The theme of the 2004 Sierra Mist MLS All-Star Game is a celebration of the "past, present and future" of American soccer -- and one would need no more proof of that than to examine the Eastern Conference roster for Saturday's game at RFK Stadium in Washington.
Leading the team are the older, more experienced, full-grown men that also are the steadying forces for their respective clubs. Players like Eddie Pope (MetroStars), Chris Armas (Chicago Fire), Jaime Moreno (D.C. United), Robin Fraser (Columbus Crew) ---and to some extent Ben Olsen and Dema Kovalenko (both D.C. United) -- have been in MLS since the early days. Those guys have more than 30 All-Star appearances combined between them, not to mention eight MLS Cups.
Compare that to the youth that dominates so much of the rest of the East roster. For many, the 2004 event is something new to add to their soccer resumes. Young stars like Eddie Gaven of the MetroStars, Freddy Adu and Alecko Eskandarian of D.C. United, Henry Ring and Jim Curtin of the Fire, Jon Busch from the Crew and Clint Dempsey of the New England Revolution all will get their first sniff of All-Star celebrations at Saturday's event.
First impressions can be deceiving, though, as these two groups of players may not be as different as they appear. The experienced ones were once the youngsters themselves, but at that time the league itself was also just discovering its own identity. Young players have been making an impact on MLS since the very beginning, but that may not be showcased at any other event more clearly than it is in D.C this weekend.
Gaven is set to become the youngest MLS All-Star starter at 17 years old. His U.S. U-17 national team friend, Adu, will become the youngest All-Star to play (15) when he enters off the bench. Both are excited to be a part of the event for their first -- and probably not their last -- times.
"I was just as surprised as everybody else, I guess," said Adu. "It's my first year. If you get called to All-Star in your first year it's a good accomplishment and I'm just here to have some fun and get to know some other players in the league."
"It's definitely an honor," added Gaven. "I'm sure my record is probably going to be broken -- probably by Freddy. It's definitely going to be cool to be playing with the best players in the league and the game should be lots of fun. Hopefully I can score some goals and it should be a good game."
The teenagers are clearly humbled by their inclusion in such a meaningful event. But according to some of the veterans, being selected as an All-Star does not become any less special the second, third or -- in Pope's case -- the eighth time around.
"It's always an honor to be named to the All-Star team," said Pope. "It's great to be able to play with guys I've played with before like Jaime (Moreno); to be able to play with the young guys like Eddie Gaven, (Clint) Dempsey. It's an honor to be here."
Armas sees it the same way: "If it wasn't special, believe me, I wouldn't be playing anymore. I always cherish these times."
SO CLOSE, BUT SO FAR AWAY
Two of the most successful U.S. born-and-bred soccer products that will miss out on Saturday's All-Star Game are former Fire winger DaMarcus Beasley and former United midfielder Bobby Convey. Both have left MLS to test the waters in Europe, as Beasley has joined PSV Eindhoven of the Dutch first division and Convey joins Reading in the English first division.
Both have made All-Star appearances in the past and they are living proof of how the American player is coming to be viewed on the international soccer scene. Both are expected to challenge for starting roles at their new clubs after launching their professional careers at home in MLS.
Of his Fire teammate, Armas said, "We lost a great player -- probably the best two-way player in the league. [Beasley] puts 100 percent into practice everyday and even more into the games. In the team we miss a great player, a great friend and a kid who, I think, is ready for this step."
BITTEN HARD BY THE INJURY BUG
Though both went through full training with the East team on the RFK Stadium field Saturday, Olsen and Dempsey will not be suiting up for the main event Saturday. Olsen isn't taking any chances with a muscle strain, while Dempsey is protecting a broken jaw that has been wired shut.
"I think I'm able to play, it's just not the right thing for me now," said Olsen. "I'd like to play, but the powers that be are a little bit wiser than me because they know I'll push it a little bit. It's tough not getting to play here in D.C., but what are you going to do?"
Dempsey is also disappointed not to be able to get his kicks after being one of only two rookies chosen as All-Stars in the East -- Adu being the other. However, he is glad that his injury will not keep away from the festivities and off the playing field for too long.
"As far as getting in for Saturday, there's no way," said the Nacogdoches, Texas, native.
Dempsey, like Olsen, has his long-term health in mind and wants to get back on the field for the Revolution at full strength as quickly as possible.
"Anything I can get in a blender is what I eat and I'm making sure to keep getting my calories and all the things I need to stay healthy and hopefully not lose much weight. We'll see how things go," Dempsey said.
THE SLEEPER KEEPER
After spending the past two seasons as the backup to big Zach Thornton, Fire goalkeeper Henry Ring has now been selected to start in his first MLS All-Star Game.
"I was definitely surprised," said Ring. "I was, obviously, very happy with it. It's all come really fast. All of sudden, I'm a starter."
While the starting role may have arrived quickly, the learning curve was at a much steadier, consistent pace. Training everyday with one of the league's most celebrated netminders doesn't hurt, either. "The longer the season has gone on, the more I realize that I did learn a good bit from Zach," said Ring. "How he handled himself on the field, and how he dealt with players and dealt with situations on the field -- I look back, and it was a lot of teaching by example." Though Ring has yet to play in an All-Star Game, he has no illusions about it being a cakewalk. In fact, he has already determined how he could handle any criticism should the West go on a scoring rampage. "Any goals that happen are Jim Curtin's fault," Ring joked. "It's on the central defender. It all goes to my central defender." Jonathan Nierman is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.