The memories of Mike Sorber’s first professional all-star game are hazy more than 25 years later.
It was in Mexico City, in Azteca Stadium, he knows. And Sorber, then a 24-year-old midfielder playing for UNAM in Mexico’s Liga MX, was chosen to a team of international stars that played Necaxa, the reigning league champion.
But when he’s asked who won, who scored and who played, Sorber shrugs. Who knows?
“I think it was 2-1 Necaxa,” he says after a pause. “But again, I’m not positive.”
There’s a reason the details of that summer day have been lost to time: All-star games aren’t as popular nor as common in Mexico as they are in the U.S., and the exhibition Sorber took part in, la fiesta del futbol, is no longer played. But it all became relevant again this week just the same because another team of Liga MX all-stars will play their counterparts from MLS on Wednesday at Banc of California Stadium, with Sorber on the MLS bench as an assistant coach.
“It’s a fun event. Look, the guys representing MLS, they’re important players for their team. That’s why the fans have voted for them and that’s why the coaches have voted for them,” Sorber said of a team that includes LAFC’s Diego Rossi, Jesús David Murillo and Eduard Atuesta and Julian Araujo of the Galaxy.
LAFC’s Carlos Vela and the Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernández were also expected to take part but had to withdraw because of injuries. Neither will be eligible to play in Saturday’s El Tráfico either, an MLS spokesperson said, a penalty for skipping the all-star exhibition.
“They get after the game, they go about it the right way,” Sorber continued, regarding the all-star players. “They bring a lot of value to our league and help build our sport in this country.”
The same could be said of the Mexican team, which includes Monterrey’s Rogelio Funes Mori, Cruz Azul’s Orbelín Pineda and Club América’s Guillermo Ochoa and Pedro Aquino. But unlike club matches, where the deeper, stronger Liga MX has long dominated MLS, the first all-star game between the two leagues will level the playing field, said Alexi Lalas, a two-time World Cup player and former MLS All-Star.
“You get like a couple hours together,” he said of preparation. “Now it doesn’t completely equal everything, but it’s a whole lot more interesting and more fair in terms of not having to play against a true club that has an intrinsic understanding of how they are going to play; a history and a relationship oftentimes with the players that are on the field.”
The game is primarily a commercial endeavor, intended more to raise the profile of Liga MX in the U.S. and of MLS in Mexico than as a referendum on the quality of the two leagues. But don’t tell the players that.
“People are going to try to puff out their chest,” said Lalas, a Fox Soccer analyst and member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame. “You want your value to be appreciated, both internally and externally. And so whether it’s the leagues or whether it’s the actual players, you want to put your best foot forward.”
Sorber, meanwhile, is focused on the coaches. As director of soccer operations for LAFC, he will be on coach Bob Bradley’s staff for the all-star game. Mexico’s manager will be Juan Reynoso of reigning Liga MX champion Cruz Azul, who played beside Sorber in that 1995 all-star game.
In the team photo from that game a confidant Reynoso, tall and bushy-haired, sticks his chest out and stares off into the distance while Sorber squats over a soccer ball and looks directly at the camera, his close-cropped coiffure a contrast to the shoulder-length hair of three teammates. Two places to Sorber’s right is Zizinho, the late father of Mexican national team stars Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos, who died last month.
“It’s really a cool thing, but that’s the only time I played with him,” Sorber, 50, said of Reynoso.
Sorber, who made more than 100 MLS starts and had 67 caps with the national team, including four in the 1994 World Cup, started that August exhibition in the midfield but because his team’s roster was overloaded with attacking players, he finished in the center of the back line, next to Reynoso.
“He was one of the best center backs in the league. He could read the game so well. Now obviously he’s having success as a coach,” he said.
“It’s just really interesting how things have come full circle.”
For Sorber too. Because while that Azteca Stadium exhibition has been long forgotten, Wednesday’s game could be the start of something memorable.
“One of the great things that works for both countries is television,” he said. “If there’s a Mexican team playing and there’s a U.S. team playing, you get a lot of interest. Because the countries are so close, there’s a cultural connection that works very well for our sport. And when there’s competition, people really tune in.
“That’s good for development of our league, that’s good for development or our coaches and executives and everything on all levels.”
That’s worth remembering.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.