D.C. United, Portsmouth meet in friendly matchup of struggling clubs

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 24, 2010

D.C. United has merited praise over the years for arranging attractive international friendlies that raised the club's profile and appealed to a broad audience.

Until now.

United's opponent Saturday night at RFK Stadium is Portsmouth, an English side relegated to the second division from the Premier League last season after winning just seven of 38 matches and having nine points deducted for falling into financial disarray.

The club known as Pompey, founded 112 years ago, is more than $200 million in debt and is on its fourth owner in the past year. Several players have gone in search of new employers and the club's desperate pursuit of bargain replacements is underway.

Despite a transfer embargo imposed by league authorities, Portsmouth was granted dispensation Friday to sign three players in the coming weeks.

The start of Portsmouth's preseason tour to North America was stalled by travel problems, resulting in a 42-hour trip to San Diego ahead of a friendly against Mexico's Club America. Once the delegation got settled, injuries began to plague the inexperienced roster, and then on Wednesday in Edmonton, two players left with significant setbacks.

With several of his 19 players unavailable or recovering, Coach Steve Cotterill will be hard-pressed to field a legitimate lineup Saturday for the last of Portsmouth's four tuneups.

And you thought United, MLS's worst team with three victories in 17 league matches, had problems.

In D.C.'s defense, Portsmouth wasn't the first choice to fill a gap in the schedule. The English club wasn't the second or third choice, either.

Initially, United officials thought they were close to a deal with Spanish club Valencia. When those talks fizzled, attention turned to Blackburn Rovers of the English Premier League. Eventually, D.C. reached agreement with Scottish champion Glasgow Rangers, but after the match was formally announced, complications with the promoter forced a cancellation.

In stepped Portsmouth, a team that will provide a satisfactory test for D.C.'s young players but lacks the prestige of previous visitors to Washington. In recent years, United has welcomed Real Madrid, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Glasgow Celtic and Boca Juniors.

Two months ago, Italian titan AC Milan, featuring Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho, drew a weekday crowd of 30,367 for a 3-2 D.C. victory. A fraction of that turnout is expected Saturday.

Further diminishing the match is the forecast of extreme heat and humidity, plus United's injury concerns. And while international competition is usually welcomed, D.C. is playing its fifth game in 15 days.

Despite its dismal state, Portsmouth has had some enjoyable moments, winning the 2008 FA Cup and advancing to the final of the prestigious tournament this year before falling to Chelsea, 1-0. Under normal circumstances, reaching that championship game earns a ticket to the UEFA Europa League, a second-tier but notable continental competition, but the club's fiscal fiasco made it ineligible for proper licensing.

Six players from the 2009-10 squad were named to World Cup squads, but not one is here. Goalkeeper David James, who started three matches for England in South Africa, is looking for a new team; Algerian Nadir Belhadj moved to Qatar; and Kevin-Prince Boateng (Ghana), Aaron Mokoena (South Africa), Nwankwo Kanu and John Utaka (both Nigeria) stayed behind.

Boateng, who scored Ghana's opening goal against the United States in the round of 16, might end up with an Italian club. Kanu and Utaka aren't expected to return.

On this tour, Pompey lost to Club America, 2-1; defeated the fourth-tier Ventura County (Calif.) Fusion, 2-1; and edged first-year FC Edmonton on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw.

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