KANSAS CITY – Goals generally pour forth at MLS All-Star games like thick red sauce over that famous Kansas City barbecue around here.
Then again, Major League Soccer teams aren’t usually staring at Italian opposition. Any student of the game will tell you Italians have always treated defense with a certain reverence. You can be sure that as AS Roma conducts two-a-days practices in the American heartland this week, part of its preparation for the rugged Italian Serie A season to come, a significant element is the constant tweaking and polishing of defensive shape.
Sporting Park on the city’s outskirts is sold out (as usual) for the 9 p.m. ET kickoff. There has even been a little scalping action on tickets around the city this week (which is not usual for MLS All-Star contests).
The MLS All-Star format has long been thus: foreign opposition against the league’s very best. It’s a departure in that way from traditional all-star games here and it tends to coalesce the league’s tip-top talent in a way other formats might not.
Roma does not carry the weight of some past visitors to the event, a smidge less heralded than Manchester United or Chelsea from England’s venerable Premier League, for instance. But credit the league for diversifying the opposition for 2013. Besides, the Italians are certainly a talented bunch, sixth place finishers in Serie A last year.
Historically, Roma sits just a shade under the Italian heavyweights, but does have three Serie A crowns (the last in 2001) and nine Coppa Italia titles. And it also has a strong American attachment in U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley, who has become perhaps the most indispensable man in for United States national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann.
Any media-related event for Roma this week in Kansas City has come with a strong dose of Bradley.
Major League Soccer’s side has plenty of star value, too, starting with Frenchman Thierry Henry, who still has ample skill and just enough showmanship to create the perfect blend for such an event.
There is also a heavy contingent of U.S. players coming off a successful CONCACAF Gold Cup run. Seven members of the United States team that won Sunday’s final in Chicago made their way down to Kansas City a day later. That group included Landon Donovan, the star of the United States’ surprisingly easy dash through the Gold Cup field, who is participating in his 13th MLS All-Star contest. (He was the All-Star game MVP back in 2001. Yes, the man has been around that long now.)
So Donovan was part of the roster that took a 4-0 thumping from mighty Manchester United back in 2011. And he was on the MLS side in Philadelphia last year that posted a spirited 3-2 win over Chelsea. U.S. striker Eddie Johnson supplied the stoppage time game winner for that one.
Donovan said the added element of this U.S. group coming directly in from Chicago add something, since a part of the larger group has already invested so much shared time and energy over the past month.
“I can’t speak for everybody, but to me it means something,” Donovan said at Tuesday’s practice at Livestrong. “We have an opportunity to show ourselves well. This whole trip has been fantastic, since the minute we got in [Monday]. Everybody is taking it the right way, and we want to put on a good show.”
Like most everyone else, Donovan will play only a half. Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes, in charge of the All-Star team, recognizes that everyone on the field at Sporting Park tonight has a league match this weekend. He has already said that his own players, center back Aurelien Collin, will be one of two men asked to play all 90 minutes. He’ll have to pick one more, which is sure to leave some fellow MLS manager something less than giddy.
Collin is one of three players from the host team, along with U.S. internationals Matt Besler and Graham Zusi.
Projected MLS starting lineup:
Raul Fernandez; Tony Beltran, Aurelien Collin, Matt Besler, Corey Ashe; Kyle Beckerman, Graham Zusi, Will Johnson, Brad Davis; Thierry Henry, Marco Di Viao.