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Soccer notes

Hoping stars add shine

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / July 26, 2011

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Major League Soccer could not have done anything more self-defeating than to match its teams against Manchester City, Manchester United, and Real Madrid in the last two weeks. In six games, MLS teams were able to tie one time, and that result was aided by a wacky move by City’s Mario Balotelli.

The Europeans’ record against MLS in the World Football Challenge is 5-0-1, with a 23-6 goal differential. And, to further dispel doubts about the gulf in talent, the European clubs were barely in preseason form, with another month remaining before the start of their league seasons, while MLS teams are in midseason form.

Manchester United kicked off the tour with a 4-1 win over the Revolution July 13. Though United had just started training, the result was no surprise, since the Revolution had been struggling mightily even against MLS opposition. A week later, though, United took a 7-0 victory over the Seattle Sounders, one of the better teams in the league.

The image of the Revolution and Sounders and, by extension, the entire MLS, had been damaged, to say the least.

But talent levels were not the only determining factors in these matchups. European clubs have invested in developing much greater depth than MLS teams. And this provided an extra edge in these exhibitions, since unlimited substitutions were allowed. The Revolution starters played to a 0-0 tie in the opening half with Manchester United. The Chicago Fire took a 1-0 lead over United into the second half. That was evidence that MLS teams’ first 11 can compete at a high level, so maybe the problem is the dropoff with the reserves.

Upgrading rosters would be a big step in bringing MLS up to par, though that is a simplified solution. To match the top European clubs’ benches would take a massive commitment. And that is a long way off because the only time MLS gets shown up this badly is when it goes up against this level of competition.

In any case, these games are attracting huge attendance numbers.

The formula is a winning one. Major US stadiums are empty during the NFL offseason. Soccer fans are eager to see the top teams. European clubs have to go somewhere for preseason workouts, so why not the US? The climate is right. And everyone makes money, including MLS and the US Soccer Federation.

But MLS also is devaluing itself every time one of its teams gets clobbered.

Last year, Kansas City took a 2-1 win over Manchester United, an encouraging outcome. But that result is looking more like the exception that proves the rule - that MLS is far behind the world’s top leagues competitively.

But another problem is that, though there is a name and title sponsor for these games, and it is self-labeled as a tournament, the fact is these are friendlies. So the situation is distorted. Both the European clubs and MLS teams have something to prove, but there is nothing meaningful at stake besides reputations.

So this is sort of a tournament but the games are really friendlies set up to prepare the Europeans for next season. Not to excuse Balotelli’s back-heeled attempt at a goal against the Galaxy Sunday, but when you are sending mixed messages to someone like that, strange things can happen.

Manchester City coach Roberto Mancini replaced Balotelli immediately and reprimanded him after the game, but would Mancini have made the change if he only had three substitutes? If Balotelli believed he were in a real-game situation would he have made a similar move? One gets the feeling there is a circus atmosphere surrounding these matches, so it is just a matter of time before a Balotelli or Cristiano Ronaldo might try some outrageous trickery.

Balotelli’s move left Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders flat-footed, and if the shot had gone in, it would have been a highlight reel goal.

Also, the “friendly’’ nature of these games makes them difficult to evaluate.

So much about what makes the quality of soccer involves focus and motivation. Last Monday morning, the Revolution and Philadelphia Union reserve teams met at Gillette Stadium. Several Revolution players looked like excellent prospects as they took a 3-1 victory. None of the Union reserves made much of an impression. On Saturday night, several of those same Union reserves performed against Real Madrid. And they looked quite good in rallying the Union in a 2-1 loss before 57,305 at Lincoln Financial Field.

Those same Union reserves who were so badly outplayed by the Revolution must have had extra incentive when they went up against Real Madrid. And Real’s players were, by then, coasting through the conclusion of their tour. So, the Union was playing “up’’ and Real Madrid was playing “down’’ by that point. That combination made for an exciting finish to the contest. Real Madrid won by one goal, but the final score was no indication of the relative strengths of the teams.

MLS has a chance to salvage some credibility against Manchester United in the All-Star Game tomorrow night at Red Bull Arena.

Most all-star games are showtime spectacles, rather than competitive events. But MLS has discovered a formula for an attractive game by playing against an outside opponent. In 2003, the MLS took a 3-1 win over CD Guadalajara in Carson, Calif. There was a competitive edge in the game that had not been there before. In 2005, an MLS all-star team convened a few days before a trip to Real Madrid, and the result was a 5-0 defeat at Estadio Bernabeu.

But MLS had performed well at home in the all-star format until last year, when Manchester United took a 5-2 win in Houston. Before last year, MLS all-stars had performed well enough to bolster the league’s reputation. This time, they will be playing to salvage it.

Six are added Galaxy midfielder Juninho was one of six players named yesterday to the MLS All-Star team.

The inclusion of the final six players was decided in voting by MLS players.

The other players selected were Seattle midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, D.C. United midfielder Dwayne De Rosario, Vancouver forward Eric Hassli, New York midfielder Joel Lindpere, and goalie Nick Rimando of Real Salt Lake.

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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