PORTLAND, OREGON - Win, and it means nothing. Lose, and it means you and everyone you work with is garbage.
This is the conundrum of the annual MLS All Star Game. While most US sports leagues have inter-conference rivalries for their exhibition match, MLS opts for an "MLS vs. The World" format, where the best of MLS come together for a few days to take on a top European side in the middle of their pre-season. An MLS victory is immediately chalked off by most players and media as meaningless: it's friendly, they're in preseason, who cares. But a loss immediately becomes a source of hand-wringing about a lack of quality in MLS. Failing to emerge victorious over a team in pre-season (even if your squad does not ever play together) is seen as an indictment against the league.
Wednesday's edition of the All-Star Game, against German super-club Bayern Munich, didn't even seem winnable on paper. Even with their World Cup stars flying into Portland the morning of the game to join the club, Bayern has overwhelming quantities of quality on their squad. The reserves should have been able to run circles around the MLS All-Stars. But the game, like host city Portland, kept it weird, with the MLS All-Stars claiming a 2-1 comeback victory.
One could be forgiven for thinking a bloodbath was on the cards after Robert Lewandowski needed only eight minutes to put Bayern on the board. The Polish striker sent a lofted shot over Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who could do nothing to keep it out. But five saves from Rimando, plus another three from DC United's Bill Hamid in the second half, would keep Bayern to the single goal.
All three of the selections from the New York Red Bulls would have their own impact on the match, the most significant being Bradley Wright-Phillips. The current MLS Golden Boot leader was inserted at half-time and took six minutes to make his mark on the match. Chivas USA forward Erick Torres flicked a header towards the Bayern box, which Wright-Phillips ran onto. With two defenders closing in, BWP took a powerful shot on the half-volley, beating Tom Starke at the far post.
"Erick Torres done well. I've obviously seen him play in the league," Wright-Phillips told us after the game. "This season, I've watched his game closely. I just gambled on one of his headers, one of his flick-ones, because he's very good in the air. I just took a touch, really, and just hoped for the best, just smashed it."
For Tim Cahill, his contribution wasn't on the score sheet but in the mood of the game. The Australian has never been one to pull out of a challenge, and along with Seattle's Osvaldo Alonso and Portland's Will Johnson, made some heavy tackles on the visitors. The physicality of the match clearly upset the Bayern coaching staff, who refused to shake hands with coach Caleb Porter after the match. We asked Cahill if he still believed there was no such thing as a friendly match.
"I'll be honest with you. With football, there is no friendlies. In my whole life it's been that way, whether I played for Milwall or Everton. It's such a fine line when you want to be competitive, and you want to play against the best teams in the world...I feel for us, it's a good trademark, to know that whenever you play an American style team, or the All-Stars...the fans pay great money to come watch such an important game. I know it's their pre-season, but the only way you can get respect is by beating this team. For me, it's very hard to play at 80% and make sure that you're not really going for the ball. The fans have paid really good money to be here, the support was unbelievable, and for me, it's an injustice if we don't put everything on the line."
And for Thierry Henry, who made his fourth All-Star appearance under swirling rumors about his potential retirement after this season, the match felt like a celebratory send off. While not every player received a warm ovation from the Portland crowd (particularly the three players from Seattle), Henry was given constant cheers and applause as he skillfully made passes and started attacks.
"Today, against a team like Bayern Munich, it’s not always easy," reflected Henry after the game. "They put pressure really high, at times it wasn’t easy to bring the ball out. But we were kind of patient and around, I think, 30 minutes into the game, we started to do some build up and passing the ball on the ground and most of the time reaching DeAndre Yedlin on the right, that was the plan. That was what Caleb Porter wanted us to do and we tried to do that, it wasn’t easy at times. It worked out today, hopefully it can happen another time. Overall, it was good for the league. We all know it’s a friendly game and they’re in preseason, but it’s good for the league."
Henry would not take part in the squad substitution at halftime, instead playing an extra two minutes in the second half so he could be subbed out in front of the fans, who gave him a standing ovation.
"Every time I play here, you know, they push the team, whether they play well or they don’t play well, they’re always behind their team. It’s crazy, I know some guys that played in the NBA, some friends, and they said to me that even with the Trail Blazers, when the Trail Blazers were playing, the arena would go crazy, and we saw that tonight. They never give up on the team and that helped us a lot in the second half and we managed to come back in the game and win it. But like I said, it was great. The reception was great when I came out and I didn’t expect that but I will always remember that day."
Henry's replacement, Landon Donovan, would score the game winner for the All-Stars in the 70th minute, squeezing a shot past Manuel Neuer. While much of the retirement speculation was on Henry before, during, and after the game, it was Donovan who pulled the trigger today, announcing that he will retire at the end of the year.
Henry, Wright-Phillips, and Cahill won't get much time to relax after the game. The trio returned to NYC this morning to rejoin the Red Bulls in training before a Sunday night road game in Chicago.