WASHINGTON – Flanked by the Washington Monument to the West, the Capitol Building to the East, the National Museum of Natural History to the North and the Smithsonian to the South, the MLS All-Stars gathered for a light practice on a sun-drenched Tuesday at the National Mall.
And with the 2023 MLS All-Star Skills Challenge presented by AT&T 5G coming later Tuesday (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass), sharpening the squad’s technical acumen seemed to be priority one as the team split into roughly nine mini-groups of three for an easy-going (but inevitably competitive) soccer-tennis tournament.
Headers were spiked, drop shots were finessed, and, in the case of center back Walker Zimmerman, as least one bicycle kick was attempted. From a methodology perspective, the session likely served as a muscle activation and skills-honing exercise. On the human side, it was all about camaraderie and good old-fashioned fun – a just reward for being selected as a top player to represent the league against the imposing Arsenal FC.
“It’s impressive,” said last year’s 2022 Landon Donovan MLS MVP-winner Hany Mukhtar of his grand surroundings. “Yesterday we went to the White House, and it’s been a great experience. For me, growing up in Germany when I was younger, you just see it in movies, and now you’re here. It’s a really cool experience.”
Ever in lockstep with his Nashville SC teammate, Zimmerman, a two-time MLS Defender of the Year winner, was equally awed by his surroundings.
“This is probably the strangest training site I've [played at]," Zimmerman said. "One of the most beautiful though, for sure. I mean, so iconic, so scenic. And it was a lot of fun. I think the nature of the session also helped, being so light and fun. It provided for a really cool, cool experience."
Even D.C. United’s own Tyler Miller – surely no stranger to the splendor of the nation’s capitol after seven-plus months with the local club – could hardly believe the moment. Although, he was just as thrilled to be reunited with old teammates as he was to take in the sights.
"I could have never imagined training on the National Mall. So to be out here doing everything that we've been doing this week, it's just been an amazing time,” said D.C.'s All-Star goalkeeper.
“For me personally, getting to play with some of my closest friends from around the league like Walker Zimmerman, Jordan Morris – it's something that, while I'm teammates with them you don't think about, but then when you have the opportunity to train with them again and to have fun with them, it's something I really will relish. And this will be a fantastic moment for me in my career."
Spending time with friends both old and new was a common point of emphasis for the All-Stars on the day, with Mukhtar name-checking D.C. United’s Christian Benteke in particular for showing the squad the best steak spots in town – though whether the German midfielder was simply trying to juice the impending on-field connection between him and Benteke is tougher to say. After all, it never hurts to build chemistry between teammates that, just a few a days ago, were intraleague rivals – a still strange concept for some of the foreign players.
“Growing up in Germany we don’t have that kind of style, but I really think it’s a special event that’s cool for the players,” said Mukhtar. “The best players in the league are coming together and playing a game against a great team, so it’s a very, very cool event."
For Chicago Fire FC’s Kei Kamara, All-Star week holds even more significance. Born in Sierra Leone and a collegiate standout at Division II Cal State Dominguez Hills, the 38-year-old veteran still has a hard time believing how far he’s come in what's become a multi-decade professional career. Even more surreal, his father is in the US to watch him play for the first time – and to take part in the extra festivities, of course.
“My father, it's the first time he's in America to watch me play, and he's 77 years old,” said Kamara. “And just to go into the White House a week into America and be standing next to one of the most powerful human beings in the world – to me, it’s not about the game, but it's about those moments.
“…We're in the White House actually over there, and he's seeing the President. I mean, these are the achievements. These are the World Cups that I'm going to win if I'm not playing the World Cup. These are my World Cups.”