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Jul 23, 2008

All-Stars bonding on the field

TORONTO -- It is a vision that takes some getting used to: Cuauhtemoc Blanco, arguably the most-hated Mexican player among U.S. national team fans, and Landon Donovan, unquestionably the most-hated American player among Mexican national team fans, trading passes and playing on the same team, sharing some laughs and having a good time on the soccer field.

It is a far cry from their first meeting on a soccer field more than six years ago at the 2002 World Cup, when Donovan and the U.S. national team defeated Blanco and Mexico, or their next meeting, when Blanco's Mexico downed Donovan and the United States in a fiery World Cup Qualifier in Estadio Azteca. On both occasions, Blanco played the role of villain with his temperamental style, while Donovan did his part to stoke the flames of the rivalry, scoring in the World Cup to help eliminate Blanco's team.

Six years after that first encounter, Blanco and Donovan are set to be teammates as they help lead the MLS All-Star Team against West Ham United in the 2008 MLS All-Star Game.

"He's a nice guy," Donovan said of Blanco. "A lot of times people's personality on the pitch gets, you kind of think of them as that kind of person off the pitch, but most times it's different.

"He's quiet and just chill, but when he's on the field with the rest of us you can tell he's having fun with the rest of us, playing with all these good players," Donovan said. "We're all having fun."

It hasn't always been fun and games between Donovan and Blanco. The two have been on opposite sides of the heated U.S.-Mexico rivalry for years, with each playing the bad guy role for opposing fans.

"I remember all the games," Donovan said of his past national team clashes with Blanco. "There have been plenty of moments where I haven't liked him on the field, but even last year, at the end of last year, when we played them in Chicago, he made a point of coming up and saying 'good game' at the end of the game and shaking my hand.

"I wasn't expecting that but it was nice."

2008 MLS All-Star game
Thursday
MLS All-Stars vs. West Ham
7 p.m. ET (ESPN, ESPN360.com)

Blanco has actually shown little of that villainous side that he became infamous for during his time with the Mexican national team and in Mexico (with the exception being his recent actions in Chicago's U.S. Open Cup loss to D.C. United). That incident aside, Blanco has been a kindler and gentler Blanco, a player who looks completely comfortable playing alongside Donovan.

"We're friends now and when we're with our national teams, him with the United States and me with Mexico, then we're enemies," Blanco said of Donovan. "We get along well and great each other like good professionals."

The collection of talent is both impressive and eclectic, with David Beckham drawing most of the attention here during the all-star week festivities. The group, which also includes Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel, Grenadian midfielder Shalrie Joseph and Canadian captain Jim Brennan, is diverse.

"It's always fun when you have a bunch of good players together and see how things branch off," MLS all-star coach Steve Nicol said. "You have your funny ones and loud ones and strange ones and all kinds in there. It's always a fun mix."

While the players are having fun this week, there is also an underlying sense of seriousness about facing West Ham. MLS All-Stars are undefeated against foreign clubs since the league switched the all-star game format in 2005.

"For me it's better than playing an East-West meaningless game," Donovan said. "I've played in those games, and they're fun, but there's not a real feel to it.

"I'm as excited for this game as I've been for any game this year."

"This is a serious game," Nicol said. "We want to do well and we want to show what MLS players are made of and we want to put on a good show for everybody."

Nicol, who said he would try to get every player on the all-star roster into the match, is expected to field a strong squad that should include Beckham, Blanco, Donovan and Juan Pablo Angel in the starting lineup. The MLS All-Stars will need all its firepower against a West Ham team that looked sharp in dismantling the Columbus Crew, 3-1, in a friendly on Sunday.

"All the players that are here are experienced enough to realize that it's not just going to be a walk in the park," Beckham said. "It's going to be a tough game and one, as an East End boy, that I'm looking forward to."

MLS fans will also be looking forward to the match. Not only because it will be a chance to see the league's best players tested against a strong opponent, but also because it will be a rare chance to see Donovan and Blanco working together after years of being bitter rivals.

All-Star Game notes

Houston Dynamo midfielder Dwayne DeRosario and goalkeeper Pat Onstad are expected to join the MLS all-star team on Thursday afternoon. Both players will play for the Dynamo against D.C. United on Wednesday night at RFK Stadium.

Asked whether it will be too late to call in replacements, Nicol said that if something drastic happens and DeRosario and Onstad can't make the game then he would be able to secure some replacements. With Maurice Edu still in town after being blocked from joining the U.S. Olympic team until after Toronto FC's match against Real Salt Lake on Monday, you could see Edu and Toronto FC goalkeeper Greg Sutton as emergency replacements.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives and can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.

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