ATLANTA – Major League Soccer’s All-Stars may have lost to Juventus on penalty kicks following Wednesday’s 1-1 tie at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but if a defeat could ever feel like victory for the MLS players and the league they represent, this was probably it.
“I think congratulations are in order for the president of Atlanta United as well as the president of MLS. It’s a beautiful event,” Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri said in his post-match press conference. “It’s not easy to put 70,000 people in a stadium like today. It was really a wonderful game, and it was a good preparation for us.”
It was also the most entertaining MLS All-Star game in recent memory. That was no accident. Home team coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who is also the coach of the host Five Stripes, could have opted for a more conservative game plan to give his hodgepodge roster a better chance of slowing down the 34-time Italian Serie A winners, who had already played two games in North America in the International Champions Cup. Instead, Martino decided to go toe-to-toe with one of Europe’s most talented and decorated teams and attacking the visitors at every opportunity.
“We knew we had a responsibility to try and play in this game and not just contain and defend Juventus,” Martino said. “This is a team of MLS All-Stars, the best players in the league, chosen by the fans and by the coach. So we felt like we had a responsibility to really try and impose our own style on the game.”
It worked. For much of the night, the home side looked like the better team. The statistics back it up. The MLS players may have been outshot 17-16 overall, but they put seven of those attempts on target compared to Juve’s eight. They enjoyed the majority of possession. They completed more passes in every area of the field, and won more corner kicks, duels and tackles. Had they been just slightly more clinical in front of goal, the shootout wouldn’t have been necessary.
“The pace of the game was obviously a good standard,” MLS and Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “We created a few more chances and unfortunately we couldn’t put one [more] away … It shows where MLS is. The quality’s there. The tempo of the game was there. It was a proper game.”
Wednesday’s contest marked the second straight year that MLS’s best lost the tiebreaker following a regulation draw against one of the world’s leading clubs, having fallen to Real Madrid last August in Chicago.
But they went 2-1 in the domestic league’s three previous three midsummer classics, beating Bayern Munich and Tottenham Hotspur in 2014 and ‘15 and losing to Arsenal two years ago.
The results don’t matter of course, not really. But as MLS, now in its 23rd season, continues to fight to lure American and Canadian fans who prefer watching televised matches from overseas, any sort of validation helps.
The MLS players knew it. From the opening whistle, it was clear that they were playing to win. Eventual game MVP Josef Martinez of Atlanta United set the tone early when he slid on the artificial grass in an attempt to block a clearance by Juve keeper Wojciech Szczesny. When Martinez tied the score from the doorstep in the 25th minute, he was almost rewarded to with a boot to the face. He wasn’t alone. The effort was admirable from the entire group, one convened just two days before the contest that had never played together before, or will again.
“It’s so difficult,” said defender Michael Parkhurst, also of Atlanta United. “We fly here and play a midweek match in between two league games. Only on and a half training sessions and we are playing against one of the top club teams in the world. It’s a difficult situation. I thought the guys did really, really well tonight. We were unfortunate not to win the game. That’s a testament to the guys and their work rate to gel very quickly and follow the game plan.”
With most players limited to 30-45 minutes of action, that plan involved lots of running. That’s usually not the case in a game that, for all the pomp, is at its core a glorified friendly match.
“Tata asked us to compete,” Parkhurst added. No one was going to play too much, so he wanted us to go hard. I think the guys did that. We wanted to come out here and put on a good performance and I think that was mission accomplished.”
Off the field, the spectacle was even better. The overflow crowd smashed the previous All-Star game attendance record, with more than 72,000 in attendance at the sparkling year-old venue. The city was abuzz all week. The first-class atmosphere before, during and after the match won’t soon be forgotten by the distinguished guests.
“I was very pleasantly surprised for the entire climate and the entire impression that we got from Atlanta,” Allegri said. “There was so much enthusiasm … this speaks well for the future [of the sport] in the United States.”
More soccer on Yahoo Sports:
• Takeaways from the USWNT’s 4-2 win over Japan
• Adelson: Was Jaelene Hinkle cut by USWNT because of her religious beliefs?
• McIntyre: The significance of Alphonso Davies’ move to Bayern Munich
• Who’s at fault in Mesut Ozil’s row with German soccer?
• Why the transfer window now depends on Ronaldo-to-Juve aftershocks