'Dream' Meeting Pits D.C. United, Real Madrid

Damien Duff (center) scored a goal for Chelsea in front of 31,473 in 2005 at FedEx Field, which will host a crowd at least twice as large Sunday.
Damien Duff (center) scored a goal for Chelsea in front of 31,473 in 2005 at FedEx Field, which will host a crowd at least twice as large Sunday. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 8, 2009

At some point Sunday afternoon, under a blazing August sun at FedEx Field, some D.C. United players might think their minds are playing tricks on them.

Rest assured, it's no heat-induced mirage.

Yes, that's Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, the past two world soccer players of the year whose combined salary this upcoming Spanish La Liga season is about the same as United's total payroll over 13½ years. The crest on their jersey is, indeed, that of Real Madrid, the most decorated club in European history and an organization that spent $380 million on eight player acquisitions this summer.

Attendance will, in fact, be almost five times the size of an average MLS match at RFK Stadium and TV images will really be beamed to 25 countries.

"It's a dream come true," said Rodney Wallace, a 21-year-old rookie midfielder who three years ago was playing for Bullis, a prep school in Potomac, before representing the University of Maryland for two seasons. His soccer hero is Kaka, the Brazilian midfielder who arrived at Madrid from AC Milan last month.

"I never thought it would come this quickly," Wallace continued. "I was hoping to play with them or against them sometime. It's going to be a challenge, but it's going to be fun."

Since MLS's launch in 1996, United has played several friendlies against revered foreign clubs, most recently three years ago when it met Real Madrid in Seattle and in 2005 with Chelsea of London at FedEx. But the anticipation for Sunday's encounter has been heightened by Real's conspicuous consumption in soccer's global marketplace.

As of Friday afternoon, about 65,000 tickets had been sold. The biggest crowd to attend a United game in the Washington area was 57,431 for MLS Cup '97 at RFK.

"It's a childhood dream to play against the best players in the world," United midfielder-forward Santino Quaranta said. "It's what you do in your backyard with your friends. These are the guys you pretend to be."

For that reason, and others, United has interrupted its routine of league matches and international tournaments -- not to mention sacrificed recovery time before the most demanding stage of the year begins -- to embrace this unique opportunity.

"If this were not Real Madrid, if this were a mid-level [English] Premiership team or a smaller team from Spain or Italy, I don't think we would be playing the match," United President Kevin Payne said. "But opportunities to play a club like Real Madrid don't come along that often, and, while strictly from the standpoint of the competition it could easily be argued that this is an added game that we don't need, we've always believed that in terms of our long-term strategy and building our brand, these games are invaluable."

They are particularly invaluable financially. With most tickets ranging in price from $55 to $85, United is expected to turn a hefty profit, even after covering Real Madrid's appearance fee of an estimated $1 million and the FedEx rent.

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