With the World Cup over and European clubs ramping up preseason training, it’s time to look ahead to the Major League Soccer All-Star Game. Reigning Club World Cup champion and 2012-13 UEFA Champions League winner Bayern Munich will provide one of the league’s sternest tests in the annual club vs. MLS showcase.
Legendary manager Pep Guardiola marches his team into Providence Park on Aug. 6. Depending how many of his first-choice players are available for selection, as many as six of Germany’s World Cup-winning squad members could see time in the match.
The fan-voted lineup released Wednesday included nine United States internationals, eight of whom were in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. Obafemi Martins (Nigeria) and Thierry Henry (France) represented the small non-U.S. contingent among the 11 players.
However, that won’t necessarily be the team that steps onto the field, nor is it necessarily a team of the 11 most-deserving players. Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter, who will coach the MLS All-Stars in his home stadium, will select from among the Fan XI, commissioner Don Garber’s two All-Star selections and players that received at least two votes from their peers.
The 20-man match day roster will be announced Saturday at halftime of Sporting Kansas City's match vs. the LA Galaxy, a meeting of the last two league champions (12 other players will earn All-Star distinction per the league's collective bargaining agreement, but they will be inactive for the game, barring injuries). Here is our merit-based 20-man roster for the MLS All-Star Game, taking into account league form and tactical considerations:
• Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Before leaving for Brazil with the U.S. team, Rimando put in the two best individual goalkeeping performances of the MLS season so far. Against LA during the opening week, he saved a penalty in stoppage time to deny Robbie Keane a late equalizer, and he pulled within one shutout of Kevin Hartman’s league record 112 in a 1-0 win over Portland on April 19.
• Defender: Matt Hedges (FC Dallas)
Despite a team leaking goals around him, the 24-year-old Hedges hasn’t done much to quell speculation that he could be on the brink of a U.S. national team call-up. He has been solid on both ends of the field, scoring twice and adding an assist, all on headers inside the penalty area.
• Defender: Chad Marshall (Seattle Sounders)
Speaking of headers, no center back in the league has won more aerial duels than Marshall. No matter who his partner has been, Marshall has been the rock in Seattle’s defense as the lineup around him fluctuates and goalkeeper Stefan Frei gets used to being a starter again.
• Defender: Aurélien Collin (Sporting Kansas City)
Few defenders in MLS have as much of a presence as Collin does, whether that’s mixing it up with opposing attackers or getting forward on set pieces on the other end of the field. Despite his penchant for yellow cards, he plays one of the most important roles on his team.
• Midfielder: Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders)
After a mediocre return to MLS in 2013, Dempsey put to rest any talks of a transfer-induced career lull with his performance so far this season. Starting with a hat trick against the Timbers, Dempsey, who has nine goals, has proven he can rise to the pressure of being one of the most accomplished Americans to return to his home league.
• Midfielder: Pedro Morales (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Morales’ distribution ability has produced multiple marvelous moments springing teammates forward. He is tied for second in assists (with eight) and sits fourth in the league in chances created, combining simple passes in midfield with defense-splitting balls from a deep position.
• Midfielder: Federico Higuaín (Columbus Crew)
Higuaín continued his prolificacy in the final third despite playing a deeper role than in previous years for the Crew, scoring six goals and adding five assists so far along with dictating tempo for his team. A couple of the goals have been world-class finishes as well, including his 25-yard chip on the run over lanky Portland goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts on May 17.
• Midfielder: Erick Torres (Chivas USA)
Torres has been a bright spot for Chivas USA all season, which has put the turmoil behind the scenes to the back burner while embarking on a four-game winning streak to get back in the playoff hunt. His robot-dance goal-scoring celebration has been done with regularity, as he's scored 13 goals, which translates to 65 percent of his team’s strikes — the highest percentage in the league.
• Forward: Obafemi Martins (Seattle Sounders)
He might play somewhat in Dempsey’s shadow in Seattle, but Martins continues to be the perfect attacking partner for the U.S. captain. Whether it’s his eight goals (just one fewer than Dempsey) or six assists (seventh in the league in both categories), the Nigerian World Cup veteran is the all-around threat that gives Dempsey a little more space to operate.
• Forward: Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls)
At age 36, Henry might still be the best player to play in MLS based on performance, finishing chances and setting up teammates with an icy ruthlessness that made him one of the best in the world when he played for Arsenal and Barcelona. He’s also taken to mentoring his teammates with a vocality that belies the competitive fire still burning strong underneath that calm external layer.
• Forward: Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
Wright-Phillips has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of Henry’s tutelage; MLS’s current leading goalscorer has 16 goals, and he plays next to the leading assist man: Henry, with 10. Wright-Phillips has broken out when his team needed him most, starting with a hat trick on April 23 when New York had only won one of its first seven games.
Goalkeeper: Jaime Penedo (LA Galaxy)
Defenders: Carlos Bocanegra (Chivas USA), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City)
Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Javier Morales (Real Salt Lake), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC)
Forwards: Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy), Jermain Defoe (Toronto FC), Dom Dwyer (Sporting Kansas City)
Necessity dictates that at least a couple players on the bench be defenders, otherwise this 20-man roster could easily be stocked with more attacking talent (such as Sporting KC's Benny Feilhaber or Chicago Fire rookie Harry Shipp, for example).
With nearly three goals per game being scored in league play and only L.A. averaging less than one goal conceded per match, Penedo, the Galaxy goalkeeper deserves a place somewhere on the squad.
He can pull off flashy saves when necessary, but it’s his less obvious traits such as leadership and organization that make his performances tough to quantify. Kansas City captain Besler is another whose leadership is vital, combined with the best passing percentage overall and per 90 minutes of any regular starting defender in 2014.
In midfield, Bradley has done well on a Toronto FC team where his tenacity and work ethic fit perfectly, while Beckerman and Javier Morales continue to form one of the fiercest central midfield pairs in the league. Morales has created 57 scoring chances for RSL, the most in MLS.
Finally, a trio of the league’s top goalscorers round out the bench, ranging from a pure finisher in Dwyer (14 goals) to a rangy dribbler in Keane (nine goals, six assists) and Defoe (11 goals in 13 games), who is somewhere in between. In a league where attackers thrive, the possible permutations should provide a good attacking coach such as Porter with some intriguing possibilities.