On the surface, it's just another routine summer week for D.C. United -- morning practices in the suffocating heat at RFK Stadium's training grounds, a film session, players returning from national team duty, others recovering from injuries.
Except this week will be like no other in the club's nine-year history because, instead of preparing to play another indistinct opponent from MLS, United has turned its attention to tomorrow's friendly at FedEx Field against English champion Chelsea.
Not exactly the same buzz as before a MetroStars game.
"If you're not motivated before this type of game, then you're in the wrong place, in the wrong locker room," Coach Peter Nowak said yesterday. The players are "highly motivated right now. You can see the excitement. I know they will represent themselves in the best way they can."
This isn't the first time United will have hosted an esteemed European club. But none of the previous visitors had just captured their league title by losing just once in 38 matches, had a payroll the equal of the New York Yankees' and continued purchasing world-class reinforcements to make a run at the Champions League crown.
Chelsea is on a 12-day U.S. tour, which commenced with a 1-0 victory over AC Milan on Sunday in Foxboro, Mass., and will conclude this weekend in East Rutherford, N.J., with another meeting against Milan. Nestled between those high-profile showdowns is the first-ever meeting between the defending U.S. and English champions.
"This is a special game for us. Chelsea is the team right now, or one of the teams, globally," said midfielder Ben Olsen, who just returned from the U.S. national team at the Gold Cup. "It's a great opportunity to see what you have against the best players in the world. Not everybody gets a chance to step on the field with guys like that.
"I don't think we're pushing to beat Chelsea. We'd like to win the game, of course, but realistically they're a great team and we're just going to go and play a soccer game. It's going to be a great test to see where we are on the global scale."
Olsen is no stranger to English soccer, having played on loan for second-tier Nottingham Forest in 2000-01. He remembers a match against Blackburn, which was soon promoted to the Premier League and included current Chelsea midfielder Damien Duff. Jaime Moreno, United's all-time leading scorer, spent two years with Middlesbrough before signing with MLS in 1996.
But perhaps the member of the D.C. organization most familiar with English soccer is John Harkes, a former midfield star who is overseeing United's youth development program.
Harkes spent six seasons in England, most notably with Sheffield Wednesday. He was playing for West Ham in 1995-96 when an apprentice midfielder named Frank Lampard was emerging with the club. Veterans, such as Harkes, serve as mentors to young players, so "I would see Frank and he'd say, 'Harkesy, what boots can I get you today?' It's just part of the system every player goes through over there," Harkes recalled.
Ten years later, Lampard is widely regarded as one of the finest midfielders in the world, the inspiration behind Chelsea's first league title in 50 years this past spring.
"Chelsea's coming to play, and to play hard," Harkes said. "They want to set the tone for the season. It will be a good experience for the D.C. boys."
Current midfielder Dema Kovalenko said he hopes this match will have a long-term impact.
"It's not just we're playing for us, we're playing for MLS," he said. "Soccer is just coming along in the States . . . [and] it's very important for us to go out, do well and represent MLS."
United Notes: Defender Bryan Namoff is close to being ready for game action after undergoing hernia surgery three weeks ago. . . . Ticket sales surpassed 25,000 and only a limited number of lower-bowl seats remain available, team officials said.