1) ARMCHAIR MIDFIELDER [A Look Back: MLS All-Star Games]
A monthly column about the State of U.S. Soccer that takes a hard look at everything from the performance of the U.S. National Teams to pro soccer in the good ‘ole U-S-of-A . If you’re looking for a viewpoint that you won’t see in a generic, nuts-and-bolts U.S. Soccer press release, you’ve come to the right place.
With the 2004 MLS All-Star Game coming up this Saturday (July 31) from RFK Stadium (at 2 p.m. ET live on ABC), we look back at the highs and lows, the silly and the sublime, of past incarnations of the league’s nine-year old mid-summer showcase, starting with the first of its kind in ’96.
Format / Result: East 3, West 2
Site: Giants Stadium; East Rutherford, N.J.
Remember?: The inaugural event was about three things--the crowd, the crowd and…the crowd. A record crowd of more than 78,000 people (then the largest ever for a sporting event at the Meadowlands) came out for the day’s doubleheader, with a unique match between Brazil and a group of FIFA World Stars bringing people to Giants Stadium, and a well-played MLS All-Star Game keeping them entertained prior to the marquee match. The league’s plan worked like a charm, with the East vs. West contest serving as an outstanding advertisement for the league, both for those in the stands and those watching the national broadcast. On the field, things went well, too. Hometown boy Tab Ramos scored the game’s first goal, then two players who would go on to be MLS legends (Preki and Jason Kreis) struck back to give the West the lead, only to have MetroStars forward Giovanni Savarese (who was celebrating his 25th birthday) provide the equalizer on a rebound of his own shot. Needless to say, the soccer gods were smiling on MLS that day, if not the entire first season.
Are You Sure?: Yes, it was slow-moving Scottish defender Steve Pittman that provided the game-winner for the East in the 88th minute, but El Pibe was the one that made the goal happen, as he would do for years to come as perhaps the league’s all-time best playmaker.
Format / Result: East 5, West 4
Site: Giants Stadium; East Rutherford, N.J.
Remember?: With the success of the inaugural All-Star Game, the league can’t be faulted much for again hosting it at Giants Stadium to try to recapture the buzz of the previous summer, but with some nasty weather and without a sexy international match prior, Year 2 turned out to be a bit of a downer. Heavy rain and lightning delayed the start of the match, but the rain didn’t stop the goals (nine), which flowed freely past the likes of World Cup veterans Walter Zenga and Tony Meola (both playing for the East) and Jorge Campos (West), whose Goals Against Average at the end of the day was a regrettable 10.00. The only good news for the flamboyant Mexican ‘keeper? He scored his first goal as a field player in the 44th minute to give the West a short-lived 2-0 halftime lead. Brian McBride’s game winner in the 88th minute was the dramatic clincher to a back-and-forth match that the West had just tied up with goals from Digital Takawira in the 80th minute and Cobi Jones in the 86th.
Are You Sure?: Believe it or not, Ted Chronopolous was an All-Star. He was that year’s recipient of the Steve Rammel Award, given to the MLS player who had no business being involved in an All-Star event.
Format / Result: MLS USA 6, MLS World 1
Site: Citrus Bowl; Orlando, Fla.
Remember?: Capitalizing on the hoopla of the ’98 World Cup, it was a no-brainer to change up the East vs. West format of the previous two years and spice things up with a USA against the World format. Having finished a disappointing last place in France, the game provided a perfect setting for the Bruce Arena-led and World Cup-heavy MLS USA squad to take out their frustrations on their international counterparts, which they did via a 6-1 drubbing of an impressive MLS World team. It was the McBride Show in the first half, as the Columbus Crew stud served up two assists and scored a goal of his own to lead MLS USA to a decisive 4-0 halftime lead, which included three goals in the first 16 minutes. Cobi and my “dawg” Roy Lassiter tacked on late goals to further the blowout before Campos came out of the nets to set up Mauricio Ramos for the World’s only goal in the 88th minute.
Are You Sure?: Maybe it was a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, but neither the gifted midfield trio of Cienfuegos, Valderrama and Etcheverry, nor the deadly D.C. duo of Diaz Arce and Moreno accounted for a single goal for the foreign-based squad in the first half.
Format / Result: West 6, East 4
Site: Qualcomm Stadium; San Diego, Calif.
Remember?: After falling in the first two match-ups, the West got its first win in the books, thanks to a dominant five-point performance from Preki. Like McBride the year before, the ageless wonder helped his team to a four-goal first half, scoring twice (13th and 38th) and setting up another to erase a strike from Roy Lassiter for the East in the opening minute. Down 4-1, the East roared back to equalize with a trio of goals from Joe-Max Moore (62nd minute), Valderrama (73rd) and Stern John (83rd), but it was short-lived, as formerly talented West forward Ronald Cerritos set up Mauricio Wright a minute later and added an insurance goal in the 89th minute for the win. With the victory, Alexi Lalas (then with the K.C. Wizards) became the only player in All-Star history to be on the winning team each of the first four years.
Are You Sure?: Little-known fact: the Fire’s Roman Kosecki could’ve just as easily taken MVP honors, assisting on both of Preki’s goals and scoring in the 32nd minute in his 45-minute stint.
Format / Result: East 9, West 4
Site: Crew Stadium; Columbus, Ohio
Remember?: After hitting some familiar coastal venues for the first four editions, MLS decided to see if their All-Star showcase would play in the Midwest. Would Columbus fans come out to see our boring, low-scoring, foreign sport? You’re darn right they would! The sold-out crowd of 23,495 was treated to an almost embarrassing onslaught of goals, with the East picking up their third win in the regional rivalry. The West built a 4-3 halftime lead behind a record four assists from Cobi Jones, but from then on it was all the East, who set another record by putting six goals past poor Zach Thornton. Valderrama was the catalyst for the offensive juggernaut, tying Jones’ four-assist mark while setting up a pair of goals for Tampa Bay teammate Mamadou Diallo, who also added an assist on a Jay Heaps goal and took MVP honors. Columbus favorites McBride and Dante Washington also got in on the action, with each chalking up a goal and an assist to put the game away with 15 minutes to play.
Are You Sure?: With the game out of hand, both starting ‘keepers Tony Meola and Mike Ammann entered the match as forwards in the closing minutes of play. Ammann appeared in the final box score with an assist, but it actually came from a punt downfield that led to a Clint Mathis score when he was in goal back in the 2nd minute.
Format / Result: West 6, East 6
Site: Spartan Stadium; San Jose, Calif.
Remember?: This year’s edition was all about the Golden Child, Mr. Landon Donovan himself. In what was a sign of things to come in his young MLS career, L.D. dominated the day’s event with a record four goals. Playing in his first All-Star game in his first year in MLS, the born superstar scored a rare natural hat trick by the 19th minute, becoming the first player in All-Star history to do so. After Ariel Graziani scored seven minutes later to give the West a 4-0 lead, perennial All-Star Game MVP candidate Brian McBride rallied the East with an assist then back-to-back goals in the 34th and 39th minutes to keep it close. The East continued to have the better of play in the second half and built a 6-5 lead before the hometown hero provided his final strike in the 92nd minute to salvage a draw for the West.
Are You Sure?: The only knock on what was an almost perfect game was the copycat bra-baring goal celebrations of both Jim Rooney and Landon Donovan in an effort to honor Bay Area native Brandi Chastain. I’m no comedian, but maybe that stunt would’ve played a little better at the ‘99 All-Star Game, not two full years later.
Format / Result: MLS 3, U.S. MNT 2
Site: RFK Stadium; Washington, D.C.
Remember?: Again capitalizing on the buzz of the World Cup, it was another battle between the MLS All-Stars and a quasi U.S. Men’s National Team (see second-half subs Juergen Sommer, Chris Henderson and Chad Deering). Riding the wave of the team’s popularity, the ’02 edition would have been a smashing success if not for the severe weather that caused the game to be interrupted for a full hour and forced the masses to huddle under RFK’s second tier. Nasty weather aside, the match itself was the fastest and most competitive in All-Star history, with both teams adopting a serious tone from the opening whistle and (gulp) actually playing defense, which had an obvious affect on the very normal score line. Donovan continued his All-Star success, opening the scoring in the 58th minute before Jason Kreis came back to tie it a minute later for MLS. Fittingly, Marco Etcheverry scored in his final All-Star Game to give MLS a 2-1 lead. Cobi tied it for the U.S. in 76th minute off an assist from McBride, but MLS got the game winner in the 81st minute when Steve Ralston converted a Chris Klein cross (his second assist of the day).
Are You Sure?: No disrespect to the ’98ers, but with Sommer, Alexi Lalas, Mike Burns and Deering all playing in defense in the second half, it’s no wonder MLS was able to notch three goals and pick up the win.
Format / Result: MLS 3, Chivas 1
Site: The Home Depot Center; Carson, Calif.
Remember, mi amigo?: The beginning of the league’s flirtation with MLS Internacional!, this edition was the first of what looked to be a trend of MLS All-Stars taking on well-known international club teams. Of course, that had to be scuttled this year when the bottom fell out of Real Madrid’s season and, in turn, changed their off-season plans, but kudos to MLS for trying to make that happen. Facing the fightin’ goats of Mexican club C.D. Guadalajara in ‘03, the MLS squad put in a solid performance and won decisively, which they should have, considering Chivas was still in pre-season. After the visitors had the better of the first half, a trio of subs by head coach Bob Bradley -- led by Donovan and also including Carlos Ruiz and Ante Razov -- paved the way for a dominant second half that produced all three goals. Razov grabbed the first on an assist from Donovan in the 57th minute, but Jair Garcia leveled the game in the 66th minute. Two minutes later, Carlos (Bocanegra) set up Carlos (Ruiz) for the go-ahead goal and Beaz added the final tally in the 83rd to help the MLS side win over from the multi-cultural sell-out crowd of 27,000 that filled the HDC.
Estas Seguro?: If anyone is more “The Man” than one Predrag Radislojevic, then I don’t know who is. At age 40, he became the only player to appear in all eight MLS All-Star Games. Sadly, with his injury this year, that streak will come to an end.