MLS all-stars rub shoulders with Bayern Munich big names in Portland
Monday, Aug 04, 2014 06:00 pm
PORTLAND, Ore. - After the coaches and selected players from Bayern Munich and the MLS all-stars had posed for photographers, Bayern winger Franck Ribery and coach Pep Guardiola lingered on the dais to chat with Thierry Henry.
Guardiola, who coached the New York Red Bulls star forward at Barcelona, playfully rubbed Henry's shaven head. Henry and Ribery, former teammates on the French national team, exchanged hugs.
For Major League Soccer, such rubbing of shoulders is a powerful image of how far the North American league has come in 19 seasons.
The all-stars will look to show more of that on the field Wednesday night when they take on the German powerhouse at Providence Park.
"We all view this as a great opportunity and a great experience," Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler told Monday's news conference. "I think over the past two or three years, Bayern's made a very very strong case as the best team in the world. And it's not every day that you get that opportunity to play against one of the best teams in the world."
Players on both sides, however, were realistic, about Wednesday's game.
The all-stars are a team thrown together on virtually no notice. Bayern Munich is in pre-season mode, with eight World Cup stars only arriving Tuesday after a 12-hour journey — ending their post-tournament holiday essentially as a courtesy to MLS and sponsors. After the all-star game, Bayern heads home to Munich for a team presentation Saturday at Allianz Arena.
Guardiola, who answered questions in English, French and German, acknowledged that if any of the latecomers get on the field Wednesday, it will be a cameo at best.
All-stars coach Caleb Porter, whose day job is leading the Portland Timbers, has his own issues.
"Obviously I need to manage the minutes of these players. That's a priority,' he said. "I want these guys to go back to their clubs healthy. A lot of them have games Saturday, Sunday ... We're pretty much going to play two separate groups first half, second half."
His goal is to highlight his players' talents, noting the game is a celebration of their season and careers, as well as a showcase for the league.
"Hopefully we can make it a competitive game," he said. "We're going to try to make it exciting. We have a lot of very good attacking and defensive players. But it wouldn't do these players justice to sit back all game. So we're going to attack and make it an exciting game."
At 39, Porter is one of the rising American coaching stars, having also led the U.S. under-23 team and the highly successful University of Akron program.
"The way he sends his team on the field is exactly how a team should play football," Henry said approvingly.
Even Porter was shaking his head at the talents on display Monday morning at practice as the likes of Henry, Tim Cahill and Landon Donovan showed their skills in simple drills. Porter said he got the spacing on one drill wrong because the players were moving the ball so quickly.
"For me it was a real joy," he said. "I love seeing high-level football."
Donovan, a star attacker for the Los Angeles Galaxy who was not picked by U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann for the World Cup, was equally pumped.
"To be completely honest, this is the most excited I've been at one of these games for a long time," said Donovan, named an all-star for the 14th consecutive season. "I think everyone's excited to come to Portland, we all love this city. We love playing at Providence Park. For once, we get to play with the fans behind us, which will be nice.
"I think it'll be a great week. There's a lot of very talented players here obviously on both sides of the field and we're going to try and enjoy it."
But Henry was the star of the show Monday, speaking highly of how the soccer culture has changed in the U.S. in recent years and lavishing praise on Bayern players like Ribery and Thomas Mueller and especially Guardiola.
The 36-year-old Henry said when it was time for a water break at Barca practice, players were expected to hydrate on the run. Not a second was wasted on Guardiola's watch.
Guardiola, said Henry, is always ahead of his opposition.
"Whatever you're thinking of when you play against him or you have to play against his team, he already thought about it three days before you did ... He's thinking way ahead of the game and he demands a lot from his players — a lot.
"I remember some games where we were 5-0 up at halftime. And he wasn't happy. That's him."
The choice of MLS all-stars on the podium Monday also spoke volumes about the league. Henry, who left Barcelona in 2010 to come to MLS, was flanked by Seattle Sounders striker Clint Dempsey, who quit England's Spurs to return to MLS, and Besler, who elected to sign a designated player contract and remain in MLS.
The Bayern lineup on the podium was equally impressive.
The 43-year-old Guardiola exudes charisma, whether rubbing his stubble or playfully berating the moderator for not allowing one of his players to answer a question.
He was flanked by Julian Green, the baby-faced teenage U.S. international, as well as clean-cut Polish star international forward Robert Lewandowski and the pirate-like Ribery, with his goatee, lopsided smile and scar down the side of his face — the remnant of a serious car accident when he was two years old.
Prior to meeting the media, the MLS all-stars worked out for the first time Monday.
With two league games Sunday, not all of the all-stars were in camp. But Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley and Canadian international Will Johnson of the Portland Timbers were on hand for a short practice under bright sunshine at the Timbers' suburban training centre.
Bayern arrived on the weekend after defeating Chivas Guadalajara 1-0 on Friday at the home of the New York Red Bulls.
Bradley is in the rare position of playing for and against the all-stars in consecutive years.
In 2013, he helped Roma to a 3-1 victory over the all-stars. This week he carries the MLS flag.
The MLS has had its all-stars play visiting teams since 2005 when Fulham was beaten 4-1. The format was a mish-mash before that with six years of West versus East, and one-offs for U.S. versus world all-stars, all-stars versus U.S. national team, and all-stars versus Mexico's Guadalajara.
Since 2005, the all-stars are 5-4 against touring teams but they are 1-4 over the last five years — with losses to Roma, Manchester United (twice) and West Ham.
Johnson, captain of the Portland Timbers, is the lone Canadian all-star. Toronto FC star striker Jermain Defoe was slated to join Bradley at the game but was sidelined with a groin injury.
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter