No rest for weary: U.S. stars answering call once again
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- After starting six games in 24 days that required him to travel some 7,000 miles between seven cities, Kyle Beckerman admitted to being "tired and thinking of [my] bed at home."
If he needed a bit of rest following that gauntlet, that would be understandable. If he asked for a couple days to revel in the CONCACAF Gold Cup title he helped the U.S. win Sunday, that would be reasonable as well. The 31-year-old midfielder hasn't always had the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his international career and it must have felt sweet to contribute so meaningfully to a championship.
On top of all that, Beckerman's club, Real Salt Lake, has lost two consecutive games for the first time this season.
"I miss my team," the captain said.
But there would be no rest, revelry or reunion. Instead, Beckerman flew to Kansas City, where he's expected to start Wednesday night's MLS All-Star game against AS Roma.
He is one of nine men, on an All-Star roster of 20, who was part of the triumphant American Gold Cup squad. Some, like tournament MVP Landon Donovan and goalkeeper Nick Rimando, played a massive role in securing a fifth continental title. Others, like Omar Gonzalez or Jack McInerney, were along for the ride. All could have offered up an easy excuse to bow out of Wednesday's exhibition. Yet all of them, including Beckerman, had a compelling reason to extend their road trip by a few more days.
"There's just so many games, one after another. You just have to put the one you just played behind you and get ready for the next one," he told SI.com, before referencing his 14 seasons in MLS and saying, "We're getting better and progress is being made. We want to do well [against Roma]. We know the score line is going to go around the world."
The All-Star game represents an opportunity for MLS players to showcase their skills against a big-name opponent and to a curious audience that might not regularly tune in. Time and again, participants have said that the match, and its final score, matters. Often their effort confirms it.
But three days after winning a genuinely important competition, a mere exhibition should feel almost irrelevant -- or at least anticlimactic.
Yet this one doesn't.
Donovan almost surely will participate in his 11th All-Star game on Wednesday. If anyone should have had his fill of the event, it would be a player who's played in so many big matches for club and country and for whom physical and mental fatigue has been an issue in the recent past. When L.A. Galaxy forward Robbie Keane pulled out of the game with a hip injury, the league called Donovan to see if he'd be willing to come in.
"To be honest, before I got here it was sort of 'Okay, it's another one'. But since I've been here, I've been really impressed by all this, by the support from Sporting Kansas City, by the people in town, just the excitement around the game," he said following Tuesday's training session. "My family might say otherwise, but it's still nice and it's an extra three days for something that's special for the league and I want to be a part of it."
Rimando's wife and children are traveling from Utah to K.C. just to see him. He hasn't played for RSL in more than a month.
"You have in the back of your head that you want to go back to your club and now you have to come participate in this, but it's an easy transition," he said. "We're still on a high [from the Gold Cup] for sure. It's a great accomplishment for U.S. soccer and the guys that were playing. To get off that high and come here and now focus on the All-Star game, yeah, it's a bit of a switch. ... You've just got to enjoy the moment."
The full MLS All-Star team, under the direction of Sporting coach Peter Vermes, had only one full practice together. There's no time to implement anything fancy. SKC and U.S defender Matt Besler said the group would work a bit on defensive shape and set pieces and then let instinct and experience take care of the rest.
Having nine players who just spent weeks training together should make this All-Star team more cohesive than many of its predecessors. Add the likes of Thierry Henry, Marco Di Vaio and non-Gold Cup national teamers Graham Zusi and Brad Davis to the mix, and you have a squad that should give Roma a game.
"We're in a groove now. A lot of these guys played on Sunday and we want to keep it going. It's a showcase event and we want to show ourselves well, so we're taking it seriously," Donovan said.
"I think that we're starting to get a little more understanding with each other," said forward Chris Wondolowski, who scored five Gold Cup goals. "Especially when some of the guys are of such high caliber."
Said Vermes, "There's no doubt that some of those tendencies will be a help. But at the end of the day, it's just a group of guys now getting ready for another game."
One more game, during a summer chock full of them. Some Gold Cup winners have MLS Cup playoff races to worry about, others face CONCACAF Champions League commitments in early August. Those matches matter. But Wednesday's does, too, and that's why they're here.
Wondolowski smiled when asked about the on-field exchange with Chelsea captain John Terry that was captured by microphones during last year's All-Star game in Philadelphia.
"Your movement is incredible. It's like a nightmare for me," Terry said.
"That was one of the coolest moments ever. I'll always remember that," Wondolowski told SI.com on Tuesday. "It's a short turnaround, but that's why you live for these. You love it and you want to be on this stage. You want to be playing against the best in the world."