Just by stepping onto the new and lush grass of FedEx Field at 8 o'clock last night against English Premier League champion Chelsea, D.C. United gained a surprise victory. They were equals -- well, they were for a while. The final score, 2-1, predictably Chelsea, didn't really matter because this was not a league game of any sort, statistics meant little and no history book would recount events with much detail. The score would matter, however, to United's players simply because they cared; they didn't want to be embarrassed, to say the least. For the players on both sides, it was about pride, nothing else. For soccer fans, it was a quality performance of their ongoing "beautiful game."
Six weeks ago, D.C. players were told of a rare opportunity. They would be able to match their talent with one of the world's finest soccer teams. The date was set and anticipation among the players was high, according to Freddy Adu, himself eager to show the world his promise. "It's a great opportunity for everybody on the team, for me personally, too, because I would love to play in the English Premier League one day," he said.
Normally, D.C. United's Major League Soccer games are seen only rarely on national television, and they never receive blanket coverage from the British press nor are they shown on TV globally. But that's what comes of an MLS champion playing a champion of a different pedigree. It makes an underdog team want to play. It may sound harsh, but it isn't meant to be, in likening D.C. United-Chelsea to, maybe, the Rochester Red Wings taking on the New York Yankees, but the comparison may not be far off, a club with a $2.2 million payroll up against one with a $200 million payroll. "Let's face it, they have better players, they're a better team," said veteran midfielder Ben Olsen. Nevertheless, surprising numbers of fans around the world were said to be tuning in.
And so pride also came into play among the Englishmen. They couldn't bear losing to the MLS representative. They came to America, two weeks before their regular season begins, to play three games, two with AC Milan and one with D.C. United. In no way would they want to lose to either, or be tied, but if that were to happen against D.C. United, it would be hard to explain back home and to their growing legions around the world. Chelsea beat AC Milan, 1-0, Sunday in New England in what quickly became something more than an exhibition game. From the beginning, Chelsea counterattacked hard, one of its favorite tactics, and controlled the ball the way champions do.
Like Sunday in Foxboro, the soccer atmosphere at FedEx turned out to be excellent. Clad in the traditional royal blue of their team (no hooligans were seen), Chelsea rooters stood and cheered in a section behind one goal. D.C. fan clubs were out in force, drums beating. Recent temperatures had cooled, the lower deck of the Redskins' preposterously mammoth home was just about filled, with a smattering of fans in the yellow second-deck seats, 31,473 in all. Good crowd, action on the field back and forth.
D.C. United, which had been holding its own, although working hard to keep the ball forward, struck in the 31st minute to begin a fabulous four-minute stretch. Josh Gros fired on line from the corner of the box, but a Chelsea defender lifted the ball into the stands. Then, off a corner kick by Christian Gomez, defender Bobby Boswell knocked in a header from six yards. An undrafted rookie out of Florida International scoring on the English champs! A magic moment. But playing typical English soccer with its long passes, one kick and away they all go on the counterattack, Chelsea was up the field immediately, applying pressure. When Damien Duff, Irish national team standout, hit a left-footer from the left side about as hard as anyone can kick a soccer ball, you knew in an instant: tie game. Nothing but net, with all sorts of room to spare. A standing ovation followed, a tribute to a fine play.
And more: an all-out Chelsea swarm around D.C. United's net with Nick Rimando dancing on his toes until, oh my, until the home side was saved by the referee's whistle. It was the half.
By then, D.C. United had played well enough that Don Garber, the MLS commissioner, was moved to say that foreign teams are "opening their eyes to our sport in a different way than they have in the past." Effusively, he added that D.C.'s effort in forging the tie, temporary though it would be, "spoke to the power of the sport in this country." A little over the top, perhaps, but, look, it was a very good evening and very good entertainment.
What followed was Freddy's time, as the 16-year-old Adu was freed from the bench for the second half. He would make one pretty move, although his kick from far out did not come close. He was scrappy, bounced to the ground by midfielder Lassana Diarra, but bouncing up. Soon the crowd was chanting "D.C. United, D.C. United."
But, actually, this was Hernan Crespo's time. Crespo is a bit more experienced than Freddy Adu. The esteemed 30-year-old Argentine striker, recently back with Chelsea for a second time after several years in Italy, scored a brilliant goal early in the half, keeping things as they should be in the soccer universe. He made it look easy, extraordinarily easy, running through the D.C. United defense.
Still, it was all fun. Pride and team unity surely are an integral part of international soccer, no matter the circumstances, even in a friendly. No player could pad his stats or his wallet based on last night's game. No, both sides played the way they did, with D.C. United pushing to the very end, only because they cared. It's unusual to see that in professional sports, playing all-out just for the fun of it.
At the end, the crowd stood and applauded. Both Chelsea and D.C. United players applauded the crowd. Peter Nowak, D.C. United's coach, was as pleased as any coach of a losing side could be. "My team did everything right," he said. "We stayed with these guys. This is the team sport. It always was. We had 15-16 guys who really wanted to win this game."
Beautiful night, beautiful game.