Yes, the Wednesday match between the MLS All-Stars and world soccer power Real Madrid is a friendly, but anyone thinking the exhibition will be void of intensity and importance would be making a mistake.
The two sides will meet before a capacity crowd at Soldier Field in Chicago as the MLS’s All-Stars will look to continue a surprising run of success against the top-drawer European teams that have made this match a part of their exhibition schedule for 13 seasons.
The MLS All-Stars hold a 7-4-1 advantage over their European foes over that stretch and won the 2014 and 2015 matchups against Bayern Munich and Tottenham Hotspur, respectively, before falling to Arsenal in San Jose last year.
The MLS players, many of whom have played for or against Real Madrid in past seasons, expect an extremely testing matchup that could very easily turn into a humbling affair, given the Spanish side’s fearsome arsenal of world-class attacking talent.
“Yes, it’s an exhibition, but these kinds of games, you can’t turn off,” Los Angeles Galaxy defender Jelle Van Damme said. “You want to show yourself and get a result, and we have to be focused 100 percent. Real Madrid is one of the best teams in the world, so you don’t want to get embarrassed. We have to be sharp.”
Chicago Fire coach Veljko Paunovic, a longtime standout as a player for crosstown rivals Atletico Madrid in Spain’s La Liga, will manage the MLS All-Stars.
“When you have an opponent like Real Madrid, there is nothing better,” Paunovic explained. “It’s an occasion that you just cannot let go. You have to try to do your best, you have to give a spectacle but you also want to win. And that’s how we’re going to prepare.”
Other MLS stars on the roster include Orlando City captain and ex-Madrid stalwart Kaka, New York City FC’s former Barcelona and Spain forward David Villa, Chicago Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toronto FC attacker Sebastian Giovinco and a handful of U.S. national team players, including Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore.
The All-Star match marks the end of a four-match, 11-day preseason U.S. tour for Real Madrid that included a 3-2 loss to rival Barcelona in a Clasico matchup at Miami on Sunday. Real Madrid also drew Manchester United before falling in penalties to the English side in the Bay Area on July 23, and lost to Manchester City at the Los Angeles Coliseum on July 26.
Real Madrid has captured back-to-back Champions League titles and a record 33 La Liga championships and sports a roster that features some of the biggest names in the sport, including Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Luka Modric, Isco and others.
Cristiano Ronaldo, the reigning FIFA player of the year and the world’s highest-paid athlete (a reported $93 million per year), will not be in Chicago with Real Madrid on Wednesday. Ronaldo is finishing up a vacation and was ordered before a Spanish court on Monday to answer to tax fraud charges. Ronaldo denies the allegations.
For Real Madrid, the challenge will be a match against a club full of players in midseason form, rather than another European side trying to find its footing and conditioning.
“We know it’s a team (whose players are) in competition,” Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane said. “But for us the most important thing is to continue to play well and give everyone time to get better, improve our physical condition and hopefully give a great game for the fans.”
After this match, Real Madrid will return to Europe, where it will meet Manchester United again in the UEFA Super Cup in Macedonia on Aug. 8, then take on Barcelona in the two-legged Spanish Super Cup on Aug. 13 and 16 before opening the La Liga season on Aug. 20.
Expect Zidane to rotate his squad liberally in the All-Star Game. The stars will make their appearances for Real Madrid before turning the match over to some youngsters and fringe players who are trying to make the team and earn meaningful minutes.
Real Madrid is the first Spanish team to participate in the All-Star Game, but Wednesday’s match won’t be the first time the contest will be held in Windy City. Toyota Park, the home of the Chicago Fire, hosted the All-Star Game in 2006 when the All-Stars surprisingly defeated a stacked Chelsea team 1-0.
Prior to 2005, MLS experimented with several different formats for the All-Star Game. The most common was a traditional East vs. West matchup, though the league did have an All-Star Game that matched American players against MLS internationals, another that saw the All-Stars take on the US national team in 2002 and a third in which the All-Stars hosted Mexican side Chivas Guadalajara in 2003.