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Manchester United, Barcelona put on a show for frenzied fans at FedEx

- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 31, 2011

For those doubting the growth of soccer in the United States, look no further than Manchester United's 2-1 victory over Barcelona at FedEx Field on Saturday.

An announced crowd of 81,807 poured into the stadium Saturday night, traveling from all over the country to see a rematch of May's Champions League final. The sellout crowd was the largest in D.C.-area soccer history, drawing nearly 10,000 more fans than D.C. United's friendly against Real Madrid in 2009. The atmosphere alone spoke volumes about how far soccer has come in the U.S.

"It's brilliant," Manchester United fan Michael Cregan said. "I mean, I've been at Old Trafford (United's stadium) many times and for America, [the atmosphere] is probably a 9 out of 10 if I had to rate it."

Cregan drove from his home in Rochester, N.Y., on Friday to catch the action. He and his 6-year-old daughter Maggie were able to attend an open training session after arriving in Washington, and Maggie even got an autograph from her favorite player, Wayne Rooney.

"She's a big Abby Wambach fan, so she wanted to know if Wayne Rooney was better than Abby Wambach," Cregan said with a smile. "I said, 'Well, they're kind of different - one's a woman, one's a man, but they're at the top of their game.'"

Meanwhile, Charles Collier of Birmingham, Ala., compared the match to a Crimson Tide football game at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

"It's more fandom than I expected for two out-of-country teams," he said. "I know from [Alabama] when Alabama scores a touchdown, the stadium erupts. It's weird to see a stadium erupt over [an English] team when most people probably are not from England."

Just like a typical college football game, Saturday's match was practically an all-day event. Many local supporters began the trek from Washington to Landover, Md., at around 3 p.m. to participate in numerous tailgates. Some started drinking even earlier, primarily at bars and pubs downtown.

"We're like a herd of cows all walking the same way," Alexandria native Erik Darm said as he and a sizable group of fans made t-heir way from the Morgan Boulevard Metro station to FedEx Field.

Darm and co-worker Guss Khalik got their tickets through a local D.C. United supporters group. While one is a Bayern Munich fan and the other supports AC Milan, both friends agreed that it didn't matter which team you were cheering for Saturday. The real draws were the championship-caliber teams and fast, technical style of the European game.

"I think that it encourages more people to watch soccer, attend soccer and follow it," Darm said. "I think the potential of games like this exposing the rest of America to top-notch soccer - it's got a lot of potential."

"If they could expand it and spread it out to more cities, I really think it'd go over well," Collier agreed. "Of course, this is a major city, but I think even in a smaller city this would still stand out. These are premier teams."

Most importantly of all, the match between Manchester United and Barcelona brought people of all different age groups, ethnicities and regions together. From the Texan who paid more than $1,000 for his ticket to the Manchester natives who have since moved to the States, it seemed as if everyone had stories of friends who had sacrificed even more than they had. A man who identified himself simply as Steve bought his tickets months ago and traveled from Canada just to see the match.

But there was more to the fandom than that. Darm said that he knew Barcelona fans who woke up as early as 3 a.m. Friday to greet the team at the airport after its arrival. Meanwhile at American University's Reeves Field, a couple of hundred fans spilled into metal bleachers to watch Manchester United participate in an unannounced practice Thursday evening.

It was only one match, but the fanaticism surrounding Saturday's contest may have rivaled that in Europe.

"Over there it's part of life. It's what people grow up with and burn down cities about," Darm said.

"Just look at what happened recently, people were freaking out over football being locked out," Khalik interjected. "Think about if that happened with soccer over in Europe - are you kidding?"

The match gave hope to the notion that soccer slowly is gaining ground in the minds of the American public. A capacity crowd was able to fill FedEx Field, the second-largest stadium in the NFL, without breaking a sweat. Even Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson couldn't help but take notice.

"I thought quite possibly it was 50-50 in terms of the fan base tonight, Barcelona and ourselves. And they all mixed together - it's a fantastic sight to see that," he told reporters after the match. "[It's] refreshing that fans can sit and mingle tonight and create the atmosphere you were talking about."

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