CHESTER, Pa. — To Major League Soccer, the All-Star Game in recent years had become, in some regards, a sore subject. Envisioned as a spotlight for the league’s top talent, the midsummer spectacle instead developed into an arbitrary symbol for how far soccer in the U.S. still has to go.
At PPL Park on Wednesday, the MLS All-Stars gave the league’s reputation a boost it may not have needed but surely will embrace, dropping UEFA Champions League winner Chelsea FC by a 3-2 score. The triumph snapped a three-year losing streak in the event that included blowout losses to Manchester United the past two seasons.
The contributions in the comeback win came from all over. The D.C. United connection of All-Star captain Dwayne De Rosario and halftime substitute Chris Pontius collaborated on a strike. MLS leading scorer Chris Wondolowski continued his scorching form with a goal. Luck factored in when Eddie Johnson’s dramatic stoppage-time winner deflected on its way in.
“The way they played, I think, was fun to watch for the fans, and that’s what these are still about: entertaining the people that come here,” said All-Star coach Ben Olsen of United. “Of course, we know MLS is on a stage and every time we play, people are interested in how MLS is doing. I thought they did MLS proud.”
Despite getting goals from England national team stars John Terry and Frank Lampard, Chelsea was handed its first loss of the club’s preseason tour, which began with a 4-2 win at the Seattle Sounders last week and a 1-1 tie with Paris Saint-Germain in New York on Sunday.
“The Chelsea team didn’t come here and just mess around,” said midfielder Landon Donovan of the Los Angeles Galaxy. “They came to play. And they play hard. While we’re not jumping through hoops because we beat a team in preseason, I think there were a lot of really good individual performances.”
Olsen deployed the same lineup he tested in training Tuesday with one notable exception: The Galaxy’s Beckham got the nod on the right flank over Graham Zusi after arriving from London hours before the match. An ambassador for the Summer Olympics, Beckham left the stadium shortly after the game ended for his return trip across the Atlantic to take part in Friday’s opening ceremony.
The All-Stars deflected a slew of early Chelsea attacks before striking in the 21st minute. As Terry butchered a clearance of Henry’s service from the left side, Wondolowski (17 goals in 20 games for the San Jose Earthquakes) was on the doorstep to clean up.
Terry redeemed himself 11 minutes later, nodding a Lampard corner kick past Jimmy Nielsen. Thirteen minutes after the break, Chelsea went ahead when Lampard converted a cross from Brazilian maestro Ramires at the back post.
But the All-Stars drew level in the 73rd minute. Catching the Chelsea defense sleeping, Beckham played a long ball from near midfield to De Rosario, who slipped behind the Chelsea back line and found Pontius in front of goal for a low finish inside the near post.
“I’ve been playing with De Ro for a year now,” said Pontius, who was named the match’s Most Valuable Player. “The guy just makes plays. I’m used to it game in, game out. He draws the attention of two defenders and I’m left wide open. I’m just trying to put it on frame.”
Just as the contest seemed destined for a penalty-kicks tiebreaker, Johnson did exactly what Olsen envisioned when he selected the Seattle Sounders striker: punish a fatigued Chelsea side with his speed.
Running onto a through ball from Kyle Beckerman, Johnson fired a shot that deflected off the leg of Chelsea defender David Luiz, over goalkeeper Ross Turnbull and into the back of the net.
“Coach told me to just try to run at that back line,” said Johnson, a 60th-minute substitute. “That’s what coach brought me here for.”
Played before a stadium-record crowd of 19,236 at the Philadelphia Union’s cozy home on the banks of the Delaware River, the All-Stars’ triumph featured an electric environment, highlighted by supporters singing in full voice as they accepted many league rivals as one of their own — for a day, at least.
“It was a great atmosphere,” Wondolowski said. “The fans were dedicated, loyal and loud. I’m glad they were cheering for us this time.”
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