MLS All-Stars 4, Fulham 1
The last two weeks have offered MLS an uncommon opportunity to measure itself against prestigious European opponents and, while the young, underfunded league performed reasonably well in its first three tests, it had failed to earn a victory.
Saturday, MLS was provided with a different type of challenge: Instead of one of its ambitious clubs representing the league, an all-star team was brought together to face a modest English side, Fulham.
Despite having just two days of practice, the MLS squad was remarkably cohesive and deftly efficient on the attack, rolling to a 4-1 victory before a sellout crowd of 23,309 at Columbus Crew Stadium.
New England's Taylor Twellman, the game's most valuable player, and Fulham's Claus Jensen exchanged first-half goals before a slight deflection by Dallas's Ronnie O'Brien broke the tie early in the second half. Colorado's Jeff Cunningham, a former Columbus player, struck twice in the final five minutes to hand Fulham an embarrassing defeat two weeks before its Premier League opener against Birmingham City.
"I thought the boys were magnificent," Dallas Coach Colin Clarke said. "They come to compete, they come to play from the first whistle. . . . We're a good league, a strong league with a lot of good players."
Argentine midfielder Christian Gomez, D.C. United's only representative, played the final 26 minutes and assisted on Cunningham's first goal. Two days earlier, Gomez had started for United during a 2-1 loss to defending English champion Chelsea at FedEx Field -- a result that, despite its exhibition nature, surprised many observers here and abroad. On July 18, despite being badly overmatched, the Los Angeles Galaxy stayed within two goals of Real Madrid, and on Wednesday the Chicago Fire put a scare into AC Milan before falling, 3-1.
"The league has shown a lot of advancement and individually the players are growing and the league is growing with it," Gomez said through an interpreter.
To be fair, Fulham is far from being in top form and is unaccustomed to playing in the heat. Nonetheless, it was outplayed most of the 82-degree afternoon, prompting Coach Chris Coleman to say: "Certainly in the second half you could see that we were no way near as fit as the MLS boys. They're a good team, and I think they got stronger and stronger as the game went on and we got weaker."
MLS went ahead in the 23rd minute when Twellman (University of Maryland) used a clever touch while being marked by Fulham's American defender, Carlos Bocanegra, to put himself into position for a sliding 10-yard shot into the left corner. Fulham drew even in the 36th when Los Angeles's Chris Albright was called for knocking down Luis Boa Morte in the box, setting up Jensen's penalty kick.
After Fulham's Tomasz Radzinski hit the right post, MLS went back ahead in the 56th minute when O'Brien got a subtle touch on New England midfielder Clint Dempsey's 17-yard volley. Then, with Fulham fading, MLS took control for the remainder of the match and put it out of reach when Cunningham, MLS's leading scorer this year, collected Gomez's pass and placed an angled eight-yard shot into the far corner. He added his second goal in the closing minutes on a breakaway.
"We played like a real team," said Columbus defender Frankie Hejduk, one of several MLS all-stars who have competed together on the U.S. national squad.
Added Twellman: "You have to take into account they're still in their preseason and we're in the middle of our season, but at the end of the day, we got a good result. I think we're catching up. You watch Chelsea-D.C. United, and United played very well. We're on our way, but obviously [the English teams are] first-class."
MLS Notes: Gomez said he has a hernia but is improving through physical therapy and should be able to continue to play without needing surgery. . . . Dallas forward Carlos Ruiz didn't show up as anticipated Friday, instead deciding to remain in his native Guatemala. League officials were clearly upset, saying Ruiz was excused for "personal reasons."