CHESTER, Pa. – A clumsy tackle in midfield ensured the discussion surrounding this edition of the MLS All-Star Game would progress beyond the usual global narratives and into the hardened realm of daily league toil.
Sporting Kansas City defender Aurélien Collin wrestled Chelsea midfielder Michael Essien to the ground in the middle third just after the half-hour mark. Essien eventually climbed to his feet and soldiered onwards, but Collin spent a few minutes attempting to collect his thoughts and shake off the effects of an apparent head injury.
Whatever Collin tried before he briefly returned to the fray, it didn't work. It is, after all, hard to shake off what Collin later classified on Twitter as a facial fracture and what Vancouver defender Jay DeMerit called a broken cheek bone.
Particulars aside, the enforced introduction of Philadelphia defender Carlos Valdés for Collin after 36 minutes placed the All-Stars in the rather unenviable spot of trying to navigate through the remainder of the match with just two natural center backs available.
“Right away when it happened with Collin – because Collin was the guy we were going to plan to play 90 and we were going to bring Valdes in for Jay – obviously, you want to protect the health of the player,” All-Star assistant and Philadelphia coach John Hackworth said.
Collin's injury forced Hackworth and MLS All-Star coach Ben Olsen to deviate from their inclination to protect DeMerit ahead of Vancouver's visit to Real Salt Lake on Friday. The circumstances required DeMerit to play all 90 minutes, according to Olsen.
“I know I'm going to get a bunch of calls from Vancouver, really pissed off,” Olsen said. “The plan was to get him out at halftime. He's got a game on Friday. Unfortunately, we couldn't do that. My depth at center back wasn't great, so he had to grind it out. He knew it. He looked at me at halftime and he was like what are you going to do? I thought he did a great job. It didn't really affect the game too much.”
DeMerit's performance (a resolute display in central defense) made the decision all the easier, but Olsen did eschew one viable option that could have rescued Vancouver coach Martin Rennie from the infuriating selection headache he now faces.
That particular switch would have involved sliding San Jose left back Justin Morrow into central defense and introducing Ramiro Corrales to play the vacant fullback spot. Morrow has featured in central defense on a handful of occasions for San Jose this season and even played there in the Earthquakes' 5-3 victory over D.C. United in May.
The solution wouldn't have helped the All-Stars grind out a result or pleased Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop (no coach wants to provide three-quarters of a rearguard in a friendly with a home match on Saturday), but it may just have offered a reasonable alternative to the unpalatable prospect of throwing DeMerit out there for a full match just two days before an important league tilt. In these matters, the league slate should take precedence over the fate of an exhibition match.
On this night, it did not. Instead of asking Morrow to play out-of-position against the European champion or shunting another player into the breach, Olsen and his staff decided to incur Rennie's justified wrath and keep the seasoned DeMerit in the lineup for the duration of the contest. DeMerit, as one might expect from a player with his particular intangibles, assented to the move.
“Ben asked me at halftime,” DeMerit said. “He said I know I'm going to get into trouble for this, but I need you to go, we need you to be out there and can you do it. Of course, when you're asked to do something and asked to do something for the team, I'm more than happy to do that.”
Rennie and Sporting manager Peter Vermes will not share that particular emotion as they gauge the fallout to their squads.
Collin's injury will likely force Vermes to name Júlio César in central defense for Saturday's home affair with Columbus. While the shift isn't particularly harmful for one match against the goal-shy Crew, it could create problems if the French defender misses significant time to recuperate from his injury. A lengthier absence would prove more troublesome given César's spotty injury record and the importance of the Collin-Matt Besler partnership to Sporting's back four.
DeMerit doesn't face a significant spell on the sidelines, but his display against Chelsea does place Rennie in a bind ahead of a critical Western Conference affair against RSL. The extra half on the field coupled with the long flight to Salt Lake City on Thursday leaves Rennie with a difficult quandary to solve before he names his starting XI: play DeMerit despite the increased risk of injury and poor performance or sit him down and turn to versatile left back Alain Rochat to fill the void?
“I don't know,” DeMerit said about whether he could play a second game in three days. “Again, that's up to the manager and that's up to my team. We'll see where we are. Once I get into Salt Lake tomorrow night, we'll see where we are and where I am at.”
Even if DeMerit features against RSL, his predicament should prompt further evaluation over the composition of the All-Star roster and the scheduling of a league match in such close proximity to the showcase. The temporary decision to increase the number of substitutions to 10 helps matters and should be made permanent to aid the All-Stars and their chosen opponent. Adding a couple of more players to the game day roster (even if their inclusion and likely introduction at some stage means a choppier spectacle) and ensuring proper cover in all positions constitutes a pair of reasonable solutions for the future if the league continues to persist with the match's taxing midweek placement.
Any potential alterations to the setup won't help Collin or DeMerit at the moment. For them, the questions about this particular match do not revolve around overblown storylines about what a victory over Chelsea means for the credibility of MLS or what the performance reveals about the strength of the league. Instead, the two defenders and their clubs will focus on the more mundane matters of availability that often prove so crucial as the regular season unfolds.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.