Thursday, February 22, 2018
Sports

Even without Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid a challenge for MLS All-Stars

CHICAGO — The greatest spectacle in soccer rolled into Chicago and even without its biggest attraction it still has managed to draw the eyes of the sport to the lakefront.

Real Madrid, the two-time defending European champions and arguably the most popular soccer team in the world, will face off against the MLS All-Stars on Wednesday night at Soldier Field (9, Fox Sports 1) and its presence has drawn a buzz among soccer fanatics.

At each previous stop of a four-game preseason slate that has had them play in the Los Angeles and Miami areas, crowds have flocked to see the team FIFA named the "Club of the Century" for the 20th century.

Chicago will be no exception as Wednesday's game is officially a sellout with more than 61,000 expected to attend. Even Real Madrid's workouts have drawn crowds, including hundreds who watched the team scrimmage and do drills Tuesday at Soldier Field.

"Everywhere we go in the USA or China or Madrid or Europe the fans are crazy," midfielder Toni Kroos said. "They are so happy to see us, to watch our training or our games. If you see that then you know that you are maybe at the biggest level in the world. There's no other club like this."

Real Madrid will take the field without reigning FIFA player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo and while that will strip the match of some off its luster — think about going to see the Rolling Stones without lead singer Mick Jagger — there are plenty of other top players on the team for fans to watch soccer at its top level.

"Real Madrid has had amazing success to win the championship twice in a row," Fire midfielder and MLS captain Bastian Schweinsteiger said. "Ronaldo is obviously one of the best players in the world but they have a lot of (top) players so we (All-Stars) really have to focus on our game to control their key players."

Those key players include Kroos, Gareth Bale, Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Isco and Luka Modric, among others. Their participation — and a formidable midfield that is among the best in the world — will help offset the absence of Ronaldo, who is on an extended break and not expected to join Real Madrid until the La Liga season opener this weekend.

"(Ronaldo) is taking advantage of his off time," Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. "He's going to be with us (Saturday)."

The MLS All-Stars, including the Fire's Schweinsteiger, Johan Kappelhof, Dax McCarty and Nemanja Nikolic, know they have a difficult task ahead of them in facing Real Madrid.

"Even if Cristiano isn't here they have enough talent on that team not only to give us a spectacle but give us a very competitive game," Fire and MLS All-Star coach Veljko Paunovic said. "All our guys, when they see Real Madrid jerseys, no matter who are wearing them the guys will be happy to play and give their best."

Added Michael Bradley, a midfielder for Toronto FC: "There is no better opponent than Real Madrid. We want to make it a special night for (everybody watching). We want to be sharp, we want to own the night and represent ourselves and the league in a good way. Everybody will remember and understand that it's a friendly game but when you step on the field you play to win and play to be sharp."

In addition to capturing the La Liga championship, Real Madrid also won the UEFA Champions League, the UEFA Supercup and the FIFA Club World Cup last season.

"You want to win the game 100 percent," Schweinsteiger said. "I don't like to lose even friendly matches. When you play against Real Madrid . you want to win against the best team in Europe."

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