his personal dominance over Manchester United. Backe was an assistant for rival Manchester City in 2007-2008 under then-manager Sven-Göran Eriksson. They prevailed over the Red Devils in the local derby -- twice! "The problem now is that I don't want to risk my stats against Man U," Backe joked last month when he was picked to lead the side.
9. Red Bull Arena: The fabulous $180 million ground in Harrison, N.J., which opened 16 months ago, has sold out a few times, including once for an international featuring a pair of global middleweights. But its 25,000-seat capacity is too small for most major internationals, which get redirected over to the nearby NFL stadium. So, this will be Red Bull Arena's most high-profile event, easily. About time.
10. Manchester United's squad: A couple of big names are missing from the fabled Old Trafford outfit, but not many. The list of stars currently on tour in North America includes England internationals Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand, Portuguese winger Nani, South Korean midfielder Park Ji-Sung, world class center back Nemanja Vidic and Welsh midfielder Ryan Giggs. "Chicharito" was given extra rest after helping Mexico claim the Gold Cup crown in June but he is expected to join his side before next week's visit to New Jersey.
MLS All-Star roster:
Goalkeepers: Tally Hall (Houston Dynamo), Faryd Mondragón (Philadelphia Union)
Defenders: Corey Ashe (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo), Bobby Convey (San Jose Earthquakes), Sean Franklin (LA Galaxy), Jámison Olave (Real Salt Lake), Heath Pearce (Chivas USA), Tim Ream (New York Red Bulls)
Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), David Beckham (LA Galaxy), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Jack Jewsbury (Portland Timbers), Shalrie Joseph (New England Revolution), Nick LaBrocca (Chivas USA)
Forwards: Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls), Omar Bravo (Sporting Kansas City), Omar Cummings (Colorado Rapids), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
Inactive All-Stars: Kasey Keller (Seattle Sounders FC), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Rafa Márquez (New York Red Bulls), Brek Shea (FC Dallas). Note: Six more inactive All-Stars will be chosen via player voting.