Watching an All-Star Game is a bit like eating at a fondue place or one of those touristy hibachi restaurants. You're not really looking for a meat-'n'-taters kind of filling experience; it's mostly about the novelty.
So it should be fun at BMO Field on Thursday, where the MLS All-Stars face West Ham, from the midmanagement level of the venerable English Premier League. The East, East, East London outfit launched training last week. The Hammers are now stationed in North America to assimilate new talent and to begin a season that probably will lean more to avoiding relegation than chasing European glory.
Still, the Hammers have been a steady EPL fixture, and that means a test for the 18-man MLS All-Stars, a slightly controversial mix of ballot box choices and hand-picked selections from manager Steve Nicol and league commissioner Don Garber.
The venue, in the backdrop of cosmopolitan Toronto, was home to the 2007 FIFA U-20 World Cup and will be ground zero of Canada's upcoming World Cup qualifying bid. MLS's 13th All-Star event will be the fifth played against a foreign team.
Five reasons to watch
1. Major League Soccer stars, you are officially on alert
The 2008 All-Stars don't want to be the rotten eggs that spoil the league's perfect record in these contests. This is the fifth All-Star encounter with foreign opposition, and MLS is perfect so far.
|2008 MLS All-Star game|
MLS All-Stars vs. West Ham
BMO Field, Toronto
7 p.m. ET (ESPN, ESPN360.com)
It knocked over Chivas Guadalajara in 2003, ran away from Fulham in 2005 (MLS skipped on foreign opposition in 2004), surprisingly squeezed past Chelsea in 2006 and outclassed Celtic in suburban Denver last summer. No one should get carried away here. These imports are still taking baby steps in their prep for a long season. Still, you have to figure MLS players will be well aware of the four-game streak as they take the FieldTurf Thursday evening.
2. Yes, they are playing on FieldTurf
This version of fake grass is FIFA-approved, and four MLS teams (almost a third) play home matches on artificial surfaces. Still, these are the best of Major League Soccer's best, and they are up against pretty expensive EPL talent. So how it all plays out on the faux field will be a talking point. Volatile-yet-talented West Ham forward Craig Bellamy has a history of picking up preseason injuries -- so he'll be extra nervous about a FieldTurf test.
3. Get your soap box ready
Trivia bit: The term "get on your soap box" has history in London. At Hyde Park, across town from West Ham's Upton Park, Sunday orators traditionally stood atop old soap boxes to rant and opine.
Well, bloggers and writers (the modern soap boxers) will be venting if MLS can't pull off another win. Reason: This year's assembly of All-Stars is perhaps the most strangely assembled yet. Uh, somebody hasn't been paying attention.
Jim Brennan? Well, he's a Toronto native, so we'll give 'em that one. But Juan Toja, a shell of his 2008 marauding self? Dwayne De Rosario? A fine player historically, but not at his best right now. These aren't lifetime achievement awards, after all.
Pat Onstad over Jon Busch? Dubious at best. Overtly political at worst. Onstad, another Canadian, is doing fine this year but is not more deserving than Busch.
No Gonzalo Segares? That doesn't make the league look good. No Luciano Emilio? That's just plain silly. Good arguments could be made for Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Dave van den Bergh, too.
4. Upheaval at Upton
Steady West Ham goalkeeper Robert Green, last year's player of the year at Upton Park, seemed sure to backstop the Hammers once again. But that may be unraveling, and who knows what state of mind Thursday will find the young England man in? He had a real go, as they say in England, at his club on Friday. Here's what he told the local papers:
"Realistically, look at [Dean Ashton], who has signed a new contract this summer. Good luck to him. Brilliant. He's a great player and I have no doubts he will become an England regular. Obviously, West Ham value him a hell of a lot more than they value me."
Two words: not good.
5. See some Big Time Charlie from EPL take a swipe at MLS
Maybe it won't happen this year. But last year the swipes had a Scottish lilt, as churlish Celtic boss Gordon Strachan landed a couple of verbal rabbit punches. He actually lamented the lack of a "proper ball," nevermind that it was round, leather, fully inflated, etc. Oh, and it was the same adidas model used in the World Cup. Details, details.
Anyhoo, it's doubtful any sucker punches will be coming from the visiting manager this go-round. Oddsmakers have installed Hammers boss Alan Curbishley as top EPL favorite (4-1) to get kicked to the curb this year. So, he's got plenty to worry about as it is, never mind telling someone else how to steer his ship.
Five matchups to watch
1. Matt Reis vs. Dean Ashton
West Ham's young striker, formerly of Crewe and Norwich City, made his England debut against Trinidad and Tobago last spring. He scored 11 times in 24 appearances during last year's injury-nicked campaign for West Ham. Reis, the MLS starter in goal, also stood between the posts to begin last year's 2-0 win over Celtic.
2. David Beckham vs. the turf
Beckham is doing a bit better this year on the artificial turf, but he's still not completely comfortable. Some of his services Saturday at Giants Stadium lacked the usual zip and precision. The way Beckham strikes those crosses and deadly set pieces requires a little more of the ball's surface to be available, and that's not the case on artificial turf.
3. The BMO fans vs. everybody
The Red Patch Boys and other indigenous support groups made things so messy over the past couple of years at BMO that Garber had to make special appeals and undertake special initiatives in response.
You'd think the TFC rowdies will be cheering for the MLS side. Then again, given their fierce loyalty to Toronto FC, would anybody be surprised if they launched a few verbal grenades at some of their favorite league targets during the course of the evening?
4. Jimmy Conrad and Jim Brennan vs. the entire West Ham offense
Steve Nicol chose just four defenders, which seems a bit light. That's especially true since two of them are Jonathan Bornstein and Frankie Hejduk, both known for getting forward on the flanks. Hejduk will stay at home more often, but probably not enough in the three-back alignment Nicol will favor. So expect West Ham's attackers to have a bit of room to operate, especially against an MLS midfield full of offensive flair but shy on defensive diggers (Shalrie Joseph and Pablo Mastroeni being the exceptions).
5. Landon Donovan vs. center back Anton Ferdinand and right back Lucas Neill
Ferdinand is the younger, less decorated brother of England defense fixture Rio Ferdinand. Neill is the well-liked but, in some eyes, underachieving West Ham captain. They'll see plenty of world-class talent through the upcoming Premiership season, so the likes of Donovan won't be intimidating. But that doesn't mean that Donovan, the current MLS scoring leader, can't inflict some damage if the West Ham back four isn't on its game.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.