John Smallwood: On this night, All-Stars can claim supremacy

Fireworks kept coming even when play was stopped at halftime. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Fireworks kept coming even when play was stopped at halftime. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: July 27, 2012

THIS DIDN'T have the vibe of a normal all-star game.

Typically all-star games are more exhibition than an actual competition. There's an unwritten rule that you only play so hard.

There wasn't anything at stake Wednesday night at PPL Park when the Major League Soccer All-Stars took on European club champion Chelsea — well, nothing except pride.

But during the heat of competition, pride can take things to a different level.

This game had a little edge to it.

This wasn't NBA All-Stars letting guys stroll down the lane for spectacular dunks, NFL All-Pros forgetting how to tackle or NHL All-Stars swearing off checks.

This All-Star "friendly" featured a couple of hard fouls, a few borderline tackles, and some embellishment of injury.

In essence, soccer was actually played at PPL Park, and both sides played to win.

It was a matter of pride.

MLS players know there is always a bit of skepticism about their ability to compete when top level teams from Europe come for their summer training tours.

The last time MLS won its All-Star Game was in 2008 when the opponent was West Ham United, a club that has never been a threat to challenge in the English Premier League, 2-0.

The MLS All-Stars loss to Everton on penalty kicks in 2009, and the last 2 years, they've been embarrassed by Premier League power Manchester United by an aggregate score of 9-2.

So, yes, they wanted to perform well against Chelsea.

Chelsea wasn't treating this lightly either.

There is no question that its 2012 USA Tour is about preparing for the upcoming Premier and Champions League season.

But the catch phrase for these four matches in 10 days in the States is "Here to Play — Here to Stay."

This is also about brand recognition.

Chelsea is a worldwide club, and it wants to establish its name in the USA and market it the same way the Eagles, Phillies, Flyers and Sixers do.

Before the match, Chelsea had a tent where fans could take pictures with the Champions League trophy it won by beating Bayern Munich of the Bundesliga.

Fans could also register to win a free trip to London to see a Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge.

I'll be checking my email.

Don't think for a moment, that the Chelsea players didn't notice that there was an entire section of Blues supporters or that there were thousands of Chelsea jerseys at PPL Park.

Frankly, the last thing the Blues wanted to do was lose to a thrown-together group of MLS players, even the league's best, who had 2 days to train together before the match — especially considering what arch-rival Manchester United had done to them under similar circumstances.

There was also a revenge factor. A number of the Chelsea players were here in 2006 and lost to the MLS All-Stars 1-0.

English teams always have some explaining to do back home if they lose to MLS clubs.

Chelsea has to again explain.

If there can actually be an upset in an all-star game, MLS pulled it off with a 3-2 victory in front of a PPL record crowd of 19,236.

Seattle Sounders FC forward Eddie Johnson, who played 3 years in the Premier League for Fulham FC, scored in stoppage time as MLS pulled off its biggest All-Star Game win.

"First, I'd like to congratulate the city of Philadelphia for being a great host," MLS commissioner Don Garber said as he prepared to give the MLS All-Star Trophy to team captain Dwayne De Rosario of D.C. United. "It's been a long time since this trophy has been in our offices in New York. What a great night for our league and for soccer in America."

The MLS All-Star Trophy isn't nearly as impressive as the Champions League one, but Chelsea still expected to take the silverware home.

They might have even put it in the case with the other hardware the Blues have collected over the past decade.

You could tell by the reaction of Chelsea goal keeper Ross Turnbull that he was not happy when Johnson's shot deflected off defender David Luiz and over his head into an empty net.

Considering it's been less than 2 months since the Blues were celebrating as Bayern Munich players disappointingly looked on, it had to be a bit surreal for them to be watching from the field as the MLS stars received the trophy.

"We first and foremost respect Chelsea," De Rosario said. "It's a great opportunity when you can play a world power like them. We hope we did our fans proud."

Does it actually matter in the big picture? No.

Chelsea is just starting training and far from peak form. In October, this might be an entirely different outcome.

But pride can be a powerful thing, and if you're going to play, winning is always better than losing.

Contact John Smallwood at smallwj@phillynews.com

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