D.C. United stood toe-to-toe with England's best on Thursday night, and walked away with their heads held high despite a 2-1 loss to Premiership champion Chelsea FC.
Playing in front of 31,473 enthusiastic fans at FedEx Field, the cavernous home of the Washington Redskins, United took the game to the London club, controlling possession for long periods. The Black-and-Red grabbed an early lead off a Bobby Boswell header, but saw brief lapses lead to lightning-quick goals from Damian Duff and Hernan Crespo.
"This is what the great teams do," said United head coach Peter Nowak of Chelsea's adept finishing. "They just hang in there, hang in there, hang in there, and if they have a chance, they're going to score and you'll have a result like that. But my team did everything right ... for 90 minutes we stood with these guys."
Nowak also thanked his club's fervent fans, whose cheers and chants would have made the English visitors feel at home.
"My players, for sure, will remember this night for a long time," he said. "I thank all the fans today who showed up at the stadium, on behalf of my team, for the support and the great atmosphere. We're never going to step back, whoever we play."
With Chelsea still in preseason training, United's fitness and game sharpness gave them an advantage over their more illustrious opponents. But the crafty Blues used their energy wisely, pressuring the home side's back line in search of timely turnovers and making the most of their time in the D.C. penalty box.
Winger Josh Gros had the game's first clear chance when 'keeper Petr Cech's kick save of a Jaime Moreno fell invitingly for him, but he was unable to convert -- and afterwards he wryly noted that Chelsea did his side no such favors.
"I blew a big opportunity for us to score," he said, "but when they get those chances, they don't waste them. Obviously, playing a team like that, you can't waste your opportunities."
Nonetheless, the Rutgers grad was enthusiastic about the unique meeting between the best of MLS and the Premier League.
"It was the chance of a lifetime, and I think we had fun and played well," he said.
The match's intensity and atmosphere belied its "friendly" status, and longtime United veteran Ben Olsen ranked it among the marquee moments in his club's 10-year history.
"This was a treat," he said. "It's nice to be at this level, with this type of crowd, this media -- this was a great time tonight.
"I thought we did OK. We didn't embarrass ourselves, and we furthered along MLS, and hopefully we furthered along our name as D.C. United. We've had some great games, we've had some big-time opponents, but as far as star factor, this was as big as it gets."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.