The task ahead of the MLS All-Stars this on Wednesday night is daunting: Beat Manchester United, the 19-time champions of England, the three-time champions of Europe, the club that has stamped its brand from the International Date Line to the Prime Meridian and back.
Last year, it didn’t work out so great for the All-Stars, as United rode an early wave of pressure to a comprehensive 5-2 victory in Houston. It was a sweet bit of revenge for the Red Devils, who had been beaten 2-1 by a 10-man Kansas City side just days before.
And it was an eye-opener for the All-Stars, who had never before lost in regulation (they were beaten on penalties in 2009 by Everton) to the foreign hordes who provide the competition in the annual showpiece.
Generally, there are two things that Hans Backe’s team must do to have a shot at beating United.
First: Avoid turnovers. Not a great revelation, that, but it’s worth remembering that United left tire marks all over poor Kevin Alston last year. The New England defender started the festivities with an awful backpass 19 seconds into the match, Federico Macheda capitalized and the Red Devils were off and running.
In case the lesson was lost, United drilled it home last week in their 7-0 demolition of the Seattle Sounders. Seattle played very well in the first half — they might have had the better of play, to be perfectly honest — but they allowed one opportunity for United to break. And thus, they went into halftime down 1-0.
Seattle allowed seven opportunities to break in the second half, and United found the net six more times. It’s easy math.
“Were they six goals better than us in that second half?” Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid asked afterward. “I’d say yes, because if you give them that space, they’ll score.”
United, like most all English teams, feature players who are much better on the run than they are in a slow build-up. Of their regulars only Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov are more comfortable in a pure possession game (Wayne Rooney is just fine regardless of tactics, of course), so if you don’t give them the chance to get out and run you don’t give them the chance to shine.
The All-Stars have to value the ball. No lazy passes, no lack of awareness in the midfield or they’ll get steamrolled.
Second: Don’t concede cheap set-pieces. Another trait typical of English teams is an ability to punish on set-pieces. Last year, United scored on a corner when Macheda broke loose from Sébastien Le Toux, and on a direct kick that Darron Gibson bent past Nick Rimando.
Again, it’s not a great revelation that you don’t want to concede on set-pieces, but this year’s All-Star team has to be much, much more mindful than 2010’s. No ball-watching, no unnecessary fouls around the box and no shoddy walls. Great teams punish the mistakes you make as much as they force you into mistakes themselves; that’s what United did last year, and it’s key to avoid a repeat.
Beyond those two soccer aphorisms, it’s tough to say that there’s one particular tactical strategy that’s a surefire bet against the Red Devils. You could point to Barcelona’s possession game, but that’s a style born of 40 years of the La Masia academy and not something replicable merely by throwing any league’s best talent together.
Backe himself talked about “herding” United on last week’s ExtraTime Radio, and therein might lie the key. By herding United’s players into spots they don’t want to go to, into places where you’re strong defensively, you force them to be creative and dangerous in less time and space than they’re accustomed to.
The best way to do that is to copy the Colorado Rapids’ tactics from 2010. The Rapids pioneered a “forward destroyer” lineup, with Jeff Larentowicz playing as a traditional pivot and Pablo Mastroeni pushed higher up the pitch, "destroying" the opponent's build-up and creating turnovers.
Mastroeni is indefatigable, very smart about where he presses, and is aided by two active, direct, wide midfielders in Jamie Smith and Brian Mullan. The Rapids made a living by directing more creative teams into blind alleys, forcing turnovers and hitting on the break.
If that’s what Backe means by “herding,” then he may very well be onto something.
He has two very good choices for the fulcrum in either Kyle Beckerman or Shalrie Joseph, and can play David Beckham and Jack Jewsbury each for a half in the forward destroyer role. Neither has the range or defensive instincts of Mastroeni, but you can be sure that both players will run themselves into the ground if that’s what the moment calls for — Beckham won’t want to show poorly against his former team, and this may be Jewsbury’s best chance to shine on a big stage.
Backe may also have shown his cards a little bit by picking Omar Cummings for the game. The Jamaican excels at dropping back to disrupt deep-lying playmakers (like, for instance, Carrick) and is an expert playmaker himself off of turnovers. Chances look good that he’ll be playing the same role for the All-Stars that he does for the Rapids.
But will it be enough? Against Manchester United, it will take something special, something more than just good fundamentals. The back line will have to avoid blowing any offside traps, the fullbacks will have to coordinate their movements (not easy for a team that’s never played together) and, most of all, the MLS side will have to finish.
That’s the biggest difference between United and their opponents on this swing through MLS. United have been clinical while all three MLS sides — New England, Seattle and Chicago — have been profligate. Whether it was an open header from Joseph, a free look by James Riley or a cross that Baggio Husidic could have walked into the net, the MLS sides have let the Red Devils off the hook time and again.
Backe’s team can’t do the same and expect a win. And they shouldn’t do the same in any case — there’s a reason they’re All-Stars.
On Wednesday, they have to go out and prove it.
Matthew Doyle can be followed on Twitter at @MLS_Analyst.