It seemed like a good idea at the time: a quality club from the esteemed English Premier League, featuring American goalkeeper Tim Howard, paired with D.C. United in a summer friendly in one of MLS’s most sophisticated markets.
But with each approaching day, the match between United and Everton on Saturday night at RFK Stadium has lost much of its appeal.
Howard, who just returned to the Liverpool-based side from vacation following U.S. national team duty, will not play, Coach David Moyes said Friday. Veteran Spanish midfielder Mikel Arteta is out with a foot injury suffered during Wednesday’s 1-0 defeat to the Philadelphia Union.
United, coming off a midweek home loss to lowly New England, is playing its third game in eight days. And the record-setting heat threatens to undermine the pace and spirit of the affair.
Although Everton’s visit is alluring — 133 years of history, 9 top-tier league titles, 5 FA Cup trophies, seventh place in the 20-team Premier League last season — Howard was the main attraction on the two-game preseason tour. He wasn’t in uniform for the team’s match against Philadelphia, either.
“Because of his long commitments to the USA national team during the summer months, we’ve had to make sure he’s had some holiday time with his family,” Moyes said. “He’ll be here to say hello but unfortunately he won’t be playing.”
Howard is scheduled to participate in his first preseason workout early Saturday in Washington and accompany the team to the stadium. Because he won’t play, United officials are hoping to arrange some level of interaction with ticket holders.
It’s his second trip to Washington in five weeks: Howard started in the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal victory over Jamaica at RFK.
United Coach Ben Olsen said he understood the reasons behind Howard’s absence.
“Look, this is how these happen: You have these preseason games [involving European clubs] and everybody has their own agendas on what they need to do,” he said. “Tim has played a lot of soccer and players need rest.”
Upon the completion of Everton’s 2010-11 campaign in May, Howard reported to U.S. camp, played in a friendly against World Cup champion Spain and then started six Gold Cup matches.
In promoting the friendly, United featured Howard in newspaper and online ads, with a caveat that player availability was subject to change.
“We’ve known for quite some time that [Friday] would be his first day and that it would be the manager’s decision as to playing time,” United spokesman Doug Hicks said. “We found out [Friday] that the manager does not intend to use him.
“He won’t be playing, but we’ll do something for him pregame and we intend to make him accessible in some manner to fans. That, too, is subject to the Everton manager’s discretion.”
While Howard watches, Moyes will monitor the fitness of players carrying injuries and likely turn to several young options. Olsen plans to utilize much of his roster. Veteran defenders Dejan Jakovic and Marc Burch, who have been sidelined by hamstring injuries, are expected to return to action.
“We’ll be smart with their minutes, but they’re trying to come back and get spots,” Olsen said. “It’s a big game for them.”
In Everton’s match Wednesday, Philadelphia’s game-winner in the 87th minute was scored by Christian Hernandez, a 17-year-old academy player. Olsen said he doesn’t expect to turn to the youth program to fill out the roster.
“We always take these fairly serious and want to test ourselves against the better teams in Europe,” Olsen said. “Saying that, we realize what these games are for [Everton] — it’s preseason. They want to get fit, they’re not used to playing in 115 degrees; I don’t know if anybody is. So you take these results with a grain of salt.”
United has fared well against English clubs since 1997, drawing with Leeds, Blackburn and Nottingham Forest, defeating Newcastle, Tottenham (twice) and Portsmouth, and losing to Chelsea by a goal.
“It’s a fun game for us, but we also want to take it seriously,” Jakovic said. “We saw what Manchester United did to Seattle” — a 7-0 rout Wednesday.
With the heat index expected to exceed 100 degrees again Saturday, neither team would probably be able to muster the energy for such an outburst.
“I don’t think we ran that much [in Friday’s late-morning workout], but it’s just impossible — you can’t breathe,” Everton defender Sylvain Distin said. “It feels like you move and your body follows you after.”
United notes: Club officials expect 13,000 to 15,000 spectators. . . . Because of the severe heat, security will allow fans to enter the stadium with two unopened bottles of water (up to 20 ounces apiece).