U.S. summer tours by renowned overseas "superclubs" have a tendency to produce odd contrasts, and Wednesday night's international friendly at RFK Stadium is a model example.
In one corner sits a seven-time European champion and an eternal Italian title contender, a true continental aristocrat with an array of top-class talent on its roster and a name that turns heads around the world. In the other, Major League Soccer's basement dwellers, frustrated and bereft of confidence, a proud side fallen on hard times with only two wins and eight goals to their name in ten total matches this season.
AC Milan are just the sort of tradition-laden outfit D.C. United have always viewed as a role model in their 15 years of existence, but the two clubs presently stand worlds apart, a fact that is not lost on United's players. D.C. right back Jordan Graye could hardly keep a straight face as he contemplated matching up against the Brazilian wizard who usually roams Milan's left flank.
"It's unreal," admitted the rookie defender last week. "I tell my friends: 'Graye vs. Ronaldinho, hahaha.' I just laugh at that because it's pretty funny to think about it."
Mired in a three-game losing streak—and an even longer scoreless slump—United will look to lift their spirits through exposure to a bit of "fantasy football," but recognize the very real danger of being outclassed in front of a bumper crowd on their home turf.
"It'll be fun," said goalkeeper Troy Perkins, who has patrolled the United nets against the likes of Chelsea FC and Real Madrid in the past. "At this point, maybe that's what we need, a little bit of fun, a little bit different environment and atmosphere, all that good stuff. But saying that, we don't want to get embarrassed."
That task might be made a bit easier by Milan's mellow attitude. Having just completed a grinding domestic campaign, the Rossoneri readily admit that they're already contemplating the summer break that this three-game North American tour has deferred and have little to play for besides the delight of their overseas supporters.
"It's not difficult, but of course everyone can understand if the players are already thinking a little bit about being on vacation," French midfielder Mathieu Flamini said with a chuckle. "But I think that's normal. Of course we want to do well, but we want to be also on vacation very soon."
Yet Wednesday night's match will still draw RFK's biggest crowd of the season by some margin, and the veteran Italian side are accustomed to the importance of bearing their colors with pride, even if Ronaldinho and several of Milan's other stars still feel the sting of being left off their country's World Cup rosters. All are waiting to see where they fit into the plans of the successor to recently-deposed manager Leonardo, rumored to be former Cagliari boss Massimiliano Allegri.
"We’re not motivated," said Dutchman Clarence Seedorf, whose good-natured candor was the highlight of his club's brief media session on Monday. "We’re just not motivated, but we are professionals. We’re going to try to entertain the people, that’s the most important thing, and make sure we can get the best out of the game, coming out with no injuries, of course.
"You won't see the best of the best in this game. To do that you need to be in Europe during the season, when everybody's top fit and highly motivated. This is an exhibition game to give the people a chance to see AC Milan up close. The people know exactly what type of players we are and the level of AC Milan normally, but expectations shouldn't be too high."
Such a cavalier approach often treats spectators to a goalfest, but given Milan's quality in all areas, D.C. will still need to produce a much better performance than those shown in recent weeks if the host club are to keep pace.
"I think we can do well," said a bullish Graye, a D.C. native who's been receiving a high volume of ticket requests from friends and family for this week's high-profile clash. "I don't think we're going to get embarrassed out there. I think we're going to do well as a team."