PHILADELPHIA -- Respect. It's not something generally and collectively won or lost during a Major League Soccer All-Star exhibition. In MLS' attempt to grow on the worldwide stage, the All-Star Game, under its MLS-vs. format, has been used unfairly as somewhat of a measuring stick, even though trying to quantify a group of players who rarely get the chance to play together going up against a European team in the middle of its preseason is a mostly futile exercise.
With the MLS All-Stars' 3-2 victory over Chelsea at PPL Park on Wednesday night, did MLS take a giant step forward and transform into a league with the chops to challenge Europe's finest clubs and players with regularity? That's a stretch. But with MLS' first win over a foreign opponent since triumphing over West Ham at Toronto's BMO Field in 2008, earning respect was the prevailing theme from a festive night during which the league saved some face after some embarrassing results in the past couple of seasons. No matter if there is nothing tangible on the line in these contests, MLS players are a prideful and competitive bunch, and the result carries some meaning for a group of guys who, for the most part, are striving for more notoriety in their own community and country, let alone registering on the radars of teams, players and executives overseas.
One MLS All-Star that last aspect does not pertain to is David Beckham, but perhaps no MLS player did more to earn a collective thumbs up Wednesday than the original Designated Player. Beckham, who is involved with Friday night's opening ceremonies of the London Olympics, did not join the MLS All-Stars until Wednesday morning while fulfilling his duties in his native country. He departed for a flight back to England just as soon as referee Baldomero Toledo's final whistle was blown to assume his role in dress rehearsals for London's big moment when it will have the world's attention. For a player who was an understandable no-show for every aspect of the All-Star break and was hardly expected to play in the match, Beckham not only showed up, but he started, played 74 minutes and left a genuine impact on the field. He helped set up the game-tying goal with a trademark, pinpoint, 50-yard ball across the field to Dwayne De Rosario, who fed D.C. United teammate Chris Pontius for the finish.
"He's pretty impressive," MLS All-Star coach Ben Olsen said. "(His schedule load) was a lot. He's just such a competitor. He wants to be in every game, and I think he was upset that he got taken off."
What Beckham means to his country at a nationalistic time like the Olympics is acceptably more valuable than his place in an All-Star contest, but for him to commute to and from London only to show up and live up to his end of the bargain speaks volumes about his make-up as an individual and his commitment to the league after some years when that was not always so clear cut.
"It's brilliant," Chelsea star midfielder and fellow Englishman Frank Lampard said. "David has such a responsibility back in our country, how he behaves, what a statesman he's become. He's an ambassador. He made the Olympics come to London. To fly back and forth and back and forth and play like he did tonight is brilliant. He's a machine, to be 37 years of age and he can play balls in the midfield like he did tonight."
Beckham's effort was beyond commendable, but so too was that of Jay DeMerit, a player whose career has been defined by striving for respect. The Vancouver Whitecaps captain was only slated to play the first half with his club having a vital league game against Real Salt Lake on Friday. When Sporting Kansas City center back Aurelien Collin was forced to leave the match with an apparent head injury in the first half, though, it shifted Olsen's plans to the point that he had no choice but to play DeMerit for the duration of the match, a task that DeMerit met head on with responsibility and class.
"It means I'm going to get a bunch of calls from Vancouver really pissed off," Olsen said. "The plan was to get him out at half. Unfortunately we couldn't do that. Our depth at center back wasn't great. He knew it, looked at me (and said), 'What are you going to do?' I thought he did a great job."
Even though Pontius was given MVP honors, mostly for his game-tying goal that happened to be scored around the time when most media MVP ballots were being filled out, DeMerit was arguably the most valuable player for MLS over the course of 90 minutes. He went to ground to strip the ball from rising Belgian star striker Romelu Lukaku in dangerous spots on the field on multiple occasions and was the strongest link on a steady back line, exerting a full effort from start to finish knowing full well that was not a requirement of him.
Like DeMerit, another former U.S. national team regular on the rebound who garnered the spotlight was Seattle Sounders forward Eddie Johnson. The brunt of jokes and "he's finished" judgments after four fruitless seasons in Europe, Johnson punctuated the first four months in his return to MLS by coming through with the match-winning goal in the final moments, doing so against a Chelsea team he never scored on while playing in the Premier League for Fulham. In his post-match remarks, Johnson played down his individual contribution, sounding very much like a matured individual who did not want to overstate the importance of the moment while acknowledging that it did matter to a degree. Not too much unlike MLS' All-Star triumph, one that does not instantly make the league elite but is a statement of modest progress in its quest to get to its desired level.