MLS hits the big-time in Toronto

David Beckham chats with West Ham players after his MLS All-Stars defeated them 3-2 in Toronto,...

David Beckham chats with West Ham players after his MLS All-Stars defeated them 3-2 in Toronto, Thursday, July 24, 2008. (Sun Media/Stan Behal)

Dave Pollard -- Canoe Senior Sports Editor

, Last Updated: 1:55 PM ET

TORONTO – One of Major League Soccer’s goals is to be considered a big-time alternative for some of the world’s top players.

Check that one off the to-do list, at least for one night.

The combination of uber-star David Beckham, diminutive Mexican national Cuauhtemoc Blanco, English Premiership opponent West Ham United and an electric atmosphere at BMO Field boosted the MLS into soccer’s spotlight Thursday.

Beckham, one of the most hyped players anywhere, did his thing -- selling the game by bringing casual soccer fans into the stadium and then out of their seats every time he touched the ball – Blanco of the Chicago Fire scored a beautiful goal and set up another as the MLS all-stars knocked off West Ham 3-2 before a boisterous sellout crowd of 20,844 at BMO Field.

“We took it seriously, we said that we would take it seriously and wanted to win that game,” Beckham said. “Any player who is passionate about soccer is committed to playing in every game. We played as a team, we worked as a team and we won as a team.”

Beckham mania was alive and well at BMO Field – his England jerseys were everywhere you looked -- but that wasn’t the only thing that made it a memorable night. The mood elevated an annual all-star game into something much more meaningful.

Heck, this was such a big night even former Disney CEO Michael Eisner made an appearance as did two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Steve Nash.

“(The atmosphere) was great,” Beckham said. “I've not played here before but I've been here before, I've sat on the bench and seen the atmosphere. I was looking forward to it and I know all the players were looking forward to it. That’s what made it extra special. I think (the fans) had fun. Tonight there were a lot of special occasions.”

Oh, yeah, with an explosion of five goals and plenty of near misses, there was plenty to get excited about.

One such moment came in the 69th minute when home-grown talent Dwayne De Rosario, a Scarborough boy who plays for the Houston Dynamo, blasted the winner from the penalty spot after being taken down by West Ham captain Lucas Neill.

The goal, which came two minutes after Hammers forward Dean Ashton made it 2-2 with a shot that deflected off all-star Jimmy Conrad’s head, gave the clearly pro-Toronto FC supporters yet another reason to bellow with delight.

BMO’s south stand, home to the TFC hardcore, was in full throat from the outset, booing the pre-game American national anthem when it appeared the Canadian one would be neglected (it wasn’t). Less than a minute in they were chanting for Reds defender Jim Brennan, one of the all-star team reserves, to be subbed in.

The tone of the event even caught some of the West Ham players, who are used to over-the-top rivalries back home, off guard.

“I was quite surprised with how good the support was,” Ashton admitted. “It could have been any ground in England. It was great support and surprised me a bit. If I was a Toronto FC player, I’d enjoy playing in front of that support every week.”

Although Beckham was given the gears by a section of West Ham fans and had to deal with a smattering of streamers – a BMO Field specialty – from the TFC faithful, it was mostly a love-in for the game’s biggest star in North America. Every free kick he took, every corner, resulted in a blinding burst of flashbulbs.

“I’m sure he’s used to that,” Ashton said. “To most of us it seems a bit surreal. He seems to be able to handle it. It was a great game to play in, I was honoured. I’m going to keep this (all-star) shirt for a long time.”

Ashton snapped up Brennan’s jersey in the traditional post-game exchange. Brennan, an East York native who was the first player signed by TFC, was limited to half an hour of duty as a second-half sub despite the nearly-constant pleading from the stands.

“I was under a bit of pressure but I handled it,” all-star coach Steve Nicol of the New England Revolution said with a hint of a smile. “I really didn’t want to upset the back four too early, that was the reason (Brennan came in late).”

Ashton opened the scoring in the 26th minute but Christian Gomez of the Colorado Rapids tied it one minute later. Blanco’s strike from the left side rounded out the first-half scoring.

“I think everybody came away with something tonight,” West Ham coach Alan Curbishley said. “(There were) goals scored, chances created. The MLS, not just because David Beckham has come into the league, is gaining momentum in Europe. You’re probably going to find more Europeans coming into the league.”

When that happens, the MLS will truly be the big time. For more than one night.


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