ORLANDO — As at all all-star games, the result of Major League Soccer’s is secondary. It’s the event that matters—the showcase, the parties, the networking and the stage. It’s as much about fans, executives and sponsors as it is the stars, and the on-field pyrotechnics tend to be literal rather than figurative.
But the MLS version features more of a competitive wrinkle then the rest, as a league select team matches up against a big-name foreign club. It looks like soccer. There’s defense. There’s even the occasional foul. Instincts may not take over, but they at least bubble to the surface as the MLS men aim to show their league has some quality, while the guests hope to avoid a defeat that might raise questions back home. And so it was Wednesday here in rainy Orlando, where Atlético Madrid came to play, showcasing both its star power and its depth in a 3-0 win over an MLS side that had several scoring chances of its own.
Here are three thoughts on the evening, as the MLS winless streak in this annual midsummer friendly has reached a record four games:
All-Stars unlocked by Atleti teens
Lightning delayed the start at Exploria Stadium by 45 minutes, and then a pair of spectacular strikes cemented the result for the visitors. Each centered on the play of a 19-year-old—one a rising star and one a relative unknown.
The All-Stars, set up in a 4-5-1 by Orlando City manager James O’Connor, looked like they’d get to halftime even when new Atleti acquisition Héctor Herrera, the Mexican midfielder, fed Rodrigo Riquelme near the top of the MLS penalty area. Riquelme, 19, isn’t even on Atlético’s first-team roster. He’s an academy product who was promoted this summer to the club’s reserve team. Here on the U.S. tour to provide depth, he got the start Wednesday then provided a highlight, splitting open the MLS defense with a spectacular, one-touch heel pass that offered another new signing, Marcos Llorente, a relatively easy finish.
Atleti put the game away in the 85th. This time it was the big names that did the deed. Versatile midfielder Saúl Ñíguez slipped a pass to 19-year-old João Félix, the blockbuster signing from Benfica who cost Atlético an estimated $130 million. Félix showed why in Orlando, taking one touch then ripping a ridiculous shot with no spin—but plenty of swerve—that completely bedeviled goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
“It looked like it was coming right at me, and then it was dancing a little bit and it veered to my left. I tried to get my hands to it but it got away fro me,” Rimando said following the game. “He’s a crafty player, a good player, just came to this team for a lot of money. Those players have the skill to do those kind of shots.”
Veteran striker Diego Costa scored in stoppage time to provide the final margin, finishing off a long ball by Félix.
Rooney the Regista
D.C. United captain Wayne Rooney probably was MLS’s best player, despite playing far from the spot he’s accustomed to in Washington. Zlatan Ibrahimovic manned the high No. 9 role Rooney usually fills for DCU coach Ben Olsen, so on Wednesday, Rooney started as part of a central triangle in O’Connor’s five-man midfield.
The position offered the English veteran considerable freedom, and he made the most of it, shuttling back and forth in the left channel to support the center backs, defensive midfielder Diego Chará and playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo. At times, Rooney even retreated behind Chará as he tried to help MLS break through the Atleti press. He was mobile. His passing was sharp. And he had an eye for the simple ball that might help the All-Stars keep possession, as well as longer passes to overlapping left back Kemar Lawrence or one of the attackers. At one point, right back Graham Zusi was beaten and Rooney was there in support to nip the Atleti attack in the bud.
Rooney played only 45 minutes, but he made an impact and said he enjoyed both his role and the occasion.
“It’s obviously a role I’ve played many times [in England], and obviously I feel I’m capable of playing, so, I had no problems. I enjoyed it,” he said. “You have a bit more space to get on the ball, and then it’s on me to use my experience and try to pick the right times to play good passes forward or the right times to keep the ball. I thought at times we kept the ball well. We created some good opportunities.”
MLS won the possession battle, 59%-41%.
Rooney has played on the sport’s biggest stages and would never mistake the All-Star game for anything close to those, but he did say that this was a friendly with an edge.
“It was fun to be part of. Not the result we would’ve liked, but Atlético are a fantastic team. They make it difficult of for you. But the experience of playing the game, it was good to be involved in,” he said.
A unique format remains undefeated
The All-Stars lost to Arsenal in 2016, then to Real Madrid and Juventus in successive years on penalty kicks. Wednesday’s 3-0 defeat was the largest since a 4-0 thumping by Manchester United in 2011. Maybe MLS is biting off more than it can chew in these games. Maybe defeat puts a damper on the party.
Or maybe not. In fact, Rimando said the big-name opponent enhances the occasion.
“Did I enjoy the East vs. West [format]? Yes,” he said, of the high-scoring, intramural shootouts played until MLS switched permanently to the current format in 2005. “But again, we brought Atlético Madrid here. These fans love that, and they filled the stadium. …This is a good event for fans, and look at the players we have in this locker room. It’s what the fans probably wanted.”
We see the likes of Ibrahimovic, Rooney, Carlos Vela and the rest of the best MLS has to offer go up against each other every weekend. The All-Star Game gives them a chance to team up, and play Europe’s best once again—even if it’s for a half at three-quarters speed—while offering a fun change of pace for the top domestic players. Teams like Atlético bring a bit of cachet to an event that otherwise would become a tired intramural walkthrough, or something defined more by gimmicks and sideshows like other all-star games.
“To come here and represent the MLS against one of the best team in the world, you want to try and win and do the best you can,” Rooney said.
This event is for fans, sure. It’s also for the league, its sponsors, media partners and executives. The board of governors meets at the site of each All-Star Game, and it’s the one time each year (MLS Cup is scheduled on short notice at the site of the higher seed) when all the constituencies that make pro sports leagues go can plan to be there well in advance. And so buildings in downtown Orlando are draped in purple All-Star Game banners, and the massive hotel complex housing those meetings featured temporary purple carpet and floor-to-ceiling Zlatans and Wondolowskis.
Most people don’t care about that stuff, but it’s the sort of behind the scenes action that matters. Add a sell-out crowd whose curiosity is piqued just a bit more by a famous foreign opponent, and the event has just enough fuel to remain relevant. Despite Wednesday’s defeat, MLS shouldn’t consider losing the format. It makes the All-Star Game a soccer game.