The first time Landon Donovan took part in Major League Soccer’s annual All-Star Game, he scored four goals, won the MVP honor and tore off his jersey in celebration, revealing a black sports bra -- a la Brandi Chastain two years earlier.
It was a grand joke, perfect because that 2001 game was played in San Jose, Chastain’s hometown and home to the soon-to-be MLS Cup champion Earthquakes, for whom Donovan starred.
But that game was a joke, as were most of the games in the old East-vs.-West format, a 6-6 exhibition of offensive skill and little else -- entertaining in one sense and drably dull in another, greater sense.
That’s not the case anymore, not since MLS started scheduling the game against foreign clubs -- first in 2003 against Guadalajara, and since 2005 against foes from England, Scotland and, last year, Italy -- and the Aug. 6 clash in Portland will be against Bayern Munich, two-time defending Bundesliga champion and a UEFA Champions League semifinalist this year after winning the prize in 2013.
Donovan will be there again, for the 14th straight year, a record, after his selection Wednesday to the Fan XI, a fan-voted group (in a 4-3-3 formation) that will be part of Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter’s 20-man roster. It’s a prestigious group, with eight U.S. World Cup players -- including Donovan’s LA Galaxy teammate Omar Gonzalez -- and foreign stars Thierry Henry and Obafemi Martins.
"When I look around the league, there’s lots of guys that deserve it probably more in some ways, based on the season they’ve had," Donovan acknowledged after the Galaxy’s 5-1 victory Wednesday night over New England. "But I’m very proud of it and I’m very appreciative of it. And I love representing this league, so it does mean a lot to me."
The Fan XI, selected in voting on Major League Soccer’s website and via Twitter, is just the first group of players. The rest of the roster, including Commissioner Don Garber’s two selections, will be announced Saturday, and Porter may select his starting lineup -- and alignment -- from the full group. A total of 32 players will be designated as All-Stars, per the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the MLS Players Union.
The first XI for the All-Star Game used to be selected in balloting by players, technical staffs and media. Is it more special when fans are determining the choices?
"You know, I have varying opinions on that," Donovan said. "I think it’s nice to be named by your colleagues, because that’s important. But it’s also really nice that the fans get a chance to see who they want to see play. And at the end of the day, it’s a game for the fans, and it’s a game that they should be able to pick who they want to be here, and that’s a very nice feeling."
He prefers the current format, with matches against top sides in preparation for the European season, over how things were back when he donned a sports bra.
"I think the guys like playing a real game with guys that they admire around the league," Donovan said. "I like putting on a jersey next to Beckerman and Michael Bradley and Dom Dwyer and Bradley Wright-Phillips and [Thierry] Henry and guys like that. And being in a locker room and looking at each other and saying, ‘Let’s go for it.’ I think that’s a fun feeling."