Amid lower expectations and different challenges, D.C. United set to face AC Milan

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In its history, D.C. United has hosted some of the world's top clubs in exhibition matches in the United States, doing so as one of the most storied clubs in MLS, a representative of the best American soccer had to offer.

On Wednesday night at RFK Stadium, however, United will host AC Milan in a friendly that comes with fewer expectations and different challenges.

D.C. is suffering through one of the worst starts in its 14-year history, sputtering to just one win in its first nine league games, and faces an important league game on Saturday -- the beginning of a stretch of three games in eight days. Milan, meanwhile, is coming off of a long season and is without several star players who are with their national teams preparing for the World Cup in South Africa.

The Milan players that are here -- including Brazilian stars Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato and Dutch legend Clarence Seedorf -- are making no secret that this tour is a final hurdle before a much-needed vacation.

"Well, we're not motivated. We're just not motivated," Seedorf said on Monday. "But we are professionals and we're going to try to entertain the people. That's the most important thing. We can get the best out of the game coming out with no injuries, of course. It's a friendly match but we know how to play this and we don't have any other goals, just make sure we can entertain the people. Motivations are very low because it's the end of the season. We don't have anything anymore to play for, but we play for the people and we're going to definitely try to entertain."

United, too, faces its own challenges in how to approach the exhibition.

The club has struggled to find its form, netting just four goals while conceding 18 and being shut out in seven of nine league games. It has players dealing with injuries and others returning only recently from missing action -- including goalkeeper Bill Hamid, defender Dejan Jakovic, midfielder Santino Quaranta and forwards Chris Pontius and Luciano Emilio. It also faces the prospect of an important run of league games prior to the World Cup break, a stretch in which the club desperately needs results.

Those issues create a challenge of how both players and coaches will approach a game that is an exhibition, but also an opportunity for players to test themselves against some of the world's best.

"The approach is it's a great opportunity to play one of the best teams in the world," United Coach Curt Onalfo said. "And we take it very seriously. Having said that, we know that we have an important game on Saturday, so we'll utilize it as a time where all the players that are healthy will get an opportunity to play. We'll play pretty much two different teams, one group the first half and a fairly different group the second half and utilize it as an exercise to play against one of the best teams in the world and at the same time improve some of the things we need to improve upon."

Despite the less-than-ideal timing, United players acknowledge both the rare opportunity they have in facing one of the world's top clubs and also the importance of bringing a team like Milan to the United States.

For some, the game could also be an opportunity for players to regroup from the trying start to the season and get back to "having fun."

"We're excited as a club for our fans, for the American public to see a team like AC Milan," Quaranta said. "Personally, I'm excited. I'm human, you know, I'm excited to play against good players. It's a good opportunity for us; anybody tells you they're not [excited] is lying. It comes at a time where I think it's a chance for us to take a step back and enjoy the game. We got away from enjoying the game, having fun. You can tell it doesn't look like we're enjoying it and I think we need to get back to that."

United notes: Onalfo said Hamid will play against Milan after missing United's last game because of a shoulder injury. . . . Jakovic is still out, but Quaranta (staph infection) should return to the field in some capacity.

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