AS Roma routs best of MLS in All-Star game
A raucous crowd packed into one of Major League Soccer's glitzy new stadiums to watch a team comprised of its best players on a picturesque late-summer night.
All that was missing was the outcome fans desired.
Italian powerhouse AS Roma, led by longtime star Francesco Totti, scored 4 minutes into the game Wednesday night, then added two second-half goals to rout a team of MLS All-Stars 3-1 and dampen what had been a festive celebration of soccer in Kansas City.
Kevin Strootman and Alessandro Florenzi each had a goal and an assist, and Junior Tallo also scored for Roma, the three-time Serie A champions. Omar Gonzalez of the Los Angeles Galaxy scored the only goal for the MLS side in second-half stoppage time.
''Every time you step inside the white lines you want to win, but I don't think the result was the focus,'' said MLS coach Peter Vermes. ''When you look at the overall picture of what transpired the last few days, it was a great opportunity.''
The MLS had been 7-2-1 against international opponents since the league adopted the current All-Star game format, the only losses coming to English Premier League club Manchester United.
Maybe it'll think twice about inviting Italy's top teams.
''You give these guys a half-second or a half-step and you're not all together after one training session, it's tough,'' MLS defender Matt Besler said. ''These guys are world class.''
Most of a sellout crowd had barely found its seats at Sporting Park, the $200 million home of Sporting KC, when Florenzi sent a pass ahead to Strootman. Sporting KC defender Aurelien Collin recovered to get his foot on the ball, but Strootman still managed to guide it into the net.
''Roma is a very, very good team,'' Collin said. ''I think we could have done better. When it's an exhibition game, maybe some don't take it seriously. Me? I took it seriously.''
The early goal took much of the zip out of the home crowd, which had been feverishly waving flags and pounding drums during its second All-Star game in two years. Major League Baseball staged its Midsummer Classic just across the state line at the Royals' Kauffman Stadium last July.
The two second-half goals by Roma only served to seal a joyless night for the MLS during an otherwise positive period of growth and progress.
Stadiums are in the works for D.C. United and San Jose, and an expansion club will start play in New York in 2015. The Columbus Crew were sold to ambitious new owners earlier this week, and Commissioner Don Garber announced at halftime Wednesday night that four expansion franchises will begin play by the 2020 season, bringing the total number of teams in the league to 24.
There's perhaps no better example of how far the league has come than Kansas City, which once played its games before a few thousand fans in cavernous Arrowhead Stadium.
The team was sold to local owners in 2006, and they embarked on a dramatic rebranding of the franchise formerly known as the Wizards. They spearheaded the construction of one of the most glamorous soccer-specific stadiums in the country, built a feverish fan base and became one of the most successful teams on the field - the club has won two straight Eastern Conference titles.
It was little surprise that Kansas City was awarded this year's All-Star game, and even less of a surprise that there was plenty of hometown flavor throughout the night.
Not only was the MLS side led by Sporting KC's Vermes, the coach also included three of his own in the starting lineup. Collin was joined by forward Graham Zusi and fellow defender Besler, who helped the U.S. national team win the CONCACAF Gold Cup over the weekend.
The club also paid homage to its roots by introducing Tony Meola and Preki, longtime staples of the Wizards, as they presented the trophy prior to the game.
''To have the kind of players we had on the field tonight is really fun, and to have guys like Thierry Henry in our locker room is quite an honor,'' said Robb Heineman, the CEO of Sporting KC.
Once the game started, there was little for MLS fans to feel good about.
Strootman's early goal set the tone as Roma attacked the MLS side's shoddy defense with pressure right up the middle. Florenzi had a goal taken away moments later by a close off-sides call, and then missed an open shot just wide of the net a few minutes later.
''The way the team is playing,'' Henry said, ''it's outstanding.''
The MLS side never had a good scoring chance in the first half, and by the time it got things sorted out in the second, Roma had already tacked on a couple more scores.
Florenzi finally found the back of the net in the 47th minute - he was clearly onside this time - and Tallo added his goal in 69th minute to put away the game.
''For us, this was a really good chance against a great team in a great environment,'' said Roma midfielder Michael Bradley, who got his professional start in Major League Soccer.
As frustrating as the loss was for MLS, it was uplifting for Roma, which has been rebuilding its roster while embarking on its fourth manager in two years under American ownership.
James Pallotta, Roma's president and a Boston Celtics minority owner, leads a four-man group of Boston executives who are the first foreign majority owners of a Serie A club. Pallotta played an integral part in landing Roma the marquee tuneup for its upcoming season.
''The atmosphere was very good,'' Roma coach Rudi Garcia said. ''It was like a league game for us against a very strong team, and to win a game like this is very good for us.''