- Dom Dwyer's late goal salvaged a draw and forced penalties, but Real Madrid was a deserving winner after an MLS All-Star Game shootout.
New U.S. national team and Orlando City striker Dom Dwyer continued his eventful summer in Wednesday night’s MLS All-Star game against Real Madrid. He appeared to rescue his floundering team and a boring game with an equalizer in the 87th minute, which lifted the league’s best into a shootout against the reigning world and European champions. He then promptly missed in the tiebreaker.
The LA Galaxy’s Giovani dos Santos was unsuccessful as well, and that was enough to help lift Madrid to a 4-2 win on penalties following a 1-1 draw at Soldier Field. MLS now is 8-6 in All-Star games against foreign clubs (counting two penalty kick setbacks as defeats) and has lost two in a row for the first time since 2011, when it fell for a second straight year to Manchester United.
Here are three thoughts on this season’s All-Star match, which will prove to be largely forgettable outside the Dwyer household and Atlanta.
Some All-Star games are better than others
When it’s good, MLS’s iteration of the midseason North American tradition is the best there is. Eventually, someone usually cares. An MLS player looking to prove a little point commits to a 50/50 ball harder than friendlies typically require. A member of the celebrated European opponent takes exception. He’s not about to be shown up by a relative no-name in front of a demanding manager and a sold-out crowd. And so you have yourself a game—or at least something that looks like one.
Take a glance at the results of recent All-Star games held under the MLS XI vs. foreign club format, and most look like scores regularly seen in the sport. That’s more than its gimmicky All-Star brethren in hockey, basketball, football and baseball can say.
But when it’s bad, it looks just like every other tired, derivative all-star contest. And Wednesday’s, unfortunately for the league and the sold-out crowd in Chicago, fit that description. The All-Stars managed by Fire coach Veljko Paunovic never found any sort of chemistry or cohesion—it’s kind of a miracle when it does happen—and Madrid’s preseason sloppiness cost it in the attack. The visitors were dominant statistically but were forced to the shootout by Dwyer’s late header. Once there, however, Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei failed to match his MLS Cup heroics as Madrid’s Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo converted.
The result was close, but tension was absent. This shouldn’t be considered an indictment of the format, however. Bad games happen in every sport, even when they count. The MLS All-Star game still delivers far more frequently than others. It’s an exhibition. There's no perfect format—no guarantee there will be sparks and suspense. But by pitting its own players against a big-name foreign foe, MLS at least plants the seed of possibility. Wednesday night, it didn’t really work out. Perhaps next year, it does.
Tata Martino is probably upset and confused
In the end, it doesn’t matter who wins. Just please, nobody get hurt. That’s the All-Star prime directive. And wouldn’t you know it, it’s the expansion team and its foreign coach—one who’s likely bewildered by the midseason friendly concept—who suffered Wednesday night. Atlanta United left back Greg Garza went down in just the third minute after what looked like an innocuous challenge on the wet Soldier Field surface. He rolled on his back and immediately grabbed his right shoulder. It was separated, and the veteran was replaced by the even-more-veteran DaMarcus Beasley.
Garza has played for U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena only once this year, but he’s been a vital part of an Atlanta side that’s challenging for a playoff spot. United’s Argentina coach, Gerardo Martino, will no doubt about be asking why his bosses sent one of his best players to a meaningless game, only to be lost to a serious injury minutes in. Talk about culture shock. It’s a tough, unfair blow for a team that’s gotten so much right in its inaugural year.
MLS was no match for Madrid
Paunovic deployed what was perhaps the most talented MLS front six in All-Star history. Three World Cup winners—David Villa, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Kaká, were joined by in-form U.S. national team stars Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore and their Toronto FC teammate, the unstoppable Sebastian Giovinco.
It was a mouthwatering prospect, but ultimately, it failed to deliver. The sextet simply never got on the same page and because of the lack of cohesion and spacing inevitable in a game like this, the amount of desperate recovery and emergency defending the entire MLS side was forced to do had a negative impact going the other way. Altidore was replaced after only 30 minutes by Ignacio Piatti—perhaps that might add a bit more integrity to midfield—but Madrid remained dominant. MLS had one golden opportunity and it came late, but Villa’s close-range shot was beautifully saved by Keylor Navas.
Madrid took an All-Star record 19 shots in the first half—the previous mark was nine—but Tim Howard made only two saves. It wasn’t impressive at either end.
MLS’s star power was a bit reduced in the second half, but Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane staggered his best players. Although he was missing Cristiano Ronaldo, the French legend still was able to bring the likes of Bale and Benzema off the bench. The visitors took their deserved lead in the 59th minute through Borja Mayoral, a 20-year-old product of the club’s youth system, and appeared to be well on their way to a 90-minute win before Dwyer located some of the energy that had been missing from the match and beat goalkeeper Luca Zidane—yes, the coach’s son—to the rebound of a Dax McCarty header.