As a jammed pack month of soccer nears a close, Major League Soccer takes a break from their regular season schedule to host their annual All-Star game. Following a format that was successfully instituted six years ago, a select group of the league’s best players will represent MLS against a top international club team. For the 2011 edition of the soccer summer classic, Barclays Premier League champions Manchester United face off against the MLS All-Stars in the match tonight at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey. This is the second straight year that the Red Devils will play in the contest, after dominating MLS in the 2010 match by a score of 5-2.
Hoping to show off the improved quality of MLS, the league tweaked the selection criteria for this years match in an effort to get the best team together to face the English champions. New York Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe was put in charge of formulating a plan to avenge last year’s loss to United, and he has selected a 22-man roster that reads like an MLS “fantasy league” team. And among Backe’s selections are two players from the San Jose Earthquakes, forward Chris Wondolowski and defender Bobby Convey.
“I’m pleased for both Wondo and Bobby to be selected,” said Earthquakes head coach Frank Yallop. “Hans is picking a team to win the game. He is not treating it like a popularity contest; he is looking for guys that together can beat Manchester United.”
While Backe had the ultimate say on which players would suit up for the MLS All-Star game, eleven of the eligible players were nominated through a series of fan ballots during the month of June, and were celebrated as the MLS All-Star First XI. Wondolowski, by virtue of his outstanding 2010 season and strong start to the current campaign, was a top choice to represent the league as a forward. Coach Yallop welcomed the recognition his star striker received by the fans.
“It was great news, I was very happy for Chris,” said Yallop. “He’s a humble guy who early on didn’t get many accolades and awards; then last year he won the Golden Boot, and now he is in the All-Star game, which is good for him.”
Until scoring two goals in last week’s match against the Vancouver Whitecaps, Wondolowski had been relatively quiet for the Earthquakes, but a call-up to the U.S. National Team did interrupt his club season back in June, and he missed four starts for San Jose. He returned earlier this month and quickly established himself in the flow of the team. While the goals didn’t come initially, the forward was pleased to regain the chemistry he enjoyed with his teammates prior to leaving for the Gold Cup, and reap the rewards against Vancouver.
“I felt comfortable the day I was back with the guys,” said Wondolowski following his return from national team duty. “It was just a matter of putting everything back together.”
Coach Yallop echoed Wondo’s assessment and promised his star striker was prepared to again be the offensive leader of the team following his return from national team duty.
“He’s done fine,” said Yallop. “It is never easy to jump straight back in. That tournament takes a lot of you both mentally and physically. Chris didn’t play that many games with them, but just being away for four weeks and not being around our guys it was never going to be easy to come straight back in and expect to be able to do his best.”
While Wondolowski was a First XI selection, Convey was directly selected by coach Backe as an important component in his tactical plan to beat Manchester United. The 28-year old will be making his fourth appearance on the MLS All-Star roster, and was honored to be recognized for his ability despite having a sub-par season statistically.
“It’s always exciting to get the chance to go to another All-Star game,” revealed Convey. “Getting to play Manchester United again will be a lot of fun. I’ve had a chance to play them a few times in my career and I expect it will be another great game.”
Coach Yallop was contacted prior to Convey’s selection to verify that the left sided player was fit enough to face the EPL champions. With two MLS appearances in the last week for the Earthquakes, Convey looks ready to make an impact with the MLS All-Star team.
“Bobby is a good player,” shared Yallop. “I don’t know where Hans wants him to play, but Bobby has qualities that are good for a defender and a midfielder. He has been out with an injury as of late, but getting this chance to play in the All-Star game will hopefully give him a boost.”
Both Wondolowski and Convey joined the team earlier this week and underwent a crash-course training lesson into the tactics coach Backe will employ against Manchester United. Prior to arriving in New York, both players expressed that they weren’t sure what to expect, but that they were ready to give it their all as representatives of MLS.
“First off we need to bring the right mentality,” said Wondolowski. “We need to be hard working and ready to play, and if we have that the sharpness will follow.”
Convey, who played the second half against United in last summer’s match in Houston, expected that the team will be better prepared this time around.
“When English teams come to play in their preseason, they want to win every game,” said Convey. “They are not taking it lightly and thinking it is just an All-Star game where the score might be 6-5, they don’t come to play that way. Last year was a bit thrown together, so the coach has picked some good players to give Manchester United a good game this year.”
Whatever the result, the MLS All-Star game should prove to be a fantastic celebration of MLS and a display of how professional soccer has advanced in the United States. With two representatives from San Jose, the match also gives supporters of the Earthquakes a chance to see their stars measure up with some of the world’s best players.