This year's Major League Soccer All-Star Game will have a decided Canadian flavour to it.
Not only will Thursday's encounter between the MLS all-star team and English side West Ham United take place at Toronto's BMO Field (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7 p.m. ET), but it will also feature three Canadian players.
Toronto FC captain Jim Brennan (a Toronto native), and midfielder Dwayne De Rosario (also from Toronto), and goalkeeper Pat Onstad (from Vancouver) of the Houston Dynamo were among the seven players recently added to the team by coach Steve Nicol and league commissioner Don Garber to round out the 18-man roster.
Brennan, 31, called it "a privilege" to be selected and said he couldn't pick a better place to play in his first all-star game than his hometown.
"It carries special meaning for me representing the home team in our own stadium," said the defender. "I know the crowd is going to be fantastic, so I'm really looking forward to it."
Onstad's only previous all-star appearance came in 2004, and the veteran goalkeeper is glad to be back because it's affirmation that he's still at the top of his game.
"I take a great deal of pride in being named to the team, especially as the oldest player in the league," said Onstad, who turned 40 this past January.
"And of course, I think it's great that the game will have a healthy dose of Canadian representation," added the veteran shot-stopper.
As for De Rosario, this year will mark his third consecutive all-star appearance, but the 30-year-old is especially looking forward to representing Canada in one of the league's marquee games on Canadian soil.
"It's definitely an honour to be named to the team, definitely a thrill, and definitely a highlight of my career," admitted De Rosario.
"I grew up just outside of Toronto, so be to be able to come back to my hometown and play in front of my family and friends in such an important game, it's something I've dreamed about."
Onstad was barraged by hecklers when Houston visited Toronto FC last season, but admitted he was blown away by the unique atmosphere at BMO Field and the passion of the fans, which is why he is so excited about playing in this year's all-star game.
"It's a chance to play in front of those fans, who are the best in the league, by far. I only hope this time around they cheer me on," joked Onstad.
'They have a point to prove'
Thursday's contest will also allow Brennan to catch up with old friends. Current West Ham stars Dean Ashton and Robert Green played with Brennan at Norwich City, but the Canadian maintains the friendship will end once he steps on the field.
"The players on the all-star team are very good players and they have a point to prove, to show just how good this league is," Brennan explained. "Every time the all-star team plays these top teams from Europe they win, so it's going to be no different this time around against West Ham."
Indeed, MLS's best players have defeated Mexican outfit Deportivo Guadalajara, Scottish giants Celtic FC, and English clubs Fulham and Chelsea in previous all-star games.
De Rosario hopes West Ham will be another big opponent that falls prey, as he feels it will earn the league a bit more credibility in the eyes of the international soccer community.
"It's a big game for us because it's a chance for the league to showcase its talent to the rest of the world, to show just how far this league has come over the last few years," said De Rosario, who was named MVP of the 2006 All-Star Game after scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over Chelsea.
Onstad recalls the 2004 All-Star Game was a laid-back affair because of the format in which the league's Eastern Conference stars clashed with the best from the Western Conference. He's expecting a much more intense encounter this time due to the presence of an international opponent.
"It'll be different because of West Ham. The guys will want to do well against a good English league team. They'll want to prove themselves," said Onstad.