- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2012

PHILADELPHIA — At 34 years old, Chelsea FC midfielder Frank Lampard has experienced his fair share of American tours. And over time, one thing has become clear: The “beautiful game” is growing.

Chelsea, the defending UEFA Champions League winner, continues its latest preseason swing through the United States with the MLS All-Star Game on Wednesday in Chester, Pa. Suiting up for the All-Stars will be a player Lampard credits with speeding soccer’s expansion: Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder David Beckham, his longtime England teammate.

“It’s evolved a great deal,” Lampard said. “I think David Beckham has been a huge influence on the game in terms of taking it worldwide. He brings a lot of attention, which has then lifted the levels of the players that have been called into the MLS. You can feel the level of the quality going up, and you can feel the level of the excitement, the level of the fans getting involved.”

It’s enthusiasm Chelsea has embraced in its first two matches of the tour. Last week, the Blues defeated the Seattle Sounders 4-2 before 53,309 at CenturyLink Field. On Sunday at New York’s Yankee Stadium, 38,202 saw them play to a 1-1 tie against Paris Saint-Germain.

Against the All-Stars at PPL Park, Chelsea will face the unique challenge taking on an opponent assembled for a single match.

“We’ve done our research,” Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo said. “This is not exactly a team that plays together every week, so it’s more difficult to predict.”

All-Stars embrace format

After typically using a format that pitted the Eastern Conference against the Western Conference in the league’s early years, the All-Star Game since 2005 has featured an MLS side taking on a high-profile European opponent.

The players agree that despite being an exhibition, the contest carries extra weight when the league’s reputation is put on the line.

“They’re more enjoyable for us,” Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan said. “In the past, when it was an East-West format, you didn’t really take it all too seriously. The game was in some ways fun but a little bit false, which isn’t as exciting for us as playing a real game.”

Added New York Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry: “If you’re not happy to play against Chelsea, then there is something wrong. I’m just happy to be a part of it. You have a lot of good players in this league, and people unfortunately in Europe aren’t aware of it.”

Of course, raising the stakes means the All-Stars must put an emphasis on strategy that otherwise would be absent.

“These type of games, we just kind of worry about ourselves,” San Jose Earthquakes striker Chris Wondolowski said. “Obviously, Chelsea has very few flaws, so it’s hard to pick them out. They have a lot of strengths, so that’s why I think it’s going to be even more important to communicate and try to talk throughout the game.”

Locals relish opportunity

In addition to D.C. United’s All-Stars, Dwayne De Rosario, Chris Pontius and coach Ben Olsen, the Washington area will be represented by two more players with local ties: University of Maryland alumnus Graham Zusi of Sporting Kansas City and Crofton, Md., native Kyle Beckerman of Real Salt Lake.

Zusi, who is tied for fourth in MLS with eight assists, is playing in his first All-Star Game after being voted by the fans to the First XI.

“It’s kind of a shock to me actually,” Zusi said. “I’m not sure if it’s sunk in all the way. I’m enjoying the moments that I get, and I’m loving what I’m doing — that part hasn’t changed whatsoever. I just happen to be in some good form right now and proud that I get to represent K.C.”

An All-Star for the sixth-straight season, Beckerman has turned his focus to making sure MLS secures a win after two losses to Manchester United.

“The soccer people, they understand what’s going on,” Beckerman said. “It’s an All-Star team, we’re trying to jell as quick as possible. But we’re all competitive people. We know the score line is going to go around the world. We’re all in this to build Major League Soccer and build soccer in this country. So in order to do that, we need to get some results.”

• Thomas Floyd can be reached at tfloyd@washingtontimes.com.

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