ORLANDO, Fla. — The 2019 edition of the MLS All-Star Game was one that won’t go down as a night to remember for the home team. The All-Stars were humbled 3-0 against an Atletico Madrid side that seems well prepared for the upcoming La Liga season.
Even worse, the league’s best didn’t offer many reasons to get the capacity crowd of 25,547 fans at Exploria Stadium behind them. Yet for one pair of All-Stars in particular, there were still moments to savor.
Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando, now in his 20th professional season, was a commissioner’s pick, making him an All-Star for the sixth time. San Jose Earthquakes forward Chris Wondolowski, who became the league’s all-time leading goal scorer earlier this year, was named to his fifth All-Star squad.
Both are as competitive as they come, and have been stalwarts in the league for years. There’s also no denying that they are approaching the tail ends of the careers. Rimando will retire at season’s end. Wondolowski’s future is more open-ended, although the end of his time as a professional can be espied from a distance. For them, these past four days went beyond the result, or debates about whether the format should revert to Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference. There is time to be shared and friendships to be formed or rekindled.
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For that reason, both Rimando and Wondolowski had the same goal coming into the week: Soak everything up, and don’t miss a moment. Ultimately that goal was reached, even if the result isn’t what either player wanted.
“I was surprised to come into this All-Star Game,” Rimando said. “There are so many good goalkeepers in this league. It was special, of course, for them to pick me and honor me in my last year. I took everything in.”
Wondolowski recalled his first All-Star experience in 2011 against Manchester United.
“That didn’t go well either,” he said about the 4-0 defeat.
Wondolowski acknowledged that back then he was eager, nervous and desperate to impress. This time was different.
“I wanted to enjoy it,” he said. “It’s an amazing week, but everything happens so quickly you forget the little things. I definitely took the approach where I wanted to talk to everyone, get to know the guys. I’m glad I did.”
To be clear, there was no storybook ending on the field. Rimando was beaten in the 85th minute by Atletico’s teenage prodigy Joao Felix and then again in stoppage time by Diego Costa. Wondolowski very nearly got on the end of a cross only for it to flash by.
But such is the respect the two players have accumulated during their careers that even a manager like Orlando City’s James O’Connor — who has managed in the league for just more than a year — can acknowledge the depth of their contribution.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for guys coming toward the end,” he said about Rimando and Wondolowski. “They’re two absolutely incredible servants to the league, and I think both of them were very deserving of the call-up, and great to see them get the opportunity to play tonight. I think they’ve been trying to speak to a couple of the young guys and settle them down a little and share some of those experiences.”
The two players took in the All-Star festivities in different ways. Rimando brought his family out from Utah, and his children were by his side in the locker room afterward. Wondolowski preferred to be the veritable mayor of the MLS All-Stars, seeking out every player in a bid to get to know them, lest the opportunity pass him by.
Tuesday’s practice saw the Quakes forward partake in a small-sided game with the likes of Carlos Vela and Paxton Pomykal as teammates. The time away from the field provided the opportunity for longtime adversaries to become friends, although Wondolowski acknowledged that it takes some effort.
“Sometimes you end up in cliques or guys you know and you just end up sticking with those three or four guys,” he said. “Whether it was a dinner or the Skills Challenge, I tried talking to different guys. I know for myself I’m different on the field than I am off the field. So you have Diego Chara, who is probably one of the nicest guys in the world and on the field he’s one of the most intimidating. And you have guys like Carlos Vela and Wayne Rooney, who are just down to earth. You’re wondering ‘How? Why?’ It’s pretty cool to see the differences.”
With the end drawing near for both Rimando and Wondolowski, those memories will be long lasting.
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