Manchester United to play Fire at Soldier Field

It's still a few months away, but Fire players and coaches already are looking forward to playing Manchester United at Soldier Field.

The Fire will host the famed English Premier League club on the lakefront July 23 as part of the World Football Challenge.

“For us it's exciting, no?” Fire coach Carlos de los Cobos said. “It's a great opportunity for the players to enjoy this game against one of the best teams in the world. For us it's a privilege to play against this team, and for the players I think everybody is excited for this opportunity.”

“You dream of playing at that level and playing guys of that caliber,” second-year goalkeeper Sean Johnson said. “I think it's only going to make us better, at the end of the day, and it's going to be good for soccer in our country as well.”

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said via teleconference he expects the games against MLS teams to be very good.

“There's been vast improvement in the standard of soccer in the United States,” he said. “MLS has proved a very, very competitive league now.”

Manchester United trained at Toyota Park last summer before starting its four-stop tour that included the MLS All-Star Game. Manchester United also will play Barcelona at FedEx Field outside Washington, D.C., the New England Revolution and Seattle Sounders, as well as this year's MLS All-Star Game July 27 at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey.

As Ferguson remembers, there are many Manchester United fans in the Chicago area, and he expects a good turnout at Soldier Field.

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” he said. “I'm sure of that.”

The Fire hopes those fans learn to appreciate the local club as much as they do their heroes across the Atlantic.

“Bringing United to Chicago helps the Fire continue to expand our reach in one of North America's premier soccer markets,” said Fire owner Andrew Hauptman in a club statement. “Our participation in the World Football Challenge gives our players an opportunity to take on one of the most talented clubs on the planet, while galvanizing Chicago's vast soccer community.”

Playing at Shea:

The Fire opens U.S. Open Cup play Wednesday night when it hosts defending MLS Cup champion Colorado Rapids at Bradley University's Shea Stadium in Peoria.

Fire coach Carlos de los Cobos said he expects to play his first team.

“Our intention is to try to win the game,” de los Cobos said after training Tuesday before getting on the team bus for Peoria. “The last season we had a bad presentation in this tournament, and we need to try to do good things this year. If everybody is healthy I'll try to play with our team.”

Bratislav Ristic remains out for the game, and central defender Josip Mikulic also has a quadriceps injury that could cause him to sit out.

“I have options,” de los Cobos said. “I have (Dasan) Robinson, I have Yamith Cuesta. We have guys. ... If Josip's not ready to play, any one of these two guys could take his place.”

The forgotten man:

One defender Carlos de los Cobos didn't mention as a substitute for Josip Mikulic is second-year player Kwame Watson-Siriboe. Watson-Siriboe appeared in 10 matches his rookie year, starting seven, but he's been left out of the list of 18 players available for selection for both MLS games so far this year, and he wasn't on the team bus to Peoria.

“Kwame, first of all, is very professional,” de los Cobos said. “He's a very good guy. He's improving, he's improving. Some players need more time to mature, but he is working hard.”

“I'm doing fine. People might not realize it but it's only my second year being a professional,” Watson-Siriboe said. “I have a lot to learn, and coming in day in and day out and learning from World Cup vets such as Cory Gibbs, also Josip (Mikulic), who's played overseas, it's good. I can learn from them, continue to grow as a player and hopefully in the future I become a starter here.”

The keeper:

Goalkeeper Sean Johnson is happy with his improvement from his rookie season, but as always with him, he's focused on improving.

“I have a ways to go,” Johnson said. “I'm doing my best and working my hardest to get to that level of consistency where I want to be, but for now it's good. We're coming out with results, and there's only one way to go and that's up, and I think that's a positive for myself and the team as well.”

Johnson said he's reading the game better this season.

“Just being able to see things before they happen, a little bit earlier, making decisions quicker and getting my defense set up quickly in certain situations before they happen is huge,” he said. “And definitely from last year I can see myself being more comfortable with those situations.”

Chicago Fire game day

Sir Alex Ferguson, manager of England’s Manchester United, addresses the media at Red Bull Arena on Tuesday after it was announced that Manchester United will play the Chicago Fire, New England Revolution, Seattle Sounders and the MLS All-Stars as part of its preseason tour of the United States this summer. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) Associated Press
Sir Alex Ferguson, center, manager of England’s Manchester United, shakes hands with MLS commissioner Don Garber as New York Red Bulls soccer player Thierry Henry looks on at Red Bull Arena on Tuesdayin Harrison, N.J. Manchester United will play Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire, New England Revolution, Seattle Sounders and the MLS All-Stars as part of its preseason tour of the United States this summer. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) Associated Press
Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez, back, controls the ball in front of former Fire player Wilman Conde during last summer’s MLS All-Star soccer game, which Manchester United won 5-2. The Fire will host the Red Devils at Soldier Field on July 23 as part of a World Football Challenge tour. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) Associated Press