The MLS All-Star Game has become a celebration of soccer in America, and Saturday's ninth installment of the MLS midsummer showcase will be no different.
For three Western Conference players, however, it will also be a celebration of triumph over adversity, the kind of accomplishment that is -- fittingly, since the game is being held in the nation's capital -- an all-American ideal.
Last year, the campaigns of Dallas Burn forward Jason Kreis, Burn midfielder Ronnie O'Brien and San Jose Earthquakes forward Brian Ching were cut short by devastating injuries. A year later, all three are thriving, with Kreis breaking the all-time MLS goal-scoring record, O'Brien providing playmaking abilities from the right side of midfield and Ching tying for the league lead in goals at the All-Star break.
Kreis said Friday after the Western Conference team practice at RFK Stadium that he is just now getting fully back to normal. He said that even when he felt 100 percent healthy in the past few months, it was clear that he hadn't fully recovered.
"It has taken a lot longer than I thought it would to really come back," Kreis said. "It's one of those things where you feel good, but a lot of people that are close to you tell you that you don't look the same. That was difficult to hear, as well. It's been a long drawn-out process, and one that I'm glad I think I'm just about through."
O'Brien's recovery was equally painful, and the Irishman said, "I went through hell when my leg was broken." He added that he feels no ill will toward D.C. United midfielder Dema Kovalenko, the man who broke his leg, although Kovalenko hasn't spoken to him about it.
"It's a done deal, you know? He did what he did, didn't apologize for it. For me it's a done deal," O'Brien said. "We're not going to talk. I know that. It's too late for an apology now, so it's a dead issue for me. It's over and done with."
For his part, Kovalenko said Friday that he hopes O'Brien has moved past the incident.
"I hope he doesn't have hard feelings. I've said it before, I don't want that to happen to anybody. It is a game, and a freaky play like that can happen to anybody - it can happen to me. I'm glad to see he's back to playing and playing well, and that's the most important thing. I'm very happy for him."
The Earthquakes' Brian Ching, another player at the top of his game after spending several months on the mend, seemed ecstatic Friday about starting Saturday's All-Star Game.
Ching suffered a torn right achilles tendon two-thirds of the way through the 2003 season, but has come back to tie for the lead-league in goals with 10 at the 2004 All-Star break.
"I think that after I got hurt last year ... I got a fire building in me. Fortunately for me this year, I've been able to keep that fire going. I'm playing well and I can't complain," Ching said. "When I was hurt, I was thinking, 'I can't wait to get back. I can't wait to get back and get on the field again.' I love the game, and I love being out there, and I love my job."
Kreis, who broke the all-time MLS goal-scoring record June 26 at the Cotton Bowl, was invited to the 2004 Sierra Mist MLS All-Star Game with one of two special selection's by MLS Commissioner Don Garber. The veteran, who has spent all nine seasons of his career with the Burn, paused for a moment to point out what the selection means to him.
"Let me just first say -- and I haven't had a chance to say it -- I wholly appreciate his selection," Kreis said. "I really felt honored that he did that, to be honest. I'm completely happy that he made that decision."
Kreis also reiterated his claim that his goal-scoring record will be broken, and soon. At the same time, he said that in recent weeks various people have reacted enthusiastically to his achievement.
"Look around at the field we're standing on at the incredible goal-scorers around me in their youth. If he stays in this league, there's no doubt in my mind that Carlos Ruiz will have that thing broken in three years."
ALBRIGHT THE ALL-STAR
L.A. Galaxy defender Chris Albright, among the league leaders in assists with six, will make the first All-Star appearance and start of his six-year career Saturday in what was once his home.
Albright started his career in 1999 as a forward with D.C. United after attending the University of Virginia, said Friday that he is excited to return to RFK.
"I have a lot of friends here. I'm excited to be able to come back to where I started," he said. "Obviously, things didn't go as planned here. They're going better in L.A., but I'm happy to be back."
The big surprise for Albright is that he made the All-Star team as a defender after switching to that position only at the beginning of 2004.
"It just kind of got thrown at me at the beginning of this year by (national team coach) Bruce (Arena), and (Galaxy coach) Sigi (Schmid) kind of went with it as well, and the experiment's worked so far," Albright said. "I'm happy just to be on the field, and to be here is an honor."
NO. 9 FOR AGOOS
San Jose Earthquakes defender Jeff Agoos, who spent five years of his career with D.C. United, will be making his ninth All-Star appearance Saturday, becoming the only man to play in every MLS All-Star Game.
On Friday, Agoos downplayed his status as one of the most decorated men in MLS history, saying his five MLS Cup titles and his ability to be successful individually -- he was the 2001 Defender of the Year -- are products of the talent that has surrounded him in both D.C. and San Jose.
"I think it's not a testament to me, but more to the organizations I've been with. My first four years, five years, I was with D.C. and we had a high caliber, professional organization," Agoos said. "When I moved to San Jose, things turned around. I was with an organization that strives for excellence. ... I think I've been very fortunate to be on organizations and clubs that wanted the best."
Kansas City Wizards central defender Jimmy Conrad, who replaces Colorado Rapids defender Pablo Mastroeni in the starting lineup, is wary of the possibility that defense may not be a priority in Saturday's All-Star Game and that the ability to keep the score low, which he has displayed while playing every minute of the season for the Wizards, could fly out the window.
"We'll see how much defense is going to be played. I'm sure our back four will play as hard as we can," Conrad said. "It'll be me and Agoos in the middle and then Cory (Gibbs) on the left and Albright on the right, so we'll see what decisions they make. I wouldn't mind scampering up there once in a while. It's all in good fun and that's what I'm enjoying the most about the weekend."
'EL PESCADITO' IS A FLOP
In becoming perhaps the most dangerous striker in MLS, the Galaxy's Carlos Ruiz has shown a keen eye for goal, an ability to beat defenders with speed, and an ability to draw contact and, at times, fouls.
The third ability has, at times, led to talk of Ruiz's alleged penchant for 'diving', but 'El Pescadito' himself says what is alleged is not always true.
Speaking in his native Spanish, Ruiz said, "Things happen, no? I've been fouled too. Sometimes the refs have seen it, but nobody's talking about that. But I hope it doesn't happen again. I think that what I've achieved has not based on play-acting. So let's hope that things improve and that we stop hearing these sorts of comments."
ALL-STAR HEAVY QUAKES
The Earthquakes may be the residents of the Western Conference basement, but they still make up nearly half of the All-Star starting lineup that will take the field Saturday. Quakes goalkeeper Pat Onstad said the selections came as a bit of a surprise for the struggling club.
"It's funny. Last year, we only had Landon (Donovan) involved, and we had such a great start to the season. It seems maybe a year late for everyone getting recognized," Onstad said. "Players like Brian Ching and Richard Mulrooney, those are guys that don't always get recognized, and I think they're thoroughly deserving.
"I hate to use clichés, but realistically if we could get some more wins, we'd rather be in the position we were last year and send Landon and that's it."
As for himself, Onstad said getting the All-Star nod is a nice cap to the last season-and-a-half, in which he won MLS Cup and Goalkeeper of the Year honors. He also squeezed in some self-deprecating humor Friday.
"I think any All-Star Game kind of is 'icing'. It's not something players strive for. I think they only strive to win a championship," Onstad said. "It'll be enjoyable. Since I'm letting in a lot of goals this year, I'll be used to doing it tomorrow, as well."
Jason Halpin is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.