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MLS All-Star Game

MLS All-Star team falls 3-0 to Atlético Madrid squad powered by young star João Félix

The visiting La Liga team scored in both halves to overpower the All-Star team.

MLS player Alejandro Pozuelo (20) and Madrid player Hector Herrera (right) battle for the ball during the MLS All-Star Game at Exploria Stadium on Wednesday night. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)

ORLANDO, Fla. — The MLS All-Star team dropped its friendly exhibition match for the fourth consecutive year, falling 3-0 to Atlético Madrid in front of an announced sold-out crowd at Exploria Stadium. The sold-out crowd outlasted a 45-minute weather delay, standing in pouring rain for the entire second half to watch the two teams face off.

The match started slow for the MLS All-Stars, who took time to warm up to one another and build momentum throughout the first half. Playing time was limited for individual players to allow for full roster rotation — Zlatan Ibrahimović only played for the first 30 minutes and the trio of Wayne Rooney, Nani and Carlos Vela all retired after the first half.

The four highly touted stars worked to connect in the box, dancing through defenders and creating several chances, but the chemistry and finishing wasn’t there. The best chance of the half came from well outside the box by Rooney, who blasted a shot in the 26th minute that flew just inches over the crossbar.

“I think we played well, created some good chances, some good movement on the pitch that [made] all the fans very excited,” Nani said. “I think this is what the All-Star Game is about is for good football with all these fantastic players.”

Entering MLS All-Star Week, the dynamic between between Vela and Ibrahimović loomed as one of the largest questions of the match. The two went head-to-head in the media in the weeks leading up to their clubs’ rivalry game, as debate swirled around which player is the best in MLS. Even in the minutes before kickoff, the pair’s supposed animosity remained a headline of the game — MLS tweeted a picture of their jerseys, numbered 9 and 10, hanging side by side in the locker room.

But on the field, the two players worked easily together. Vela attempted to target Ibrahimović several times on the back post, and the pair fed each other in the box multiple times, although the result never came on frame.

“The abiding memory for me is just how down to earth those two gentlemen are,” coach James O’Connor said. “Carlos was very intentional about trying to pick [Zlatan] out. I think a lot has been made of Carlos and Zlatan, but there’s no problems. I really enjoyed the experience of just spending a little bit of time with both of them.”

Although club rivalries weren’t a factor on the field, they flared throughout the night in the stands. With five players from Atlanta United — the largest rival for the host Orlando — on the All-Star team, tensions were high among the home crowd, which loudly booed goalkeeper Brad Guzan before every goal kick and forward Josef Martinez when he entered the pitch.

Atlético finally broke through in the 44th minute, when midfielder Marcos Llorente flashed into the box to collect a well-weighted through ball and bury it past goalkeeper Andre Blake. The assist came from a back-heeled flick by 19-year-old Rodrigo Riquelme, who normally plays for the second team for Atlético Madrid.

Atlético held back its first team until the final 35 minutes of play, making nine substitutions in the 55th minute and bringing in captain Koke and stars João Félix and Diego Costa. Although Costa was the first of the trio to challenge, attempting a bicycle kick within minutes of taking the pitch, it was Félix who delivered first for Atlético.

In the 85th minute, the 19-year-old star sized up a shot and fired from well outside the box. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando leapt and got his hand on the ball, but it wasn’t enough to make the save and Atlético Madrid took the 2-0 lead.

Although the team’s constant rotation made cohesion difficult at times for the MLS All-Stars, O’Connor said he was proud of the players’ ability to compete in one-on-one situations. For players such as Mark-Anthony Kaye, the opportunity to challenge Felix and the Atlético attack offered a valuable opportunity to test themselves against the highest caliber in the sport.

“I’m not gonna lie, at first I was a little nervous, but once I got out there and started moving the ball it felt normal again,” Kaye said. “You just have to enjoy this experience. It’s a little different playing with players I hadn’t played with before, so communication was really important, but I think we all still enjoyed it.” 

The MLS All-Stars were outshot 18-10 at the end of the game. The team’s two closest chances in the second half both came off of free kicks, curled wide by Ezequiel Barco and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Jonathan Dos Santos gave Pity Martinez a glimpse on goal in the 78th minute, sending a soft touch to the top of the box for the Atlanta United striker to take a wide open shot, but Martinez skied the ball well over the cross bar.

Atlético Madrid added one more goal in the final seconds of play when Félix dropped a pass behind the MLS backline for Costa. The forward muscled his way past his defender, finishing around Rimando to net the team’s third and final goal during the a 3-0 win.

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