Soccer America
Thursday July 24th, 2008

Does the soccer world care if the MLS can run its winning record against foreign opposition in the All-Star Game to 5-0?

No, despite the fact it is being televised to nearly 100 countries (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) and approximately 300 media credentials have been issued.

But MLS players, coaches and executives care, and the head coach and players from West Ham United -- the opponent for Thursday night's game at Toronto's BMO Field -- know that an MLS with David Beckham has boosted awareness of America's soccer league.

"David Beckham coming here has raised MLS a lot higher in England and in Europe," said striker Dean Ashton on Wednesday following a West Ham training session. "Everyone is talking about it. It's on the up, and if it keeps getting better, a lot of players will want to come here."

Translated, West Ham may be just two weeks into preseason training and is short on fitness as well as match sharpness, yet there are positions up for grabs, and manager Alan Curbishley is expecting a better showing than the Hammers gave last Sunday in beating a mostly Columbus reserve squad 3-1, even though that match was played on grass, and FieldTurf is the surface for the All-Star Game.

"Artificial turf isn't ideal and we're not familiar with it, but we won't use that as an excuse," said Curbishley. "We came here to get two games because we thought it would help us in our preseason getting ready for the Premiership. A couple of our guys couldn't play in Columbus and but I expect them to play in this game, and a few others we'll just have to see how it goes."

Steve Nicol, the coach of the MLS All-Stars, said the same thing about two Houston players: midfielder Dwayne De Rosario and Pat Onstad, who played a twice-rescheduled league match Wednesday night in Washington.

"We'll see how they are when they arrive," said Nicol. "But I told all the players I can't guarantee if they'll start or how much they'll play."

Michael Parkhurst, Sacha Kljestan and Robbie Rogers were scratched from the All-Star squad when they were named to the U.S. Olympic team. Juan Toja, Jonathan Bornstein and Steve Ralston were named as replacements, yet Toja and FC Dallas teammate Kenny Cooper have been negotiating possible transfer moves in the days leading up to the game, so in that respect, at least, both Curbishley and Nicol have distractions to consider as their teams prepare for a friendly.

MLS has won all four of its matches against foreign club teams, having beaten Chivas de Guadalajara (2003), Fulham ('05), Chelsea ('06) and Glasgow Celtic ('07). Those results might not resonate around the globe, but the MLS All-Stars take the reputation of their league seriously even if not a lot of other people do, Beckham or no Beckham.

"On the one hand, it was nice when it was East vs. West and just the MLS guys getting together for a few days," says Landon Donovan of a format used in past seasons before MLS decided to pit its best against foreign opposition. "But a game like this means a lot more on so many levels, and as professional players, we're always anxious to face a challenge. We know West Ham is in preseason, but they're professionals, like we are, and nobody wants to lose any game. I expect us to play well and I know they'll want to give a good showing, too."

For Beckham, the game is a chance to reconnect with his boyhood from far across the Atlantic Ocean. Its name notwithstanding, West Ham is located in the East End of London, from where Manchester United plucked Becks as a teenager after inviting him to train for a week while he was 14.

"It's great, being an East End boy playing against West Ham so many times with Manchester United and also scoring against West Ham, which didn't go down well with a few friends," he said. "But it's always nice to play against a quality team. They're a team that have got some good players and they're working towards the start of the Premiership. It'll be a tough game -- you always look forward to that."

Goalkeepers: Pat Onstad (Houston Dynamo), Matt Reis* (New England Revolution).

Defenders: Jim Brennan (Toronto FC), Jimmy Conrad* (Kansas City Wizards), Frankie Hejduk* (Columbus Crew), Bornstein (Chivas USA).

Midfielders: Beckham* (Los Angeles Galaxy), Cuauhtémoc Blanco* (Chicago Fire), De Rosario (Houston Dynamo), Christian Gómez (Colorado Rapids), Shalrie Joseph* (New England Revolution), Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado Rapids), Ralston (New England Revolution), Toja (FC Dallas).

Forwards: Juan Pablo Ángel (forward, New York Red Bulls), Edson Buddle (Los Angeles Galaxy), Cooper* (FC Dallas), Donovan* (Los Angeles Galaxy).

*First XI picks.

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