Old rivalries will be handed fresh life in San Jose on Thursday when Arsenal provide the opposition in the 2016 MLS All-Star Game. While for Major League Soccer it may be its showpiece exhibition game, and for Arsenal it is another exercise in preparation for the upcoming season, the familiarity between several of the players involved promises to add some welcome spice to the occasion at the Avaya Stadium.
It is a sign of how far the United States' top soccer league has come that Arsenal will be going up against an All-Star roster made up of a number of names who will be well-known from their time in Europe. Indeed, many have a rich history against Arsenal.
The top scorer in MLS this season, David Villa, scored a goal to help knock Arsenal out of the Champions League five years ago, while fellow All-Stars Andre Pirlo, Kaka, Jermaine Jones and Sacha Kljestan were all on the opposite sides of Champions League matches against the London club over the years.
And then there are some with an even richer connection to Arsenal. Giovani dos Santos and Clint Dempsey both spent time at Arsenal's fiercest rival, Tottenham. Indeed, the motivation for Dempsey may be higher than for most on Thursday, given that in six years in the Premier League, five with fellow London club Fulham, he never managed to find the net against Arsene Wenger's squad.
The same can emphatically not be said for fellow All-Star forward Didier Drogba. The Ivorian tormented Arsenal for several years while at Chelsea, scoring a remarkable 13 goals in 15 appearances and, more than anyone, exposing the mental and physical fragility of Wenger's side.
“Didier [Drogba],” winger Theo Walcott, a member of many of those Arsenal sides that came up short against Drogba, said ahead of the All-Star Game. “He’s always loved scoring against us, so we want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
While Arsenal has yet to fully put those weaknesses to bed and remain without a Premier League title since Drogba first moved to the Premier League in 2004, Drogba, now aged 38, continues to keep going strong. After making an immediate impact upon joining MLS with Montreal Impact last year, firing 12 goals in 14 games, he has scored eight in 12 at the start of this campaign.
On Thursday, Drogba is likely to be trying to score against a man who was his teammate for all of those successful years at Chelsea, Petr Cech. And Drogba revealed that some friendly words have been exchanged between the two ahead of the game.
“Trash talk? No, no, no,” he told MLSsoccer.com after training on Wednesday. “We don’t do it because he’s in preseason, but we think about it and it’s going to be a good game.”
“He’s a legend, and he’s a very good friend. We’ve been talking about this game. He told me he was coming. We have a group chat with a few other Chelsea players and we’ve been talking and making a few jokes about that game. I only hope that I will score.”
As coach of the All-Star team, San Jose Earthquakes boss Dominic Kinnear will be responsible for deciding how much time Drogba will get on the pitch to try and get a goal. Certainly Kinnear has plenty of riches to choose from up front.
As well as Drogba, Villa and Dempsey, the roster of all stars, 24 of which were chosen by Kinnear with a further two selected by MLS Commissioner Don Garber, also contains the league's MVP last season Sebastian Giovinco. Then there is the MLS' all-time top scorer Chris Wondolowski and Drogba's brilliant foil in Montreal, Ignacio Piatti.
Those forwards will be going up against a patchwork Arsenal defense. A knee injury picked up by Per Mertesacker in Arsenal's opening preseason contest against Lens last week has left Wenger desperately short of options at center-back, with Laurent Koscielny still on break following Euro 2016 and Gabriel Paulista back in London with tonsillitis. It means Calum Chambers could be partnered at the back by Rob Holding, a 20-year-old who was only signed from Bolton Wanderers in the last few days.
Further forward, Arsenal will also be handicapped by the absence of Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud. But, as well as Walcott, Arsenal will have two men familiar to United States fans in Costa Rica forward Joel Campbell and U.S. Under-23 international Gedion Zelalem.