By Nick Green, Pasadenastarnews.com
Bruce Arena coaches two different teams on successive nights this week against very different opposition – mighty Manchester United of the English Premier League and much more modest Puerto Rico Islanders, which plays in the second tier of professional soccer, a level below MLS.
United is the main attraction of the MLS All-Star Game, which will air at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday live on ESPN2 and Galavision.
England’s most storied club is without striker Wayne Rooney, who is taking a post-World Cup break, but expect to give former CD Guadalajara striker Javier «Chicharito» Hernandez his United debut alongside the likes of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. In addition to Arena, the MLS-leading Galaxy will contribute four players to the All-Star team in U.S. World Cup hero Landon Donovan, leading MLS scorer Edson Buddle, goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and fast-maturing central defender Omar Gonzalez.
The Islanders provide the Galaxy’s opposition tonight in a CONCACAF Champions League preliminary round game that begins at 7 at Home Depot Center (live on Fox Soccer Channel). Puerto Rico will host the second leg of the two-game series Aug. 4 with the winner on aggregate goals advancing to the 16-team group stage of the competition.
In contrast to perennial EPL title contenders United, the Islanders currently occupy the basement of the NASL Conference of the D2 pro league with a 6-7-5 record. Their best-known player may be former Columbus Crew goalkeeper Bill Gaudette.
Which game is the priority for Arena?
«The All-Star Game is secondary,» Arena said. «We want to enter the group stage of the Champions League, so certainly the first leg is critically important. We not only want to win the game, but we want to position ourselves where we can go to Puerto Rico and be somewhat comfortable and try to control our destiny.»
Arena knows the MLS All-Star Game largely is a sideshow without any real implications beyond what hopefully will be an entertaining 90 minutes for television.
The two-year-old Champions League – before 2008 it was known as the CONCACAF Champions Cup – may resemble the much older and famous UEFA Champions League in name only, but it also is the pre-eminent international competition for MLS clubs.
It represents MLS’ bid for credibility against Mexican league clubs, which have dominated the CONCACAF Champion League by losing just 21 of the 89 games they’ve been involved in over the past two years.
This year might represent MLS’ best opportunity to add to that losing column. In addition to the Galaxy, reigning champions Real Salt Lake, the Eastern Conference-leading Columbus Crew and Canadian champions Toronto FC, a considerably tougher proposition under former Chivas USA Coach Preki than they were previously, also represent MLS.
Mexico counters with defending Champions League winner Pachuca and Mexican League champion Toluca, as well as Cruz Azul and Monterrey.
Given MLS’ oft-stated determination to win over the hearts of soccer fans more interested in the EPL or Mexican League, you’d think its officials would give the Galaxy a bit of breathing room to give the club the best chance of winning the two-leg tie.
But no, money and media exposure has won out over sensible scheduling and force Arena and his four players to board the private jet of billionaire Galaxy owner Phil Anschutz immediately after playing the Islanders so they can make it to Houston for the All-Star Game the next day.
Think of the UEFA Champions League and famous names like Barcelona and Inter Milan come to mind. Take a glance at the entrants for our regional version and its unfamiliar names like Xelaju (Guatemala) and Arabe Unido (Panama) that catch the eye.
«Hopefully one day our champions league will be like that,» Arena said. «You’ve got to start somewhere.»
Galaxy midfielder Chris Birchall is slightly bemused to find himself in a similarly named competition to the European version many fans consider the world’s most important club competition. Birchall played lower league football in England and the closest he came to the UEFA Champions League was sitting in the stands at Anfield cheering on Liverpool, his favorite EPL team.
«It’s bizarre really, to be honest,» he said about playing in the CONCACAF version. «I didn’t know much about it, but it’s nice to be a part of any kind of Champions League.»
The Islanders may be second-tier opposition, but there’s been nothing second-rate about their Champions League performances. The club has a reputation as giant-killers and reached the final four of the competition two years ago.
«They’ve been remarkably successful in this competition,» Arena said. «It’s a low-scoring sport. It always positions the underdog to get out and win.»
And if Arena has to lose one game in the next two nights, he’d much rather it come at the hands of Manchester United than the Puerto Rico Islanders.