ORLANDO, Fla. — After weathering a half-hour delay because of lightning, Spanish powerhouse Atletico Madrid rode goals by Marcos Llorente, Joao Felix and Diego Costa to beat an MLS All-Star squad comprised of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney and most of the league’s other top players Wednesday night at Exploria Stadium.
Here are three quick thoughts on the match:
The MLS All-Star Game itself was a dud
As far as all-star games go, this one lacked the pizzazz of the last two versions, which were played in packed NFL stadiums against clubs with higher international profiles.
The weather delay set the tone for the evening. Once the contest was finally underway, chances were few and far between for both teams.
Atleti’s Angel Correa got the game’s first opportunity early on, only to slice his open 10-yard shot well wide of Brad Guzan’s goal. But it took almost 20 minutes for the next one to materialize, when Rooney sent a screamer from distance just over Antonio Adan’s crossbar.
Replays confirmed Rooney’s argument that Adan got a fingertip to the effort, but referee Drew Fischer was unmoved.
The play for both teams remained disjointed, before and after Llorente beat Philadelphia Union keeper Andre Blake (who had replaced Guzan) just before halftime.
The home side fared better following the intermission, with LAFC’s Diego Rossi, Seattle’s Nicolas Lodeiro, Atlanta United pair Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez and World Cup-winning Chicago Fire center back Bastian Schweinsteiger all going close before Felix put the game away with five minutes to go.
Despite the result, the format remains compelling
Wednesday’s defeat marked the third consecutive loss by the home side, even if that stat is a little unfair; in 2017 and ‘18, the MLS All-Stars lost on penalties after tying Real Madrid and Juventus, respectively.
The annual All-Star game remains competitive for a glorified friendly match, however, at least compared to the defense-is-optional Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference All-Star matches in the league’s early days. (Between 1999 and 2001, the midsummer classic ended 6-4, 9-4 and 6-6, respectively.)
Still, this one something was off. It probably didn’t help that Atletico manager Diego Simeone ran out a team of mostly reserves (with the main exception Mexican national teamer Hector Herrera) for the first 55 minutes of the match before changing all 11 of his players in the 56th.
Simeone’s counterpart James O’Connor, the coach of host club Orlando City who got the assignment in keeping with recent tradition, subbed out Ibrahimovic and Guzan at the 30-minute mark, then made nine more changes at the break.
Combined with the delay, that prevented the match from settling into any sort of rhythm. But as long as league honchos insist on having an All-Star game, the MLS-against-an-international-opponent set-up still beats the alternative.
All-Star week remains more than just the match itself
As the traditional celebration of the league’s best players, the All-Star game still served its purpose. Local fans among the 25,527 in attendance enjoyed cheering hometown hero Nani and booing Guzan and his Atlanta teammates mercilessly. They saw a peach of a goal by Felix — even if goalkeeper Nick Rimando could’ve done better — and one by Costa, one of the European game’s best-known forwards.
Besides, in many ways the contest is secondary. All-Star week is a celebration of the domestic league itself, one that continues to produce news and buzz, two things MLS still struggles to do on a regular basis, during a relatively quiet time on the sporting calendar in the United States and Canada.
That’s important to remember, even on a night when MLS’s All-Star triumphs over the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Bayern Munich earlier this decade seemed like a distant memory.
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