It’s been all smiles throughout two days of light training for the MLS All-Star team, but the players’ focus has turned to one thing — winning.
Headlined by Nani, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Wayne Rooney, this year’s lineup is touted as one of the most talented all-star rosters assembled by MLS. All that talent, however, will have to find a way to mesh together quickly to take on an Atlético Madrid squad that has proven it won’t hold back in a friendly.
“I think everybody has something special,” MLS captain Carlos Vela said. “We are all-star players. That means we all bring something special.”
The MLS All-Star Game kicks off at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Exploria Stadium, and the match will be broadcast on FS1.
Led by captain Koké, Atlético Madrid represents some of the top talent of Spanish soccer, finishing second in La Liga last season and recording 10 league titles. The team dropped seven goals on rival Real Madrid during a friendly last Friday, flexing its offensive firepower.
One of Atlético Madrid’s most aggressive threats will be forward Diego Costa, a striker known for bringing a competitive fire to the pitch.
His style of play was perhaps best summed up in the preseason friendly against Real Madrid. Costa netted four goals in the first 50 minutes of play, then got thrown out with a red card for sparking a brawl by kicking Real Madrid defender Dani Carvajal. For the All-Star team, Costa offers just another physical challenge to defend.
“I think we just get him a red card in the second minute, and we’ll be fine,” midfielder Graham Zusi joked. “It’ll be a good challenge. Obviously he’s a world-class player, and he can score goals almost at will. We’ll just have to match his physicality and not let him get under our skin.”
The team also is bolstered by the high-powered addition of two players earlier this month — João Felix and Héctor Herrera. The 19-year-old Felix turned heads when he signed with the club for a £113 million transfer fee (about $141 million), the fourth-highest in the international history of the sport. Herrera, meanwhile, is a mainstay of the Mexican national team, winning the 2012 Olympics and the 2015 Gold Cup with the team.
Both players saw the field in last Friday’s match against Real Madrid, with Felix netting one of the team’s seven goals. Their additions to the Atlético Madrid roster for the All-Star game upped the ante for the MLS defense, which now will stare down four of the most challenging attackers in La Liga.
Defender Walker Zimmerman said the players along the all-star backline are particularly eager to test themselves against the challenging attacking front that Atlético will bring. Even though the game is technically a friendly, he said he expects both sides to bring the heat.
“I think any of us out there would be lying if we said we didn’t want to win,” Zimmerman said. “I mean, I could challenge Josef [Martinez] to throwing a water bottle in a trash can, and I’d want to win. For me, I think we’re competitors, and we want to win.”
The main challenge for the team is finding a way to create cohesion after extremely limited time training together. Many of the players committed to games with their clubs on Sunday and didn’t arrive in Orlando until Monday night, meaning they only spent one day on the pitch with their all-star teammates before the game.
“It is tricky because it’s really not a team,” striker Zlatan Ibrahimović said. “This is an all-star team. You really don’t know all the players who you’re playing with, but all good players can play good together.”
With limited time and a wide variety of talent and playing styles, MLS coach James O’Connor understands that his job isn’t to install an intense system of play in a handful of days. Instead, he is looking to encourage creativity in the league’s top talent.
“I don’t think there’s time to get too in-depth in regards to tactics,” said O’Connor, who has juggled leading the all-stars and his Orlando City team this week. “You’re dealing with elite players, so the understanding of game logic is already there. I don’t need to tell Josef how to score goals; he understands how to score goals. I think it’s more a case of trust, more of a case of getting the players to relax and play the game.”