Saturday, August 05, 2006

MLS Fans, Rejoice! Cast off the chains of your oppression. MLS ALL-STARS 1-0 over CHELSEA FC! Whodathunkit? The MLSers surprised everyone, including most of the 21,00o who came to the Chicago Fire's home stadium to root on the English side.

Coming into the game, the hope for MLS was the cohesion that could be expected from an unusual all-star team. Almost half the team came from the league-leading D.C. United. The real surprise of the game may have been that the United players failed to really click together, but the MLSers still prevailed due to a terrific bit of skill by Houston Dynamo's own Dwayne DeRosario. The goalkeeping was very solid, as both Troy Perkins (DC United) and Joe Cannon (Colorado Rapids) made big saves. Cannon's biggest came just before stoppage time, when he stoned future England captain John Terry.

But the game-saving play really came from another member of the Dynamo, defender Eddie Robinson, who spared Facundo Erpen (DC United) from the ignominy of an own goal. Robinson raced for the goal, after Erpen's botched clearance headed straight for the goal line. Robinson was able to turn and clear the ball off the line before it could roll in. Defender Jimmy Conrad also made a big play to intercept an attempted cross by Chelsea's speedy Shaun Wright-Phillips, who had dribbled around and past the sprawling Troy Perkins.

United players did show -- with Jaime Moreno creating some threats, with some nifty passes in the area. Also, Freddie Adu came on in the second half and did a fine job to help control the lead, frequently running at Michael Essien, the best player to come out of Adu's boyhood home country of Ghana. Alecko Eskandarian played hard, showed skill and had some decent chances.

Before Rosario's strike, the game's best chance came from Chris Albright, who recently rejoined his LA Galaxy squad after spending the World Cup sitting on the United States bench. Albright ran on to a nice long ball, and controlled it beautifully as he fought off the Chelsea defender. Unfortunately, though he had the Chelsea keeper at his mercy, Albright's shot went wide.

So, what does the MLS take from this game? No one will argue that the MLS stars are the equal of Chelsea's international star-packed lineup. But, with an edge in fitness level over the English Premier League champs, the MLS team was probably the better squad today. To be sure, a few of Chelsea's stars, such as Essien, Drogba and Terry showed flashes of brilliance, but the MLS squad outworked the Blues. The MLS All-Stars were playing with infinitely more motivation, and their mid-season shape was clearly above the Chelsea players' pre-season condition. The victory was hard-fought, at least on the MLS side, and it was well deserved. In the end, this was one big step towards respectability for the league...and a rare chance for Canadian fans to rejoice in the exploits of one of their own with DeRosario's lovely goal. If only Americans could bring that level of skill and daring, we'd really be onto something...

Seriously though, MLS fans can take heart that their league is making progress on the field. Off the field, there is considerable progress, as well. MLS announced an historic network (ABC/ESPN) television deal -- historic because the ABC/ESPN group will acually pay MLS for the right to televise their games. This is the first time (other than FSC paying for a few games -- and FSC is not deemed major -- in some markets, like mine, you have to pay extra to see it) that a major has paid MLS for its games. Perhaps, we can look forward to something better than the badly misconceived Saturday afternoon summer broadcasts that ESPN has favored up to now. The midday summer heat makes for lousy, ponderous play and boring games. Not a great way to promote the league. Maybe this financial commitment from the network will be followed by more sensible scheduling.

Besides, I've never believed that ESPN's Saturday 4:00 Eastern slot is a particularly good one for finding soccer fans. They're outside, doing stuff. Make it a 7:00 or 8:00 (even 8:30--we could have a pre-game show) Eastern start. Have some weeknight coverage, too. Since ESPN has lost most of its baseball coverage to TBS, perhaps it's time ESPN took the plunge into MLS, for real. The audiences are out there. Go get them.

For today: Bravo, MLS!

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