Even with the odds stacked in favor of Manchester United on Wednesday at Red Bull Arena, Red Bulls coach Hans Backe gave the MLS All-Stars a reason to keep their heads held high at halftime.
Despite two moments of individual brilliance by Anderson and All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Park Ji-Sung creating a 2-0 hole for the MLS All-Stars after the first 45 minutes, Backe’s decision to employ a 4-3-3 formation ultimately lent itself well to the star-studded squad. The best of MLS – led by the dynamic designated player duo of Thierry Henry and team captain David Beckham – maintained an edge in possession and created ample scoring chances.
Then a funny thing happened. Backe, who notoriously shies away from making significant substitutions in Red Bulls matches, decided to make his first mass substitution to open the second half. In came Nick LaBrocca, Chris Wondolowski, and Backe’s inclination to let all of the All-Stars get meaningful minutes while out went Henry, Shalrie Joseph, and the touch passing that sparked the MLS attack throughout the first half.
“We could probably have played the same team 15-20 minutes more,” said Backe. “It wouldn’t have made a huge difference in the second half. I could have had a little bit more possession but we picked up two good chances – Omar Bravo had a phenomenal chance to score after a rebound. Normally, you can say that too many subs can kill a game but we decided to do 4 or 5 including the goalie at halftime, two subs after 60 and then after 80. We didn’t kill the game with that.”
But they did. Manchester United, who kept their starting XI intact for the first 15 minutes of the second half, took advantage of the change in MLS personnel and the lack of cohesion that came with it. The Red Devils completed twice as many passes as the MLS All-Stars in the period prior to Dimitar Berbatov’s dagger in the 52nd minute while the MLS All-Stars struggled to establish its offensive momentum and basically resorted to lobbing long balls into the attacking third to no avail.
Backe had already stated at Monday’s press conference that he intended to give all of the All-Stars meaningful minutes at some point in the match, acquiescing to the American spirit of letting all of the fans see their stars play on one of MLS’s biggest stages – competitive match be damned.
Still, the best of MLS showed an organic cohesion in the first 45 minutes that few expected, considering the truncated practice schedule afforded to Backe to establish a form worthy of the lofty expectations of kicking off against Manchester United.
“The last time I played in the MLS All-Star Game, the team came together,” said Beckham. “We played well. You clicked. I think, especially in the first half, showed that if you’re a good enough player, you can just come together and you just play. We didn’t have enough time together, but that’s the way it is. That’s part of being the All-Star team.”
Does it have to be that way? Couldn’t Backe have eased in his substitutes to let each player acclimate to the run of play rather than throwing back-ups to the wolves every 20 minutes?
Ultimately, Backe was right in that keeping the starters on an extra 15-20 minutes would not have changed the final score. A comeback win against the defending English Premier League champions seemed unlikely from the outset and doubly so after Park’s goal before halftime, but the opportunity for the MLS All-Stars to tally a goal and save face against one of the best clubs in the world felt just as inevitable.
Soccer fans around the world woke up this morning to the box score that Manchester United defeated Beckham’s and Henry’s merry band of MLS All-Stars handily, which is what everyone expected and surprised no one. MLS gains a bit of notoriety from the match, which is negated by seeing the league’s best receive a drubbing from the Red Devils. The match only makes waves in the global soccer scene if MLS wins, but it's probably wise to not try to dig for any deeper meanings from what is ultimately an exhibition match.
The final result was predictable, but it didn’t have to end the way it did.
Backe could have substituted a better finish.