DC abuzz over Real Madrid visit
WASHINGTON -- Some of the squad is still aching from Tuesday's CONCACAF Champions League exertions in El Salvador, and another flurry of important games awaits in the days ahead.But this weekend, D.C. United gets to put all that aside and engage in a bit of "fantasy football" as Real Madrid and their star-studded lineup hit town for a friendly match that has become the Washington-area soccer community's must-see event of the summer.Real boast a lavish history of excellence and a visit from one of the planet's most glamorous clubs always constitutes a noteworthy event. But this year Madrid's stunning flood of high-profile signings has prompted massive anticipation around their preseason tour of the United States, as the 31-time champions of Spain parade Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Xabi Alonso and the rest of the spoils from their $360 million-plus summer shopping spree.D.C. is just the second North American destination for the Madridistas, after their Friday 5-1 victory at Toronto FC, as they prepare for the kickoff of the 2009-2010 La Liga campaign on August 30. So despite the fact that Sunday's friendly is United's fifth match in the last two weeks, the Black-and-Red are eager to welcome their illustrious guests in front of a massive crowd at FedEx Field, with ticket sales fast approaching the 70,000 mark."We're real excited to play them," said D.C. head coach Tom Soehn on Friday. "Obviously they have two of the best players in the world coming, Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo, and it's a great opportunity not just for our players but for fans of the sport to come and watch the best."The acquisition of two of the world's most entertaining attackers has given the club's mammoth fan base renewed hope as new coach Manuel Pellegrini looks to wash away last year's trophyless season with a new era of European and domestic success.United goalkeeper Josh Wicks will face the tall task of keeping Madrid's potent strike force at bay on Sunday, and the 25-year-old admits to being thrilled at the opportunity to share the same field with the likes of Iker Casillas, the star netminder who led Spain to the UEFA European championship last summer."To tell you the truth, I can name just about every single one of the players," he said, "though being a goalkeeper, I know I'm looking forward to being opposite Casillas. He's a world-class goalkeeper, something that I aspire to be, and it will be really great to play against him."Fighting back the awe typically triggered by the legendary "White Storm" of Madrid, Wicks and his teammates are approaching the occasion with a spirited attitude as they look to represent well on the international stage. D.C. held their own in a similar meeting with Real Madrid three years ago, drawing 1-1 at Seattle's Qwest Field."I'm definitely going to be challenged," said Wicks. "This will be a good chance for me just to see where my skill level is at, see where my game is, and to showcase my talent if I do play well."Both teams will have to battle a common adversary on Sunday. A heat wave is bearing down on the capital region, and temperatures are expected to rise well above the 90-degree mark with concomitant humidity levels making the mid-afternoon kickoff a sweltering setting for the European tourists."I hope that it affects them a lot more than it does us," joked Soehn. "We're at least used to it -- it'll probably be a first for some of them, playing at 3 o'clock in that heat and humidity."United were mightily tested by CD Luis Angel Firpo in the second leg of the clubs' CONCACAF Champions League qualifying tie on Tuesday night, negotiating 120 minutes of nerve-wracking play before slipping past the Salvadoran outfit in a penalty-kick shootout. Upon their return to Washington, Soehn gave his tired squad a day off and he foresees his charges producing a strong display in front of what is likely to be their largest crowd of the season."Of course it's a real challenge for us," said Soehn. "But this team has always stepped up for these kind of games and handled themselves admirably. I expect us to come out and try to play with them and make sure we give them everything they have."