Should have seen it coming
HOUSTON -- The law of averages, not to mention the considerable talent of Manchester United, finally caught up with the MLS All-Stars on Wednesday night as the Red Devils thumped their hosts 5-2.
Prior to that encounter, MLS had sported a gaudy 5-0-1 record against international opponents, despite the thrown-together nature of the All-Star squad. But on this occasion, the obstacles were even greater. The CONCACAF Champions League commitments of several players resulted in limited availability for performers such as Los Angeles Galaxy attacker Landon Donovan and Toronto FC's Dwayne De Rosario. The fact that Manchester United had lost to the Kansas City Wizards 2-1 the previous weekend also meant the All-Stars would be facing a team as motivated as it was gifted.
"We were all disappointed with the defeat in Kansas," United midfielder Ryan Giggs said. "What you try and get is a reaction. I think we got that tonight on a huge stage. The young players played brilliantly, showed a lot of character."
Added Man United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, "I think the team was confident tonight. They were ready for this type of challenge."
That was evident after just 23 seconds, as Federico Macheda pounced on a soft pass from Kevin Alston and slotted his shot past All-Star goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts for a 1-0 lead. Macheda put his side up 2-0 just eleven minutes later, rising unchallenged to nod home Nani's corner kick.
It wasn't until roughly the 20th minute that the All-Stars started making some inroads, most notably through Real Salt Lake's Javier Morales. Columbus defender Chad Marshall looked like a player who perhaps should have headed for European pastures a while ago.
The All-Stars pulled a goal back through Brian Ching in the 63rd minute as he headed home David Ferreira's corner. But United provided the kind of reaction one would expect from an English Premier League powerhouse. Darron Gibson restored the lead with a sublime free kick, and further goals from Tom Cleverley and crowd favorite Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez put the game well out of reach, with De Rosario's late tally making the final scoreline slightly respectable.
The temptation, of course, is to think that the previous 24 hours -- a stretch that included the Los Angeles Galaxy's humiliating 4-1 defeat to second-tier side Puerto Rico Islanders in the CONCACAF Champions League -- have not been kind to MLS. To a certain degree, they haven't. But Ching had it right when he said, "Our league isn't going to be defined by one game." In the case of both results, there wasn't anything revealed about MLS that wasn't known already. It's a league that has its pluses, minuses and a lot of growing to do.
That's especially true of an exhibition game whose primary purpose is to entertain the fans, and the fact that 70,728 of them got an opportunity to sample the MLS product has to count as a plus. All-Star manager Bruce Arena was keen to point out some other benefits as well.
"I don't think we necessarily came into this game to steal a result as much as we wanted to give our players a chance to play against Manchester United and try to put on a good game" he said. "Obviously some of the circumstances were a little bit difficult for us."
Clearly, that's no excuse, but it is reality, as is the fact that United is a team loaded with talent. This also was an All-Star side that had a youthful bent to it, with players like Alston, Omar Gonzalez and Sebastien Le Toux getting a baptism of sorts in front of what is likely to be the biggest crowd they've ever played in front of.
That kind of experience will only make MLS a stronger league down the road. And perhaps allow the law of averages to be a little kinder to the All-Stars next time around.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.