Passion On A U.s. Pitch

Soccer Fans Await Teams, Preseason Match, Undeterred By Dampness

July 24, 2009|By Kevin VanValkenburg | Kevin VanValkenburg,kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

When the rain came tumbling from the sky Thursday morning, officials from the Chelsea Football Club, AC Milan and just about everyone else associated with the World Football Challenge decided it would be best if the two teams did not go ahead with their plans to hold practice sessions open to fans on the temporary turf recently installed inside M&T Bank Stadium.

The fans, at least a good chunk of them, showed up anyway. Because that's what soccer fans do.

They waited patiently outside the stadium - one guess put it at about 1,000 supporters for each team - dressed in blue and red jerseys, hoping that a few players might wander over to sign autographs. Eventually, a few players obliged. Hours later, when Chelsea coach Carlo Ancelotti finally addressed the news media, journalists from England and Italy hung on every word. Even news of the most minor transactions was quickly beamed back to their home countries.

Passion like that is a good example of why tonight's exhibition match between the two clubs is sold out, and why 70,000 people will gather together inside an NFL stadium to sing songs, scream encouragement and jeer the enemy, despite the fact that both squads are from cities thousands of miles away and this game means little, if anything, to their overall fortunes this season.

"For us, it is fantastic to have [the match] sold out," said Ancelotti, who coached Milan from 2001 to 2009 before resigning in May to take the Chelsea manager's position. "We want them to have a lot of fun if they come see the match, and we're going to do our best to make it enjoyable for the fans in the USA."

Whether "enjoyable" preseason soccer will mean intense, focused preseason soccer is a matter of some debate. No one would expect the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers to go after one another with the mentality of a playoff game were they to scrimmage in front of 70,000 fans in England, so it would be hard to imagine soccer players - many of whom get paid considerably higher salaries than NFL players - going after one another full bore for 90 minutes. There is a chance, in fact, that you might see better soccer played in the United States this year in the Major League Soccer playoffs.

"If you're seeing D.C. United and the [New England] Revolution in a playoff game, that's as good as any soccer you'll see," said Nick Webster, a soccer analyst for Fox Sports who covers the English Premier League. "But this being preseason, you might see some players going through the motions. It certainly won't be played at Premeirship pace. I would say for the novice, they probably wouldn't notice the difference. But what they will notice is the 70,000 people there. They're likely to feel like this is something quite special."

What will be present, however, is the type of top-flight player who isn't seen often outside the English Premier League or Italy's Serie A league. Although Ronaldinho had something of an average season last year with Milan, scoring 10 goals in 32 games, it was not long ago he was considered one of the greatest players in the world. Along with Marco Borriello, Filippo Inzaghi and Alexandre Pato, Milan has one of the more exciting attacks.

None of Milan's players were available for comment Thursday, but American Oguchi Onyewu will draw considerable interest when he steps on the pitch. Onyewu grew up in Silver Spring and attended Sherwood High in Olney, and is the first American player to sign with a club in Italy's Serie A league since Alexi Lalas played in the mid-1990s. Onyewu made his debut for Milan on Wednesday against Club America as part of the World Football Challenge and was beaten for a goal in the second half.

"I think it was very fast for him because he arrived yesterday and had to play today," Milan coach Leonardo told reporters after the game. "It's not easy to arrive and get to know the group and know the system we play, but he's very positive, a very good guy. We are very happy with his arrival."

Chelsea captain John Terry, who is also the captain of England's national team and one of the world's most highly regarded defenders, is another player to watch. He has been rumored to possibly be leaving Chelsea, as he is highly coveted by Manchester City, but Ancelotti said Thursday that he expects Terry to be playing for Chelsea for the foreseeable future.

"He is captain of this team. He will be captain of this club for many years," Ancelotti said.

Ancelotti would offer only a curt "maybe" when asked whether striker Andriy Shevchenko might play in the exhibition. Shevchenko, once regarded as one of the top strikers in the world, has had a disappointing time with Chelsea since the club signed him for $44 million. Shevchenko played so poorly, he spent last season on loan to Milan, but came back to Chelsea this year after he scored only two goals in 26 appearances with the club.

Chelsea has tried to make up for that lack of offense by signing Russian striker Yuri Zhirkov to a four-year deal worth $25.6 million. Zhirkov is expected to make his debut against Milan.

Not everyone is convinced that the "friendly" will be so lightly contested.

"When you're playing against a big side, you have to be ready," Chelsea striker Florent Malouda said. "We have to fix all the details to be ready for our first games. We have a lot of ambitions, so to play against big sides in preseason is really important."

Baltimore Sun reporter Ken Murray contributed to this article

WORLD FOOTBALL CHALLENGE

What: AC Milan vs. Chelsea FC

When: Tonight, 8

Where: M&T Bank Stadium

Tickets: Sold out

TV: ESPN

INSIDE

A look at both teams PG 3

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