MLS had always performed well in all-star matches against European competition, but on Wednesday night, the English Premier League champions torched the select squad, 4-0, before 26,760 at Red Bull Arena.
The glamorous opponent and New York backdrop shined a brighter spotlight on the annual match. By the end, however, it also illuminated the gap between the sport’s elite and the 15-year-old league. In fairness, the MLS group was together for only two days while United, featuring some of the world’s finest players, was beginning to round into form during this five-game preseason tour.
“Even if we had weeks together, it was still going to be a tough game,” Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “We gave it a go, and you need some bounces to go your way, and that didn’t happen either.”
In the tour finale Saturday night, United will confront much greater resistance against FC Barcelona at FedEx Field in Landover – a rematch of the UEFA Champions League final, won by the Catalan club.
Last year United defeated MLS all-stars, 5-2, in Houston, but the match was tight until late.
“Obviously, when you play a team like Manchester United, you expect it to be hard, you expect them to play like they play,” Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder David Beckham said. “It’s not embarrassing because you’re against one of the best teams in the world.”
MLS Coach Hans Backe (New York) presented a bold lineup, starting three forwards (Thierry Henry, Omar Bravo and Omar Cummings) and allowing Beckham to orchestrate the attack from a central role against his former club.
Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson offered the imposing central defending duo of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic and the front-line partnership of Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov. Mexican striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez was not in uniform after suffering a concussion in Tuesday night’s training session. He won’t play for several weeks, Coach Alex Ferguson said.
The MLS squad showed promise for 20 minutes. After Cummings’s near-side bid was denied by Anders Lindegaard, Henry beat Ferdinand on the counterattack and crossed to Bravo, who touched it back to Beckham for a 22-yarder that skipped narrowly wide of the left post.
In the 20th minute, however, United went ahead with a splendid combination: Rooney to Berbatov, Berbatov to Rooney, Rooney’s squared ball to Anderson, and a simple effort into the lower left corner.
MLS was undeterred. Beckham intercepted a wayward pass, dashed into space and unleashed a 30-yarder that a soaring Lindegaard pushed over the crossbar. Brad Davis cracked a 35-yarder that drew the same outcome. Beckham dropped an exquisite ball from 45 yards onto Henry’s foot.
“In the first half, MLS was more dangerous than us,” Ferguson said. “Once we shortened our game and played more combinations, we looked the better team then.”
United doubled the lead in the final minute of the half. Park Ji Sung toyed with Los Angeles right back Sean Franklin in the box, shifting one way, then the other before striking from 12 yards to the far side. MLS’s hope of winning the match melted away.
“The only difference for me [in the first half] was the final third [of the field], and of course it’s an important one,” Backe said. “They took the chances, they’re a little bit sharper. Otherwise, we had our chances too. It’s tough being two down after that first half.”
The margin deepened seven minutes after the break. Rooney set up Berbatov, who muscled Geoff Cameron off the ball and chipped over keeper Tally Hall. The shot struck the crossbar, but the Bulgarian chested the ball to himself and side-volleyed it home.
As planned during this preseason stretch, Ferguson pulled six starters at the 60-minute mark. To MLS’s relief, Rooney and Berbatov were done for the night. The onslaught continued. Danny Welbeck cut back twice before stinging a 20-yard shot that, thanks to a deflection off Cameron’s leg, caught Hall going the wrong way.
“They played some decent stuff, especially the first 20 minutes or so, and had a lot of possession,” United midfielder Michael Carrick said. “It was a good test for us and we came through it well.”