Goalie Wars: A look back at the battle of backstops at the 2001 MLS All-Star game

Goalie Wars - 2020 - primary image

Watching videos of the skills competitions that accompanied early editions of the MLS All-Star Game make for a fascinating experience, a throwback to the league’s infancy and a different sporting era. While some find games like "AirSoccer," "Fastest Man" and "Power Shot" cringe-worthy, others are charmed – enough for MLS to bring back the concept at last year’s edition in Orlando, to mostly rave reviews.

But the sequel was missing one facet: Goalie Wars, a beloved training-ground exercise for goalkeepers of all ages that was turned into a lively competition between Joe Cannon, Nick Rimando and Zach Thornton back in 2001, when the San Jose Earthquakes hosted the All-Star Game at Spartan Stadium.

Here’s the official description of the rules:

A goalkeeper from each Divisional team will compete in a one-on-one game of protecting their goal while attempting to score on their opponent’s net. Goalkeepers can shoot on their opponent’s goal by throwing, kicking, or drop-kicking the ball. A shot must be taken within three steps and six seconds of recovering the ball from a save. Balls not controlled or deflected over the end line will be returned to the individual taking the initial shot. The player with the most points at the end of each two and a half minute match will be declared the winner.

In what turned out to be a keen – and surprisingly exhausting – contest, Quakes starter and hometown favorite Cannon ran the table, defeating both his adversaries in the first round before edging Thornton again in the final.

"I had to play the first two matches and I was exhausted, and I think I threw up in front of [television host] Rob Stone," recalled Cannon to with a chuckle, making sure to note Tim Howard – at the time the league’s top young star, two years out from his transfer to Manchester United – was unable to attend and probably would’ve been the favorite to win Goalie Wars had he taken part.

"I think as a young goalie, a lot of us just love that exercise, because it really strips away any cognitive thinking, decision-making," Cannon added. "It's all about shot-stopping, one-on-one, mano-a-mano, which, I have a twin brother, so that was right up my alley."

Goalie Wars: A look back at the battle of backstops at the 2001 MLS All-Star game -

Former MLS veteran Joe Cannon (above) emerged as the Goalie Wars champion at the 2001 MLS All-Star game

Said Thornton, who also dominated the Power Shot event for three years running: "Me and Joe Cannon had a good battle going … we put on a pretty good show, both of us got into it … I think anytime a goalkeeper has a chance to score, they enjoy that."

As for Rimando? The Real Salt Lake legend insists he’d completely forgotten about his own participation in the event until presented with the documents and videos proving it.

"A lot of that is a blur to me," said the freshly-retired ‘keeper with a laugh. "It was a big party, man. I was blown away, checking into the Fairmont [hotel] downtown; every night there was a party going on. ‘Are you going to be there? What's going on here?’ And you still had to go to training. It was a week long – like four or five days of just constantly going to something with your friends and your teammates and then getting up and training or doing events, and then having to play this game. I think you could tell, maybe some people were out on the town a little bit [the night before]."

For better or worse, Goalie Wars would be a one-year wonder, lost in the shuffle as All-Star evolved dramatically in the ensuing years from a weeklong festival akin to its baseball and basketball counterparts to a one-off spectacle with famous overseas clubs sharing the marquee. But was something valuable jettisoned along the way? Some would welcome a comeback.

"I personally think it would be so cool, because it's just something you don't normally do anymore," said Sporting KC’s Tim Melia. "I remember as a youth doing goalkeeper training, we used to have a good portion of goalkeeper training carved out just to play goalie wars – just kind of that fun activity, that competitive activity you did at the end of a goalkeeper camp.

"All the older-ish goalkeepers have played goalie wars at some point and it would be nostalgic to go back and play it competitively against other professional goalkeepers in the league."

Melia got a taste of something comparable earlier in his MLS career, when he played at Chivas USA under offbeat coach Jose Luis Sanchez Sola, better known as "El Chelis."

"We'd do a crossbar [challenge], we’d do curling the ball into the goal from the corner flag, some other ones. A bunch of different activities during training, or maybe before a game," he explained. "t was always a lot of fun, just kind of a laid-back [activity] to get your mind off of the pressures of each game each week."

Chelis directed his staff to set up speakers that blared banda or cumbia music during training sessions, and often they dragged out what were effectively door prizes to sweeten the pot.

"Goalies shooting on field players, kickball, whatever it was, there was always some form of a competition with these prizes," said Melia. "I mean, this guy would bring out like 40-inch TVs, GPSes, digital watches, there’d be music blasting – it was a different environment, it was pretty cool. It was interesting. … I don’t think I ever won anything, but it was just pure comedy watching guys go crazy over that stuff."

Might a future Goalie Wars reboot benefit from a financial reward, be it personal or charitable, to up the ante?

"Totally, you put some dollar signs on anything and you’ll have some guys popping up and wanting to do certain events!" laughed Rimando, adding this might be a young man’s game, with veterans more likely to be wary of injury risks and extra time away from home.

"It's good recognition and you're getting TV time. As you get older, I think those events and competitions aren’t as sexy anymore, you kind of want to just chill and maybe be with your family. It's on your personality, who you are and where you're at in your career."

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Zach Thornton diving for a save in the heat of the Goalie Wars competition.

Cannon believes MLS leaders should shrug off the traditionalists’ complaints and lean hard into the showbiz element of All-Star and its uniquely North American trappings, Goalie Wars included.

"It’s probably like the slam dunk contest in the NBA game, where the top guys probably are going to let the younger guys do it," he said. "We should definitely bring it back, because it's an awesome competition and now with the technology, and all the different camera angles, you could get really get into it.

"We should be proud of everything, and all of these quote-unquote gimmicks," he added. "I think the rest of the world wants that. And with the social media and the new demographics of up and coming fans, they want that as well."

For much of its history, MLS has sought to balance the entertainment aspect so central to the domestic pro sports scene with the traditional trappings of revered leagues abroad. As it marks its 25th anniversary, maybe there’s more space to embrace the quirks of old.

"We are such a big entity now that we don't need to think about following, we need to think about leading, and we need to think about leading not just in domestic soccer, but also globally and regionally," said Cannon. "These countries would die to have the corporate [presence] and the pomp and circumstance around an all-star game that we do.

"It should be a celebration of what MLS is, where we've come from and what the future holds."