Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

Today is a remarkable occasion in Chicago soccer history.  Manchester United (THE Manchester United) is rolling into town to play the Chicago Fire.  This is big.  This feels big.  Chicago is, of course, an absolute backwater* in the world of global soccer, and the best description of Manchester United’s stature in that world is Yankees on steroids (Umm, wait, poor phrasing, delete, delete!).  They are consistently ranked as the most valuable sports team in the world – not just in soccer, but in all of sports, ahead of the Dallas Cowboys and the Yankees. There are undoubtedly more people in Chicago who can name the starting 11 on Manchester United than those who can name the starting 11 for the local Chicago Fire.  I’m including myself in this group, by the way.

To commemorate the visit of the world’s most famous soccer team to Chicago, I’ve decided to steal Bill Simmons’ bit and keep a live diary of the proceedings.  But I will not be doing so from my couch – thanks to the magic of StubHub, I’ll be bringing you the action live from the game.

10:00 AM – Like I said, this feels like a big event.  Driving in downtown Chicago to pick up our tickets, I see Manchester United jerseys everywhere, with a smattering of Fire jerseys as well (forsaking the first rule of journalistic objectivity, I, too, am wearing my Chicago Fire jersey).  It’s as if every secret soccer fan in the city decided to make his allegiance public today.

3:50 PM – And we’re coming to you live from section 239 of Soldier Field!  To maximize ticket sales and exposure, the game is not being held in Toyota Park, the Fire’s usual home stadium (capacity: 22,000), but rather in the much more spacious and regal Soldier Field (capacity: 61,500).  Good call.  Walking to the stadium is a decidedly soccer-centric experience, with groups of hardcore Fire supporters waving flags and scarfs and singing the Chicago Fire songs and chants.  I love a good soccer crowd.

3:55 PM  – The stadium is currently half-full, even though a sell-out is expected. Still, though, there’s good energy in the crowd, and the Chicago Ultras (the hardcore supporters section) behind the goal is in full gear.  One thing I’ll give to the Chicago Fire – their ultras can rival any team in Europe, if not in their numbers, then in their ferocity.

3:56 PM – The PA announcer is welcoming the fans to tonight’s game of the Chicago Fire vs Manchester United.  The announcement of Man U draws a much bigger cheer from the crowd.

3:58 PM – Sparky, the Chicago dog-looking mascot runs onto the field carrying the Chicago Fire flag, as the crowd cheers.  Now, here’s something you won’t see in Europe

3:59 PM – The first 20 seconds of the National Anthem are being drown out by the chanting of the Ultras.  Classy, guys.

4:03 PM – Both teams are taking the field.  Man U players are carrying the coveted EPL trophy they won last season.  This was their record breaking 19th domestic title.  This isn’t intimidating, or anything.  Needless to say, the crowd is loving it.

The starting lineups: Chicago – Sean Johnson (G), Gonzalo Segares (D), Cory Gibbs (D), Yamith Custra (D), Jalil Anibaba (D), Dan Paladini (M), Patrick Nyarko(M), Logan Pause (M), Marco Pappa (M), Cristian Nazarit (F), Dominic Oduro(F).

Manchester United – David De Gea (D), Phil Jones (D), Fabio Da Silva (D), Chris Smalling (D), Patrice Evra (D), Tom Cleverley (M), Michael Carrick (M), Gabriel Obertan (M), Mame Biram Diouf (F), Dimitar Berbatov (F), Danny Welbeck (F).

The only two players in the starting lineup who received regular playing time for Manchester United last season are Evra (one of the best two-way fullbacks in the world), and Berbatov (a smooth Bulgarian forward known for coasting through games).

Quick pregame note:  Manchester United just played the Seattle Sounders, one of the best teams in the MLS three days ago, and beat them 7-0. Chicago Fire are currently tied for the second-worst record in the MLS.  We are expecting goals.  Loads of them.  And all from the same team.

4:10 PM – And, we have kickoff!  The stadium is still only ¾ full, which is a shame because the late arrivals could miss a goal.  Or two.  Or five.

4:11 PM – Fire is applying high pressure right away.  This is a smart idea.  It’s a hot and humid day – don’t let the United players get too comfortable.

4:12 PM – Sean Johnson, the Fire keeper boots a goal kick right into the stands.  Not a promising sign.

4:13 PM  – We have our first real action of the game.  Turnover by Evra gives Chicago the ball in the offensive zone, but the pass is misplayed, leading to a United counter attack.  Berbatov fires a great pass to Obertan, whose cross into the box goes too far for a goal kick.

4:15 PM – And we have our first Manchester United shot on goal!  Danny Welbeck sends a precise through ball to Berbatov who races ahead and forces a great save from Sean Johnson to deny a goal!  The crowd cheers in appreciation.  Chicago has a good Bulgarian population, and there are plenty of people around the stadium with Bulgarian flags and Bulgarian jerseys to watch the best Bulgarian player of this generation.

4:20 PM – Chicago’s first shot, by Jalil Anibaba, is about a mile high and to the right.  Hopefully this doesn’t become a theme tonight.

4:21 PM – Berbatov is clearly pulled down in the box by a Chicago player.  No penalty kick is given.  Ok, then.  Other than that, so far the Chicago pressure is working.  United players are not getting a lot of time on the ball and are not controlling possession.  Meanwhile, Manchester is applying almost no pressure on Chicago players – they’re playing as though this is a friendly in 90 degree heat.  As a result, possession is about even so far in the game.

4:23 PM – Patrice Evra commits a foul, giving Chicago a free kick 45 yards away from the goal.  Marco Pappa, probably the most skilled player on the Fire floats a long free kick into the box.  It’s floating perfectly towards Cory Gibbs who is waiting in the center of the box, and he rises up to meet it and.. what’s that? Is that really happening?  His head meets the ball perfectly and he thumps an unstoppable header into the far low corner of the goal! Chicago scores!  1-0 Fire!

4:30 PM – Twenty minutes into the game, Chicago is enjoying good possession, but their lack of touch is showing.  The guy sitting in front of me yells “settle, settle!” just as a Fire player can’t control yet another long pass.  Meanwhile, Berbatov is all over the field for United, coming back as far as the defense to collect the ball.  He clearly wants to make something happen.

4:32 PM – Some impressive ball tricks by Berbatov near the box, but Chicago clears the ball and sends it upfield.  Pappa performs similar tricks and gets off a shot that goes just inches wide. Chicago is still getting a lot of time on the ball, looking competitive, and manufacturing chances…

4:35 PM – …Which they unfortunately can’t convert.  Finishing is poor throughout, and another good chance for Chicago is turned into a weak side-footed shot that is easily gathered by David De Gea.

4:49 PM – A pass from Fabio to a tightly marked Berbatov leads to a tackle which causes him to lose the ball.   A clearly exasperated Berbatov lifts his arms and yells something at Fabio.  Relax dude.  It’s a preseason friendly against Chicago Fire in 90 degrees heat.

4:52 PM – Other than the heat, the players are clearly bothered by the field surface.  Quite a few players have slipped and fell when trying to turn.   It’s unusual, since Soldier Field’s surface is always grass.

4:54 PM – With the first half winding down, Gonzalo Segares produces beautiful footwork to get the ball past Obertan and gets the ball to Patrick Nyarko in front of goal.  His shot is barely saved by David De Gea

4:55 PM – And it’s halftime!  A fantastically entertaining game so far, even if the finishing is poor.  And to call a half-time score of 1-0 for Chicago unexpected would lift that word to lofty heights it could never hope to live up to.  Chicago’s pressure has been effective, while United are affected by the heat.  Of course, we will see if Chicago will be able to maintain its lead in the second half, when United puts their stars in.

5:10 PM – And here’s the start of the second half.  The stars are in!  Wayne Rooney, Ji-Sung Park, Nani, Ryan Giggs and Anderson are in.  Rooney, Park and Giggs each get huge cheers when they’re introduced. Rooney is a poster boy for the rough-and-tumble English star, but that’s a topic for another time.

5:11 PM – Well, that didn’t take long.  Goal by United!  Nope, waved off as offsides.

5:16 PM – Nyarko dribbles forward and lays a pass across the box, but Baggio Husidic, a Chicago sub, can’t finish.  Chicago really should be up by more.

5:20 PM – Rio Ferdinand, the United and England captain is brought on, to more cheers from the crowd.

5:24 PM – Someone forgot to tell Park that it’s a friendly and the weather is 90 degrees.  He’s working his butt off, chasing the ball all over the field.  Of course, his energy and work rate is what he’s best known for.

5:28 PM – The dynamic of the game hasn’t really changed, with United players still mostly laying off, and Chicago pressuring tightly. What did change is the quality of the United players on the pitch, and it’s showing.  Meanwhile, Orr Barouch, another Chicago sub gets off a shot that beats the keeper but is denied by the post!  He had another shot earlier that looked like it was going on, but hit the side netting.  Great showing by the 19 year old Israeli.  He is from the same city in Israel as myself, so needless to say, I’m happy to see this.

5:30 PM – A through ball by Ferdinand finds Rooney alone, and he races ahead to the goal and chips a beautiful shot over the keeper!  And United ties the game to the roar of the crowd.  Rooney really shows why he’s one of the best strikers in the world.  It’s this kind of finishing that Chicago has sadly been missing in this game.

5:39 PM – United are playing with a purpose now.  They definitely don’t want this game to end in a draw.  Meanwhile, Nemanja Vidic takes the field.  The Serbian is another player that gets a wild reception based on his nationality.  Plenty of people with Serbian flags and jerseys in the stands. Oh, and of course, in addition to being Serbian he’s also one of the best center backs in the world.

5:40 PM – Rafael, the infinitely more talented Da Silva twin (they play the same position, too), is subbed in, and immediately takes the ball on the right flank, dribbles along the base line past two defenders and puts it in the goal from an incredible angle.  United are up 2-1.  The flood doors have opened up, and United might score a few more before the game ends.  My wife’s reaction: “Well, the stars have arrived”.

5:43 PM – Attendance is just announced, and it’s a sell-out: 61,308.  It looks and sounds like it too, even if most are cheering for United and not their hometown team.

5:46 PM – Nani dribbles in front of the box, when some shocking defending by Chicago gives him an opening to burst through and he scores United’s third goal.  Chicago can’t get a sniff of the ball now, and United are running out the game.

5:56 PM – And that’s the final whistle. Both teams get a heartfelt applause from the fans as they’re exchanging shirts on the field.  Rooney is named Man of the Match – deservingly so.

6:10 PM  – Massive crowds are piling out of the stadium.  Everyone had fun, and the game was closer and better than predicted – even if it was due to the difficulty Manchester United had adjusting to the heat – in Europe, league seasons are over the winter.

But ultimately, what do games like this mean for soccer in the US?  I caught up with two fans outside the stadium to ask them a few questions.  One, Fred, is a Fire ticket season holder.  His friend Jim has never been to a Fire game before, but took advantage of Fred’s extra ticket to go to this game (I apologize to both gentlemen in question for any inaccuracies in this paragraph – my recording equipment utterly failed to reproduce our interview in any coherent form.  Once again, it’s a good thing I’m not a credentialed journalist).  Fred echoed the same sentiment I had about the game – the Fire played well, hung tough, but ultimately couldn’t finish their chances, and were just a few inches from scoring more.  He thinks games like this are great for MLS – the Fire can’t fill Soldier Field by itself, but bringing in Manchester United brought 61,000 to the game, many of which could end up going to other MLS games. Jim confirmed this – although not a soccer fan, and someone who has never been to an MLS game before, he said he could see himself going to more games.

I think MLS is at a stage where it’s still trying to establish itself as a legitimate league.  Getting your product in front of as many people as possible is key – whether it’s by bringing in Manchester United, or signing their former players (see my previous post about the Designated Player Rule). And it definitely helps when the MLS team can put up a good fight, like the Chicago Fire did in this game.

*This is a topic for another column, but by a quick cocktail  napkin calculation, MLS is behind English, Spanish, Italian, German, French, Dutch, Russian, Brazilian, Argentinian, Portuguese, Turkish, Ukrainian, Greek, Belgian, Swiss, Mexican, and possibly Danish, Uruguayan, Austrian, Israeli, Czech, Serbian and Croatian and Paraguayan domestic leagues, putting it somewhere between 17th and 25th best leagues in the world.  None of this is even remotely scientific or quotable.

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