Banner night adds to MLS's growth

BY foxsports • July 25, 2012

The MLS All-Star team’s 3-2 victory over Chelsea was a great night for American soccer. You can say it was just an exhibition match with little meaning, and point to European champions Chelsea laboring through their pre-season. Nonetheless, the performance of so many American players is something to be proud of to say the least.

Six years ago, when MLS defeated Chelsea in the same mid-summer exhibition match, the post-game trophy celebration was an overblown and overdone spectacle that made the league look amateurish and desperate.

Six years later, the Americans didn’t eke out a 1-0 victory. They outplayed Chelsea for good stretches and rallied for a 3-2 victory, with several American players standing out in the process. The MLS stars then capped the night by quietly accepting their trophy and enjoying the victory in understated fashion. There were no confetti cannons going off like they did in 2006, just a measured reaction and proper perspective after an entertaining match.

Since MLS turned to this All-Star Game format of inviting international clubs to face MLS stars, the league has been hoping to make the showcase a chance to show the league’s progress. That goal took a big hit in the past two years after blowout losses to Manchester United.

At sold-out PPL Park Wednesday night, MLS fielded arguably the strongest team in All-Star Game history and gave Chelsea a game from the opening minute. The team didn’t lean on stars like Thierry Henry and David Beckham to carry the load. It was American players like Chris Wondolowski, Chris Pontius and Jay DeMerit who stepped up and showed off Major League Soccer’s domestic talent.

If US men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann was watching, he was treated to some good outings from national team prospects who are enjoying outstanding MLS seasons. Wondolowski is already in the national team mix, but showed why he’s the league’s most valuable player, finishing off the opening goal of the match. Pontius is having a breakout campaign and flashed his goal-scoring prowess by netting a smooth equalizer. Then you have Johnson, who came on as a second half substitute and put a shot on goal in stoppage time past Chelsea goalkeeper Ross Turnbull.

You could argue that the star of the night in a five-goal thriller was veteran defender Jay DeMerit. DeMerit was forced to play 90 minutes due to an early injury to defender Aurelien Collin. The World Cup veteran stepped up and made stop after stop. Despite being 32-years-old, DeMerit’s playing at a high level and just might deserve his first real US national team look since playing in the 2010 World Cup.

Regardless, anyone trying to use the result to say anything about where Chelsea stands heading into the Barclays Premier League season might want to slow down. The Blues used ten substitutions on the night as Roberto Di Matteo managed minutes in the midst of a four-match tour of the USA. Frank Lampard showed that he can still deliver goals, and may have even given MLS a glimpse of what they could be seeing in the future.

Lampard aside, there wasn’t too much for Chelsea fans to take from the match other than seeing John Terry back in action, scoring a goal and being a physical presence. Another game under his belt and another step away from the controversial racism court case that dominated his world this summer, Terry isn’t about to escape the stigma of what happened - a banner unveiled by Philadelphia fans provided that reminder. On Wednesday, Terry looked like a player happy to be back on the field playing soccer rather than being in a court room.

The night ultimately belonged to MLS. Major League Soccer has made tremendous strides in its 17 years, and showed its progress since their last meeting against Chelsea over six years. Back then, it was easy for some to overreact to an exhibition victory against a major European power.

Not on Wednesday night. This night was about putting the win and the performance into proper perspective. The league is growing, and getting better, thanks to markets like Philadelphia that are thriving and improving the quality of talent in the league, particularly American based talent. These things mean far more than an exhibition victory and a trophy destined to disappear into anonymity.

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