SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The more-than-capacity crowd at Avaya Stadium in San Jose got their money's worth Thursday evening, as Arsenal FC scored a late goal to defeat the best of MLS 2-1 in the 2016 AT&T MLS All-Star Game.
Joel Campbell scored from the spot early in the first half for the Gunners, but his goal was equalized when Didier Drogba persisted through two saves to lash home in first half stoppage time. Arsenal earned the game-winner in the 87th minute when Chuba Akpom finished from close range.
The game capped off an exciting week of MLS All-Star activities in San Jose, and the record Avaya Stadium crowd, made up of half Arsenal fans and half MLS supporters, stayed long after the final whistle to cheer on their heroes.
The pregame atmosphere at the stadium was electric, with the crowds at the LOBINA half a dozen patrons deep. The terraces in front of the scoreboard bar were packed with red-and-white clad Arsenal fans, as they enjoyed every touch during warm-ups. The only downside was that the scoreboard green was taken up with hospitality tents, and the regular line of local food trucks was reserved for their use. Still it was as festive an environment as Avaya Stadium has seen since its opening in early 2015.
Prior to player introductions and the national anthem, dueling DJs spun out the tunes atop mixing stands in the center circle. Fireworks were timed to the music, and the noise reached such levels that even the steady stream of landing planes at next-door Mineta San Jose International Airport could not compete. The booms, the crackles, the flashes -- it was excessive in all the right ways.
The national anthem was a thing of beauty, and the entire stadium roared its approval. The starting line-ups shared some handshakes and took their obligatory team photos, and then the game began. Arsenal quickly took the initiative, much to the delight of the thousands of Gooners in the crowd. A determined pocket of MLS fans tried to get an "M, L, S!" cheer going in the southeast corner of the stands, but they were quickly quieted by a chorus of boos.
The Arsenal fans would get their moment in the 10th minute, when Laurent Ciman was forced to pull down Joel Campbell in the box, resulting in a quick penalty call by referee Chris Penso. The Costa Rican forward stutter-stepped his way to the ball and slammed a PK past goalkeeper Andre Blake, much to the approval of the Arsenal supporters in the stands.
For the MLS All-Stars, New York City FC teammates Andrea Pirlo and David Villa showed some magic to get the Spanish forward space on the wings. But his every foray into the area was stymied, and the closest the forward came to a shot on target was an overhead kick attempt in the 19th that thrilled the crowd, but did nothing to challenge Petr Cech.
Arsenal nearly doubled their lead in the 26th minute, when Mohamed Elneny rocketed a long-distance effort that Blake expertly tipped over the crossbar. The Philadelphia Union goalkeeper, selected by fans in All-Star team voting, drew applause from fans of both sides.
In the 32nd minute, head coach Dominic Kinnear took Pirlo and David Villa off the field for Sacha Kljestan and Ignacio Piatti. All players, Arsenal and MLS, took advantage of the substitutions, and an unofficial water break went down. Given the near-record heat in San Jose all week, it was a well-deserved hydration hiatus.
And so, it was in that added stoppage time that the MLS All-Stars found an equalizer. Didier Drogba formerly of Chelsea teed off on his former Blues teammate Cech in the 45+2' minute, only to have the Gunners 'keeper make a fantastic save. But Drogba did not give up, lashing a shot on target that was cleared off the line by a defender. Still, the ball again found the foot of Drogba, and he lashed home a goal to make the score 1-1. Third time's the charm for the Montreal Impact designated player.
The teams came out for the second half with both Kinnear and Arsenal head coach Arsene Wenger making a host of changes. San Jose Earthquakes goalkeeper David Bingham was among the substitutions as he set up shop inside the enclosed stadium end. Last year's league MVP forward Sebastian Giovinco took over for Drogba at the tip of the formation, and he almost beat Cech in the 48' minute with a vicious strike from the top of the area.
The game settled down a notch after the more entertaining first half, as both teams spent time mired in the midfield. A "Let's go All-Stars!" chant woke the crowd up in the 60th minute, but this MLS line-up was certainly more pragmatic than the first half shift. In the 67th minute, Arsenal brought in many new faces, and everyone took another water break to mark the occasion.
Twice in the span of two minutes near the 70 minute mark, Bingham had to come up big with saves. The first was a diving effort that the Quakes 'keeper tipped wide, and the second was a bullet of a free kick that was aimed right at him.
In the 73rd minute, the Avaya Stadium crowd got the substitution it craved, as local hero Chris Wondolowski entered the match to arguably the loudest applause of the evening. He had his first near-chance a minute later, when a cross through the box was just out of his reach. A layoff pass from Cyle Larin in the 82nd minute gave Wondo another opportunity, but he skied his shot in the direction of the LOBINA.
Arsenal finally broke through in the 87th minute, just as the match looked headed to penalty kicks, as Nacho Monreal hugged the endline and coaxed Bingham off his line enough to thread a cross to Chuba Akpom in front of goal. A simple tap-in was all that was required to elate the Arsenal fans throughout Avaya Stadium.
The MLS All-Stars tried to rally through two minutes of stoppage time, but Arsenal held on for the 2-1 victory. It was the first loss by MLS in its All-Star Game since dropping a 3-1 decision to AS Roma back in 2013.
David Villa of New York City FC attempts an audacious bicycle attempt in the first half.
Kaká played masterfully for MLS in his first half stint.