TORONTO -- Most of the flashbulbs and publicity heading into Thursday night's MLS All-Star match centered around David Beckham, but another high-profile player stole the show on a night when the league's star power was stronger than it has ever been.
Cuauhtemoc Blanco usually does a good job of playing the villain outside of Mexico, and most recently outside of Chicago, but on Thursday night he was the hero, delivering a brilliant pass to set up a Christian Gomez goal and scoring his own jaw-dropping goal to help the MLS All-Stars top West Ham United 3-2 in the MLS All-Star Game.
Blanco's performance, along with the overall abundance of talent and skill on display, made this year's MLS All-Star team easily the most talented in the history of the All-Star Game. How deep was the squad? Consider that Landon Donovan and Juan Pablo Angel came off the bench for the MLS team.
"This year's team is probably the best we've put together," said New England midfielder Shalrie Joseph, who played in his fifth straight All-Star Game. "Fans got their money's worth. From Blanco's back-heel to Beckham crosses, to Landon running past people, I think it's one of the most enjoyable games we've seen."
While the disclaimers must be added -- West Ham is in its preseason and didn't have several top players -- the MLS All-Stars still did deliver the most entertaining and skillful performance in the history of the event.
Blanco led the way, providing 45 minutes of skill that helped create the MLS team's first two goals and earned him game MVP honors. It was his first MLS All-Star Game, and Blanco's performance won over the crowd at BMO Field.
"He's such a special player," FC Dallas forward Kenny Cooper said of Blanco. "He sees things and does things that you don't see other people do. He does the unexpected and makes beautiful plays and scores beautiful goals like he did tonight."
"He wasn't as much of a villain as he usually is," Kansas City defender Jimmy Conrad said of Blanco. "He's so good at drawing in the crowd. He's a great player."
Blanco was not alone in delivering brilliant play and showing off the improved talent level in MLS. Dwayne De Rosario came off the bench and gave an inspired 31 minutes to his hometown fans, drawing a penalty and converting the match-winning penalty kick.
Then there was Shalrie Joseph, who quietly played a flawless and impressive match in central midfield, giving MLS a rock in the middle of the park that West Ham had no answer for.
You could also argue that the star of the night was the crowd at BMO Field, which provided energy and atmosphere like we have never seen in a MLS All-Star game, an atmosphere that led West Ham United forward Dean Ashton to say that it felt like it could have been any ground in the English Premier League.
No, the result against West Ham doesn't bring credibility to MLS as much as the match itself gave the league a chance to show off the talent it has been able to compile in recent years. There has never been a better endorsement for the designated-player rule than Thursday's match, with Blanco dazzling, Beckham drawing the crowd and Juan Pablo Angel scoring a beautiful goal (that was incorrectly ruled offside).
There also has never been better evidence of how much more talent is in MLS. The league still needs to loosen its purse strings and consider giving teams a second designated-player slot beginning in 2009, but this year's All-Star Game gave us a glimpse of just how much stronger MLS is today.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
Kenny Cooper, 5 -- Active for 45 minutes, Cooper moved around well but failed to create any quality chances.
Cuauhtemoc Blanco, 8 -- Star of the show with stunning assist and beautiful curling shot for a goal.
Christian Gomez, 7 -- Struggled to get involved early, but made a beautiful run and delivered perfect finish for first MLS goal.
Juan Toja, 4.5 -- The Colombian, in his last MLS match before his move to Steaua Bucharest, failed to offer much of a threat on the left side.
Shalrie Joseph, 8 -- A rock in central midfield, Joseph was pure class for 90 minutes, cleaning up anything that came near him.
David Beckham, 6.5 -- Wowed the crowd with some sharp crosses and nifty moves, but he fell short of delivering a goal.
Jonathan Bornstein, 7 -- A consistent threat on the left flank throughout, showing the form that made him a U.S. national team regular before injuries sidelined him.
Jimmy Conrad, 6.5 -- Did well to hold up against tough West Ham forwards Dean Ashton and Carlton Cole. Was unlucky to have West Ham's second goal come off his head.
Pablo Mastroeni, 6 -- Held up well playing in central defense instead of his usual defensive midfield.
Matt Reis, 6 -- Made some strong plays and was his usual steady self.
Juan Pablo Angel, 6.5 -- Delivered a sharp pass to set up the game-winning PK and also had a brilliant goal incorrectly ruled offside.
Landon Donovan, 5.5 -- Provided an element of speed that unsettled West Ham defenders, but failed to produce any dangerous chances.
Frankie Hejduk, 3 -- Worst player on the field, Hejduk's touch was off and positioning a mess.
Dwayne DeRosario, 7 -- Drew and converted the game-winning penalty kick and provided an impressive 31 minutes of action just a day after playing 90 minutes at D.C. United on Wednesday night.
Jim Brennan, 5 -- Crowd called for him all day but he didn't do too much once he did come into the match.
Pat Onstad, 5 -- Not called on to do much in his 20 minutes of action.
Steve Ralston, N/A -- Played just two minutes.
Edson Buddle, N/A -- Like Ralston, played only two minutes.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives and can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.