From behind the south goal at RFK Stadium yesterday, U.S. soccer star Landon Donovan peered out at the pods of creaky players preparing for the MLS legends match, which will precede today's All-Star Game.
"These guys are old -- holy cow!" San Jose's 22-year-old forward cracked.
The gray hair, surgical scars and squishy abs are badges of maturity for not only the veterans, but for the nine-year-old league, which will celebrate its thorny past, modest present and promising future with a pair of exhibitions this afternoon.
The 50-minute legends game will feature most of the players from the 1994 U.S. World Cup squad, many of whom formed MLS's foundation, against a team of former international stars, including retired D.C. United playmaker Marco Etcheverry and United Coach Peter Nowak. The second game will be a traditional East-West matchup, with 15-year-old Freddy Adu and three of his D.C. teammates.
It's a nostalgic alternative to the glamorous exhibition the league thought it had secured: an MLS squad vs. world power Real Madrid with David Beckham, Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. For various reasons, Real had to withdraw, leaving MLS scrambling for an attractive format.
"They had to pull something together, and you couldn't ask for a better idea," said Marcelo Balboa, 36, a defender on the '94 World Cup team who played seven years in MLS. "The way I look at it, old in soccer but young in life. I'm sure if a few guys out there wanted to keep playing, they could do it."
Donovan, widely regarded as MLS's best all-around player, paid tribute to the veterans by saying: "When I first came into the league [in 2001], I didn't really appreciate what they did. I didn't appreciate history. But now I realize how important they were. The league isn't all what we want it to be yet, but they made it pretty darn good."
The reunion of the '94 players has also brought back their Serbian-born coach, Bora Milutinovic, who has guided the most teams in World Cup history (five) but is currently looking for work, perhaps in the Middle East, after leaving Honduras last month.
"For me, it's very emotional," said Milutinovic, who 10 years ago got the Americans to the second round before they were eliminated by eventual champion Brazil, 1-0. "I'm very happy to see the players again. Our team was very special."
His counterpart today will be the current U.S. coach, Bruce Arena, who will lead the eclectic international team. Arena skipped yesterday's festivities to play golf at Congressional Country Club with United President Kevin Payne and MLS's primary benefactor, Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz.
Pregame preparations, however, probably weren't necessary -- for either match.
"Twenty-five minutes, I think I can make it without getting hurt," said Nowak, 40, a former Chicago Fire star who plans to play half of the preliminary event before turning his attention to his coaching duties in the All-Star Game.
Nowak will undoubtedly find playing time for Adu, who was added to the East roster as one of the two annual commissioner's picks. MLS received some criticism for including Adu, a two-goal scorer and part-time starter, but Commissioner Don Garber said: "People want to see Freddy. He's a young, fun, exciting guy. We didn't struggle with it at all."
United forward Jaime Moreno was voted a starter, forward Alecko Eskandarian was named a reserve and midfielder Dema Kovalenko was a replacement for one of the unavailable players. Defender Ryan Nelsen was named to the starting lineup, but won't play because of a hernia. Midfielder Ben Olsen (quadriceps) will also sit out.
The captain of the West squad is Jeff Agoos, who played five seasons with United before being traded to San Jose. He's the only player in MLS history to be named to all nine all-star games.
"I'm looking for a 1-0 or 0-0 event tomorrow," he said, sarcastically. "As a defender, it's not going to be fun. Those [forwards] will be waving us goodbye."
Added Moreno, who is making his fifth all-star appearance: "Everyone is here to have fun, but everyone is also going to take it seriously. We definitely want to win the game."
RFK also hosted the All-Star Game in 2002, when a league squad defeated the U.S. national team, 3-2, in a rain-shortened game. Last year, the MLS all-stars defeated Mexican club Chivas, 3-1, at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.