CHICAGO — Real Madrid’s Brazilian star Marcelo pumped his fist with the enthusiasm of someone who'd just cashed a $2 Nassau. He had secured a victory for his team, but the result carried all the consequence of the kitchen getting your order right at McDonald’s.
Then again, Real didn't want to leave the United States with a fourth consecutive defeat on its exhibition tour, particularly not to a pickup team of Major League Soccer All-Stars.
So when the two sides in the MLS All-Star Game were tied 1-1 after 90 minutes and a penalty shootout became necessary to declare a winner, Real rolled out an almost unfair quartet of superheroes to take its kicks: Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Mateo Kovacic and, to clinch, Marcelo. Each one of them beat Seattle keeper Stefan Frei while the MLS All-Stars opened with misses from Dom Dwyer and Gio dos Santos and lost the shootout 4-2.
It turned out to be fortuitous for Real that coach Zinedine Zidane had opened with a younger lineup that featured only a few established stars and closed with those four studs so they were around to take the penalties. The reigning La Liga and UEFA Champions League winners face a busy August that includes cup competitions against Manchester United and FC Barcelona as well as the opening of the league season, and Zidane must hope the return of Cristiano Ronaldo from an extended break will give his team the punch it has lacked.
“The feeling is overall not good,” he said after the game. “It’s good ultimately that we got this result, but the feeling is not positive overall. Winning one out of four games, something’s obviously up. We cannot be fully happy, but the tour is done, we have four days to go back and prepare … We’ve showed there are some things we have to work on.”
There weren’t many tears, either, from the MLS side in defeat. Asked if he wished he’d finished the game instead of starting so he could have been engaged in the penalty shootout, goalkeeper Tim Howard told Sporting News, “No! No, no, no, no. I don’t pretend to have pipe dreams anymore. It went to penalties, obviously, but it wasn’t for me. Thankfully.”
Zidane stressed the importance of putting on a successful exhibition for the 61,428 at Soldier Field, and it was at least that.
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“The atmosphere was unbelievable,” said Chicago Fire midfielder Dax McCarty. “Sold-out stadium, Soldier Field — my first time playing here, actually, unbelievable feeling — I think the atmosphere was amazing all night. It was full right from the first minute; even when it was raining, the fans stayed. The fireworks — everything. It was just a great spectacle.”
After challenging FC Barcelona with its regulars, save absent Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid fielded a starting lineup against the All-Stars that contained only a few of its key players, defender Sergio Ramos, midfielder Toni Kroos and winger Isco being the most notable. But the player who made the biggest impact in the first half for Real was one who has played plenty of exceptional soccer in this hemisphere: its Costa Rican goalkeeper, Keylor Navas.
He found himself one-on-one with New York City FC’s David Villa in the 36th minute — after a rare insightful play from a struggling Kaka — but Navas deflected Villa’s quick shot into the end boards.
That was the best MLS scoring chance, although there also was a moment just before halftime when Toronto FC’s tiny Sebastian Giovinco blasted a long-distance shot that barely slipped wide of the left post.
The All-Stars controlled the ball and the action for most of the first half, although statistically they were credited with a slight edge at 50.4 percent possession. For all their time on the ball, however, relying so heavily on Kaka to control the attack turned out to be counterproductive. He was not as precise as necessary in seizing the opportunities that developed when his teammates built from the back.
The midfield pairing of Toronto’s Michael Bradley and Chicago’s Bastian Schweinsteiger, though, effectively contained most of Real’s best counterattacking opportunities, with Bradley a particularly titanic presence. The U.S. international blocked seven shots, and Howard made his own brilliant save when Isco tried to chip over him from close range and Howard reached toward the sky to deflect it clear in the 33rd minute.
Real ultimately broke through in the 59th minute when young Borja Mayoral scored off a feed from Dani Ceballos, with MLS defender Hernan Grana missing the opportunity to stay with Mayoral on his move.
But MLS earned a corner kick in the 87th minute, and McCarty headed it off the post. It bounced to new Orlando City striker Dwyer, who was able to put it into the net.
“I think the MLS has a good level overall. We saw some good players,” Zidane said. “Overall, I think it was important for the club to be here. The MLS, as we see, is a strong league that’s growing. We got to play against a strong team with players that are international players.”
That neither side was able to get a goal before the break initially seemed to steal a little bit of glamor from the game, because when the teams returned there had been massive substitutions that removed nearly all the most established players from the game. Zidanekept Isco on because he hadn’t played a great deal off the bench in the Barcelona game. But Kroos had given him a good 45 minutes after sitting out against Barca with a minor injury, and Sergio Ramos surely didn’t need any more action to prepare for a season that gets busy really soon, with the UEFA Super Cup against Manchester United coming Aug. 8 in Macedonia.
After the goal, Zidane turned loose the four eventual penalty takers and made what remained of the game a chore for some of the less celebrated All-Stars.
“As a defensive midfielder, going against those guys – that’s not fun,” McCarty said. “It’s certainly not an exciting sight for defenders and defending midfielders when you see Bale, Marcelo, Benzema coming into the game to run at you for 30 minutes. But that’s what it’s all about. I think the fans want to see the big stars, the best players in the world.”