The Chicago Fire's upcoming match against the Premier League's Manchester United is an important one for a variety of reasons.
It probably is not realistic to think that the Fire will pull off a victory against the bulk of Man U's first-teamers. This is not like last year, where the Kansas City Wizards earned a 2-1 win while several key Red Devils players were away for World Cup duty.
But in terms of soccer culture, the stance of the sport here in the U.S., and perhaps the opportunity to temporarily bridge the gap between the two sides, these are all factors that the Fire should embrace when they host Man U this Saturday in a World Football Challenge match at Soldier Field (4 p.m. ESPN2).
"Obviously it's very exciting to have the opportunity to play one of the best clubs in the world," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "I know that it's a game that our players are looking forward to, and also the fans. This is a great city. I think it's rich in soccer tradition and history."
"It's going to be a good test for us, also mentally," Fire defender Cory Gibbs said. "We're prepared. We just want to put up a good fight, and I think our fans also deserve it."
As of early Friday afternoon, more than 55,000 tickets have been sold for the match.
Man U manager Sir Alex Ferguson's squad is coming off a 7-0 win over Seattle Sounders FC on Wednesday. While the Sounders did post a promising first half that included a 6-0 shots advantage before Man U's first goal, everyone is looking at that end scoreline.
In the public eye, narrowing that gap ultimately determines whether or not the Fire have a successful stint against the Red Devils this weekend. Chicago will need a mistake-free performance simply to give itself a chance in this matchup.
"They're one of the best teams in the world, and they're going to capitalize off of mistakes," Gibbs said. "I've learned that all of my career. Unfortunately, Seattle made several of them and you just have to stay mentally focused and go from there. You just have to be sharp and in tune, and just be ready for the match. I think we're all prepared, and it'll be good to carry this game on for the rest of our season."
Combining an in-season, Eastern Conference-bottom MLS team against a preseason Premier League giant is not the fairest of matchups. But that is all the more reason for the Fire to attempt to piece together one of their best showings of the year. It is important for the Fire to temporarily take away some of the thunder from some Premier League die-hard supporters who have a glazed outlook on MLS and the Fire.
This game represents a small, but vital, piece of the U.S.'s and MLS's continual efforts to establish themselves as a budding soccer locale and league. Man U's famed manager certainly sees the promise, and the Fire have an opportunity to add to the sport's local growth this Saturday.
"We feel strongly that the U.S. is emerging in soccer," Ferguson said. "I think there's genuine improvement in the game. We experienced this last year when we played Philadelphia and Kansas. There's progress in what we see. I think in a few years' time you'll see a massive difference, too."