CHESTER, Pa. – Substitute Chris Pontius’s game-tying goal won the D.C. United attacker Wednesday’s Most Valuable Player award, but in the opening moments of a match MLS Soccer hoped would turn the page on two lopsided losses to Manchester United, it was the All-Star Game starters who set the tone. Osvaldo Alonso broke up play at the base of midfield midfield. David Beckham fired the darts that got his team into attack. Chris Wondolowski pinned Chelsea’s defenders, while Landon Donovan picked his spots coming in from the left, providing a crucial link on the first goal.
Thierry Henry, however, delivered the goal’s final ball, with Wondolowski beating a stumbling John Terry to give MLS the first goal of a 3-2 victory, their first in All-Star competition since defeating West Ham United in 2008. It was Henry’s biggest contribution of the night – a bullet cross from the left that gave the league’s leading soccer time to settle before beating Henrique Hilario – but it wasn’t his only play of note. Persistently turning Chelsea’s defense with through balls that tested Terry and Gary Cahill, the Red Bulls’ star the match’s most influential player.
Henry spent his 57 minutes operating in the space between Chelsea’s center backs and their deep midfielders (often coming from his defensive position in midfield to occupy the space). Regularly able to feed balls through the Blues’ defense, the only thing keeping Henry from generating multiple chances was a lack of familiarity with Wondolowski. A few offsides whistles, a couple passes that Hilario was able to swallow up – Henry just couldn’t make that one, perfect connection with his attack partner. For his part, though, Henry was the most dangerous man on the field when he had the ball, always one inch away from breaking the match open. Had MLS been able to feed him more in the first half, they may have gone into half with a lead.
But on Wednesday, there was something more to Henry’s game than the typical technical superiority we’ve come to expect from a man who’s played a Juventus, Arsenal, and Barcelona. Early in the match, he was as diligent as defending in midfield as partner Dwayne De Rosario, the duo marking Frank Lampard and Michael Essien as Chelsea tried to build from the back. The work rate coupled a certain whimsy – a mischievous joy he showed through that week – to capture the occasion.
“I thought Thierry had the joke of the night,” head coach Ben Olsen said post-match, prompted to recall some highlights from the teams’ on-field interaction. ” [Henry] trying to get that free kick from Beckham. Did you see that?”
The league’s two highest profile players? Embraced in a laugh at the edge of the penalty area? Yeah. We saw it.
Chelsea had given away a foul 26 yards from goal. No doubt: Beckham’s going to take that kick, but Henry immediately ran to the ball. For a second Beckham was frozen, seemingly unclear on how to start negotiating the issue. Before he could begin to make his case, Henry turned and hugged him, laughing at the joke he’d played on his old Manchester United rival. Of course Beckham was going to take the kick. That was Henry’s point.
His name only barely made the scoresheet, but this game constantly reminds us how little can be captured by recording goals and assists. On Wednesday, Henry was the night’s danger man. Every time he got the ball and turned toward goal, he brought PPL’s record crowd to the edge of their seats. He may not have taken home the hardware, but Henry was the game’s best player.