Little at stake, little incentive.
That all changed once Major League Soccer revamped the format and started playing international teams. The best teams from abroad were coming to the U.S. to show they were the best in the world. So far, the MLS, where the quality of play is usually touted as inferior to the quality of the level overseas, has a 6-2-1 edge in the All-Star game.
There's no doubt the players get pumped playing against champions and top-level teams as part of the summer exhibition.
"They're more enjoyable for us," Donovan said. "In the past, when it was an East-West format, you didn't take it all too seriously. The game was, in some ways fun, but it was a little bit false. It isn't exciting for us as playing a real game."
Chelsea of the English Premier League is back for this season's MLS All-Star game Wednesday night at PPL Park. The stadium is home to the Philadelphia Union of MLS, and is located in nearby Chester, along the Delaware River.
This is the seventh time an English Premier League team will play the MLS All-Stars. The MLS defeated Chelsea 1-0 in the 2006 game. Dwayne De Rosario won the game with the lone goal. He's back again, along with All-Star teammates Donovan and Thierry Henry. Last year's game was held at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and featured Manchester United.
Chelsea, which has won the English top flight on four occasions, is in the midst of a four-game American tour that featured the first soccer match at the new Yankee Stadium against Paris Saint-Germain, and a final exhibition vs. AC Milan in Miami.
Chelsea is using these games as a tuneup for its regular season. Playing well and earning playing time are much important than the result. But sure, the Blues want to come out winners. They understand the MLS has raised its magnitude of players and competition level over its nearly 20-year existence.
"I think it's evolved a great deal," Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard said. "I think David Beckham has been a huge influence on the game in terms of taking it worldwide and bringing a lot of attention. You can feel the level of the quality going up."
It's certainly a hit in Philadelphia, as the Union traditionally attract large crowds. On Wednesday, there should be plenty of Union fans in the stadium—they have their own Trekkies-type of fan cult called the "Sons of Ben"—but also plenty of people pulling for Chelsea, which has taken the U.S. by storm.
Chelsea helped attract a crowd of 38,202 Sunday to Yankee Stadium. An overwhelming blue-clad, pro-Chelsea base made Yankee Stadium feel a bit like home for the Blues, with six sections of loud supporters behind the first-base dugout.
"It's very good to see how this club has grown globally and has a great following," manager Roberto Di Matteo said. "The Yankee Stadium crowd, it was like a home game for us."
The MLS All-Stars certainly don't have the chemistry—developed over 72 hours or so—that a championship team like Chelsea can boast. Plus, D.C. United coach Ben Olsen has to find a way to get the stars back on track after a 4-0 loss last season.
"After talking to every coach and every agent, that almost becomes the toughest part of the deal, trying to make everybody happy," Olsen said. "But I think we've found a pretty good balance. It's worked out where we can get everybody a significant amount of playing time.
"It's not an easy process."
Henry, who plays for the New York Red Bulls, knows all about the premier competition in England. He is Arsenal's career leading scorer and would never rule out a return to his former team.
"Eventually, I'd like to go back to Arsenal," Henry said. "I don't know how. I'm sure that depends on me. I just want to finish my career. I would go back to England, that's for sure, with Arsenal. What? I still don't know what. Coaching does interest me, but I really don't think about it right now."
All he's thinking about is spoiling Chelsea's visit with a big MLS victory.
Dan Gelston can be followed at http://twitter.com/apgelston