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MLS All-Star Preview: Game vs. Bayern the culmination of league’s marquee event

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Wednesday night is part of a progression for Major League Soccer, though one of the virtues of this journey is not knowing where you are. The league may have reached the pinnacle of its current format, with German champions Bayern Munich presenting a standard few other teams could eclipse. More likely, however, we’re seeing the maturation of an idea, one which, when first tried over a decade ago, represented the last, long reach for relevance. On Wednesday (9:30 p.m. Eastern), MLS will present a distinct, marquee event. The All-Star Game has become the biggest showcase in Major League Soccer.

Increasingly, however, the game itself is being dwarfed by the buildup, with an onslaught of events that began monopolizing Portland’s Pioneer Square and Waterfront Park creating an experience that would make the NBA proud. From the interactivity of the events in the downtown plaza to the popularity of The Flaming Lips’ set on the shore of the Willamette, the All-Star Game has hit its stride, with MLS having figured out how to invade a city, dominate a small part, and depart having left a lasting impression in one of its markets.

Strangely, because of that dynamic, the opponent almost becomes secondary. Whereas teams like Manchester United, Chelsea, or this year’s adversary, Bayern Munich, should add to the uniqueness of the event, now they’re part of the scenery – a differentiating factor for only that team’s hardcore fans. The streets of Portland aren’t overrun with Bayern fans. Instead it’s Timbers’ gear, All-Star game apparel, or the various branding MLS has pushed out during what’s become a high leverage event for sponsors.

Since the league went away from a neutral site MLS Cup final three years ago, this has become the league’s standout event, one that’s able to leverage its place between European seasons to generate worldwide appeal. It’s the party they have a year to plan, one that sees foreign media who’d otherwise never come to the States get a chance to experience the league’s culture in the beautiful American summer. Pull it off, and MLS gets the type of marketing value it can’t generate through any other source – a message that can attest to the league’s prolonged growth.

Unfortunately, little of that will matter on the field, where a league that’s been able to bring back likely All-Star starters Micheal Bradley and Clint Dempsey will be outclassed by the German champions, whose squad features six players who lifted the World Cup last month (Jérome Bôateng, Mario Götze, Philipp Lahm, Thomas Müller, Manuel Neuer). With world-class attackers like Robert Lewandowski, Arjen Robben, and Franck Ribéry augmenting that core, Bayern’s team may be better than the national team it helps support, leaving an MLS squad assembled on the fly hard-pressed to keep things close.

On the FieldTurf of Providence Park, München will be able to best the Nationalmannschaft’s tempo. A style of play that averaged 755 passes per game (and 71% possession) in last year’s Bundesliga will be going against MLS’s attack-heavy group with no established system, one that’s missing two of its best center backs (Omar Gonzalez and Chad Marshall). Unaccustomed to facing Bayern’s this style or talent, MLS’s best should struggle to keep up. Imagine the United States versus Germany with more talented Germans and fewer U.S. national team stars.

Bradley, Dempsey, Matt Besler, and DeAndre Yedlin will be there, as will Landon Donovan, who didn’t get a chance to face his former team in Brazil. Thierry Henry, potentially in his final All-Star Game, will also be in the squad, as will his Red Bulls teammate, Tim Cahill. Add in stars like Graham Zusi, Diego Valeri, and Obafemi Martins, and MLS has one of the more talented teams it’s ever put on the field, albeit one that’s unlikely to notch the league’s third win in 11 games against foreign opposition.

Then again, Wednesday isn’t about the result. These All-Star Games never are. They’re about the spectacle. They’re about the event, from buildup to final whistle. They’re about MLS’s part in a broader, global game. They’re about putting on a show.

If anything, the actual game is just the culmination of a much broader performance. By the time MLS and Bayern kick-off on Wednesday, most of the show will already be done.

MLS’s All-Star week has already been a success. Now, it’s time to see if Caleb Porter can engineer a result.

Watch Live: Chelsea vs. West Brom (Lineups, Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 22:  Diego Costa of Chelsea and Joleon Lescott of West Brom battle for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge on November 22, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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Chelsea hosts West Bromwich Albion from Stamford Bridge (Watch live, 7:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) as the Blues look to extend their eight-match win streak.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE HERE

The Blues make one change from last weekend’s 3-1 come-from-behind victory over Manchester City as Cesc Fabregas makes way in the starting XI for Nemanja Matic.

Antonio Conte‘s side will be opposed by a West Brom side that is unbeaten in their last four Premier League matches. The Baggies remain unchanged from last week’s 3-1 win over Watford as the side looks to move above eighth in the table.

LINEUPS

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill (c); Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Diego Costa, Hazard. Subs: Begovic, Aina, Ivanovic, Chalobah, Fabregas, Willian, Batshuayi.

West Brom: Foster; Dawson, McAuley, Evans, Nyom; Yacob, Fletcher (c); Brunt, Morrison, Phillips; Rondon. Subs: Palmer; Olsson, Robson-Kanu, Gardner, McClean, Galloway, Chadli.

“Pretty unreal, a fairy tale” — Alonso, Marshall celebrate Sounders title

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TORONTO — Talk about penalty kicks all you want, and definitely talk about that save, but Seattle’s formative heart kept Toronto FC’s vaunted attack off the scoreboard to win its first MLS Cup final.

Veterans Chad Marshall, Osvaldo Alonso, Stefan Frei, and Roman Torres simply got the job done against Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and the high-flying Reds.

“We knew what a great offensive team they are,” Marshall said. “Giovinco and Jozy are incredible. The amount of goals they put up this postseason is pretty ridiculous, so to keep them off the board for 120 minutes is incredible.”

[ MLS CUP: Seattle wins in PKs | 3 things ]

The man in front of him, Alonso, was a prime reason for that. Countless connecting passes and perfect spacing limited TFC’s chances with the ball. After an MVP caliber season, you could argue that Alonso deserved just as much of a shout for MLS Cup MVP as winner Frei.

“In the final you have to give everything you have to win,” Alonso said. “I step on the field to play for my team, play for myself, and play for my family. And I think I did that.”

Both Alonso and Marshall spoke of the moments following Torres’ match-winning PK, as the Sounders crew flew down to pitch to celebrate in front of a rave green and blue visitors section high above BMO Field.

[ MORE: Bradley apologizes to fans ]

[ MORE: Altidore, Frei on that save ]

“I think I threw my back out on the run to Roman, and he flew right by me,” Marshall said. “It was just nuts. I lost my voice in a matter of 20 seconds. It’s just so exciting.”

Alonso was filled with pride for the fans at the game, and the ones back in Seattle who stood by the Sounders after a midseason coaching change.

“They deserved this, the trophy, because they are always there for us,” Alonso said. “Even when we were down at the bottom of the table. This trophy means a lot for me.”

Marshall admitted the words weren’t coming to him, even an hour after the game.

“I don’t know if I can. It’s an incredible feeling, from where we in July, the Kansas City game, to this moment right now, it’s pretty unreal, a fairy tale.”

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Bradley lauds “fearless” teammates after heart-wrenching MLS Cup loss

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TORONTO — Michael Bradley paused to collect himself, several times actually, before apologizing to Toronto FC’s supporters.

The game of football, with its soaring highs and gutting lows, was the latter now. TFC had dominated Seattle over a lackluster 120 minutes, Bradley engineered several big interventions and some delightful balls that didn’t have an end product.

[ MLS CUP: Seattle wins in PKs | 3 things ]

Much of that won’t be remembered, though, because Bradley passed his penalty kick right into the path of a waiting Stefan Frei. Surrounded by reporters in the TFC locker room, Bradley chose his words carefully.

“When you put everything you have into something, when you come in every day ready to pour your heart and soul into something, the highs are amazing and emotional and incredible in a positive ways,” Bradley said. “And the setbacks… hit you hard. Every guy here is going to have to take the time to get over this one, to let it hurt, let it frustrate you, let it anger you.

“It’s not for the weak, and you see that on nights like tonight.”

[ MORE: Altidore, Frei on that save ]

Bradley was one of the final men to emerge from the showers at BMO Field, and he answered every question with brutal honesty.

“On behalf of the team, we can only thank every person in this city for their support and for the passion and the emotion and the energy that they put into this, together with us,” he said. “I’m sick to my stomach that we couldn’t reward them with the biggest trophy tonight.”

In defeat, it was easy to see why TFC’s locker room is drawn to its captain. Bradley shirked nothing, answering the tough questions and humoring those who would lob softballs about his family.

Among the former was this response, one of those quotes that moves a team into formation.

“The margins are so small, and on nights like this you have no choice but to go for it,” he said. “We talked about having a group of guy who were gonna, on the biggest of nights, be fearless and go after things in an aggressive way. And we did that. We were strong, brave, and went after the game in a really, really hard away from the first minute right up until the 120th minute.”

That Bradley missed a PK will howl to the moon in Toronto to the wee hours of this Sunday morning, and his critics will be happy to join in. But as the 29-year-old prepares for a winter that could see him head across an ocean before returning for World Cup qualifying and another MLS season, Toronto can be happy to put its faith — and its backbone — in No. 4.

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Altidore, Frei react to “that save” after Sounders claim MLS Cup

TORONTO, ONTARIO - DECEMBER 10:  Stefan Frei #24 of the Seattle Sounders stops Michael Bradley #4 of the Toronto FC during the penalty kick phase during the 2016 MLS Cup at BMO Field on December 10, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Seattle defeated Toronto in the 6th round of extra time penalty kicks. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — When it came down to it, Jozy Altidore and Toronto FC were inches away from becoming MLS Cup champions.

The man who walked away with MLS Cup MVP was the reason they didn’t land the title.

[ WATCH: Frei’s big save ]

Deep in extra time, Altidore leapt high to loft a header toward the far post. Frei adjusted his body for one dramatic lunge, just slapping the ball toward Roman Torres for a clearance.

“(Altidore) does the right thing because he goes against the way that I’m coming from, and that point you just move your feet as quick as you can see what’s possible,” Frei said.

Altidore thought it was in.

“I thought so,” he said. “It was a tough ball to begin with. … It was a hell of a save. At the end of the day you’ve got to pull off something special.”

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