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Fire Mon Jul 25 2011

Fire Take It On the Chin From Manchester United

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for fire crest.jpgWith MLS teams taking their all-star break and European teams getting ready for their fall seasons, the opportunity has been there in recent years for mid-summer friendlies between the American squads and their world-class foreign counterparts.

Clubs such as Real Madrid, Manchester United and Everton get to make some good money playing two or four games in the United States, furthering their brand in a very unsaturated soccer market, and get some preseason minutes for their players, while MLS clubs also enjoy much-higher-than-average ticket sales and the chance to rate their team against some of the best in the world.

Thus it was that the Chicago Fire fell to Manchester United 3-1 on Saturday at Soldier Field, despite taking an early lead off the head of Cory Gibbs. Three second-half goals by substitutes Wayne Rooney, Rafael and Nani put last year's Premier League champions on top rather easily.

The Fire started essentially their best 11, with bench players coming on at various points in the second half. United, however, took the opposite approach, saving several of their starters for the second half. The difference in skill was readily apparent, and despite their best efforts, it was clear that Chicago's starters were only marginally better than United's second team.

And then when the big guns came in, the difference was incredible.

MLS has some very good players, and even its average player is surely in the top 5 percent in the world. But a club such as Manchester United truly has a few of the very best in the world, and though the difference between levels of professional soccer might not seem large on paper, on the field there truly is a very clear line.

As fans of the game and the Fire, it's best just to enjoy the display and not take it too personally that Chicago couldn't keep it closer. But if you must find something to hang your hat on, here are a few good notes from the game to keep in mind:

• The game set a Chicago Fire record with 61,308 tickets sold. That's just another day at the office for Man U.

• Sebastian Grazzini, a recent Fire addition, got his first minutes, coming on in the 62nd minute. His play was mixed, perhaps what you'd expect from a new player still trying to get match-fit and acclimated to his teammates. Not easy even under the best circumstances, and certainly not under the pressure of an opponent like United.

• One feel-good story from the game was the chance that Pari Pantazopoulos enjoyed. The young Greek was a surprise this past winter, winning an open tryout the Fire held and then managing to earn a roster spot after preseason training. It's not a totally out-of-the-blue story, as he's played professionally in Greece and Cyprus, but it's definitely a long-shot for a 22 year-old kid to go from being unsigned to marking up against Wayne Rooney in a matter of months.

• The Fire have 10 days off until an Aug. 3 home game against the Philadelphia Union, which took a respectable, 2-1 loss to Real Madrid on Saturday. Here's hoping some of the local excitement from Manchester United's visit carries over to the rest of the MLS regular season.

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