Thursday, 24 July 2008

West Ham United Takes On The World

Toronto is the centre of the sporting world right now as David Beckham and the MLS All-stars, NBA great Steve Nash, elite golfer Mike Weir at Glen Abbey and tennis masters Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the Rogers Cup have all converged on the city. With major broadcasters and leading media outlets following closely in their collective wake, there seems to be a camera crew or press photographer at every turn - with autograph hunters not far behind. As West Ham United fans roll in to town to take place among an expected capacity crowd at the BMO Field, there is already plenty of excitement ahead of tonight's kick-off. "We have heard about the [passion of the] Toronto fans and we saw a bit of it yesterday so we are looking forward to it," explained Alan Curbishley. "Our fans get behind the team as well so we are looking forward to it. No matter how many games you play and how experienced you are this is a new experience for us. We have really enjoyed the week so far and would like to finish it with a result against the MLS."

Curbishley and the players are certainly relishing the spotlight. Having had an afternoon off on Tuesday to take in some of the sporting sights, along with a trip to Niagara Falls and even an Eagles concert, the squad are now ready to become the main attraction themselves. "Ever since the game was programmed in, the feedback has been wait until you get to Toronto....," said the manager. "It is a sporting city and we have found that out in the last couple of days with so many events going on. The atmosphere around the city at the moment is second to none."

Away from the media glare the team has been hard at work as the 22 players and coaching team, including Tony Carr and his academy staff, have reportedly been "getting down to business" in the Canadian city. Monday afternoon saw a first work-out at the BMO Field, while on Tuesday morning everyone decamped to Ontario Soccer Centre for a more extensive workout. Luis Boa Morte and Matthew Etherington both stepped up their sessions as they look for a first pre-season appearance, while the club's strengthening and conditioning coaches have also been busy with supplementary gym sessions to complement the work out on the training pitches.

Lucas Neill said: "We are here for hard work and we have to look at the bigger picture. We have a season to be preparing for. We worked hard on Tuesday and on Wednesday worked harder than we normally would leading up to a big game. Today we will have the day off waiting for the game. We are all really excited. It is the biggest and best players in America and we are getting to take them on in what is a really well promoted event. We are just privileged to be part of it." Speaking on the official site, Neill added: "It will be great to test ourselves so early in the pre-season with a sold-out crowd against all the best players in North America live on TV to millions all over the world. What more could you ask for? It is the kind of game that excites every player. We have got the nucleus of the team that we wanted to play last year and it never happened. With Scott Parker, Julien Faubert and Craig Bellamy back the pace and the threat is there. These guys are starting to look fit and sharp and with three or four more weekends to go before the first game I am really excited about what could possibly be a very good season."

With the news from back home that Kieron Dyer has returned to full training, George McCartney has agreed a new five-year contract and Valon Behrami has finally signed after weeks of speculation, the players in Toronto are now in upbeat mood for the challenge ahead. Neill revealed: "We are really delighted to be here and the football exposure we are going to get is great. We didn't realise how many West Ham fans there are over here which is pleasing and obviously Major League Soccer is trying to take off. You can see it is working by the crowds coming out to see us. There is a lot of work to do but the more times high-profile teams from England and all over the world come and play the bigger soccer is going to get."

The skipper has led the way with players signing autographs and posing for pictures after each session. It has been open to the media all week and Neill was joined by Anton Ferdinand, Scott Parker and Dean Ashton in talking to broadcasters and press from the US and Mexico, as well as Canada. Ashton, in particular, believes Major League Soccer is ready to go from strength to strength with the Beckham factor a huge plus for the game in North America. "David Beckham coming over here has made the MLS a lot bigger in England so everyone is talking about it and younger players want to come over now," stated the United striker. "It is a great lifestyle and the football is getting better and better all the time. The feedback from all the players back to England is that it is an upcoming league and somewhere to be." When asked if he felt the notion of an All-Star game was an idea that could catch on back in England given the rivalries between teams, he added: "I can't see why something like that can't be good over in England. I think it is a great event and we are definitely all looking forward to it. I don't see why not, it is a great concept - especially for all the fans to see all their best players together in one team. I don't see why not but whether it will happen is another matter."

After finishing working out with his teammates yesterday in rainy conditions that one British reporter quipped "must have reminded him of his days back in England," David Beckham entered the interview room clogged with reporters, cameras and microphones in reflective mood. The England international and Los Angeles Galaxy captain was born and raised in East London and, although growing up a fan of Manchester United, many of his friends and neighbours were Hammers fanatics. For Beckham, the prospect of facing West Ham United inevitably brings back a lot of memories. "It’s great, being an East End boy, playing against West Ham so many times for Manchester United, and also scoring against West Ham, which didn’t go down well with a few friends," he confessed. "It’s always nice to play against a quality team. They’re a team that’s got some good players, they’re working toward the start of the Premiership. Of course, it’s great to play against good opposition and it will be a tough game. We’re looking forward to that. You always want to play against good players and good teams and we’re up against that.”

Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan has enjoyed an amazing first half to the season in which he’s scored 12 goals and added seven assists in just 14 games played. The U.S. international stole a point for Los Angeles last weekend with a late goal and has been the subject of transfer rumors to England during the build up to this game. He expects Beckham will have plenty to play for against West Ham United. "My guess is he’s going to take it very seriously," Donovan said. "He usually does. He knows that this league is better than people give it credit for, especially in England." Beckham’s teammates are just as eager to prove their league’s superiority. "You want to show how good the players are in this league and how good the standard is," said Toronto FC defender Jim Brennan, the lone All-Star representative for the host team.

Knee and ankle injuries limited Beckham to just five league games for the Galaxy last season. He’s scored five goals in 11 league appearances this season, and believes the standard of play has been improving. "It’s a higher level than everyone thinks" Beckham said. "I realized that when I came here, because I had a lot of time, especially last season, to just sit and watch the games. Especially this year, the level of play has increased." According to MLS commissioner Don Gerber, attendance is up 1%, ESPN viewership 20% and Univision ratings 10% from this point a year ago- just about the time Beckham came into the league. "Since I've been here, a couple of new stadiums have gone up, attendance has gone up and the level of play has gone up," Beckham said. "It's a higher level than many thought."

Conscious he is carrying the weight of a league on his shoulders, Beckham appears ready to embrace the challenge. "It would have been nice to go up and see Federer (play) but we have a big game to prepare for," he revealed, effortlessly stoking up the MLS PR machine. "The fans are a big part of MLS, especially in Toronto," he said. "The fans in Toronto give their team great support. They are special." The Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder was slated to make his MLS regular season debut in the Ontario capital last year, but an ankle injury prevented the former England captain from taking to the field. Earlier this season, Beckham missed the Galaxy's visit to Toronto because he was away on national team duty, but he will line up alongside the league's best players against West Ham United. "I want to be involved in the league as much as possible and I think the all-star game is great. It's great for the league and I'm really looking forward to it," the Englishman enthused.

Of course, Beckham isn't the only top star in town. Tonight's game will have a distinctive Canadian flavour thanks to the presence of Toronto FC defender Jim Brennan (a Toronto native), and midfielder Dwayne De Rosario (from Scarborough, Ont.) and goalkeeper Pat Onstad (from Vancouver) of the Houston Dynamo. The Canadians have already seen action this week — Brennan in a Canadian Champions league contest on Tuesday, De Roario and Onstad in a regular-season contest on Wednesday — which means they don't come into the all-star game fresh and rested. Still, all-star coach Steve Nicol guaranteed they would all play against West Ham. "Certainly, the three of them are going to see action at some stage of the game, you can be sure of that." Brennan called it "a privilege" to be selected and said he couldn't pick a better place to play in his first all-star game than his hometown. "It carries special meaning for me representing the home team in our own stadium," said the defender. "I know the crowd is going to be fantastic, so I'm really looking forward to it."

Onstad's only previous all-star appearance came in 2004, and the veteran goalkeeper is glad to be back because it's affirmation that he's still at the top of his game. "I take a great deal of pride in being named to the team, especially as the oldest player in the league," said Onstad, who turned 40 this past January. "And of course, I think it's great that the game will have a healthy dose of Canadian representation," added the veteran shot-stopper. As for De Rosario, this year will mark his third consecutive all-star appearance, but the 30-year-old is especially looking forward to representing Canada in one of the league's marquee games on Canadian soil. "It's definitely an honour to be named to the team, definitely a thrill, and definitely a highlight of my career," admitted De Rosario. "I grew up just outside of Toronto, so be to be able to come back to my hometown and play in front of my family and friends in such an important game, it's something I've dreamed about."

The MLS All-Stars beat Mexico’s Guadalajara 3-1 in 2003 and defeated Celtic 2-0 last summer. In the intervening years they routed Fulham 4-1 and edged past Chelsea the following year with the only goal of a competitive encounter. Kansas City Wizards defender Jimmy Conrad hopes they can extend the winning streak. "We're excited to showcase what the MLS is all about, and these last three years we've done it — Chelsea, Celtic, Fulham, those are all good clubs, and to be able to go out there and compete, we take it very seriously," said Conrad, a veteran of four all-star games. Alan Curbishley certainly isn't taking the game lightly. "We looked into it and we know it's a big event for everyone connected with the MLS," he said. "We do realize it's a game everybody looks forward to, and we're looking forward to it as well." The view from the US side is that United will not offer as stiff a test as the one provided by Chelsea, but should be stronger than the Fulham side so decimated three years ago.

You can watch a brief preview of tonight's game here.

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