COLUMBUS, Ohio – Chris Birchall is still amazed how it came about that he would be playing for the Columbus Crew against the biggest rival from his hometown.
Birchall was out of contract after three seasons with the LA Galaxy – with whom he won MLS Cup 2011 – when he went shopping for another MLS club. He was training with his former club Port Vale in Burslem, one of six towns that comprise the city of Stoke-on-Trent, England, when he signed with the Crew on May 7.
It came as a surprise to him a few days later when Columbus announced the friendly against Premiership side Stoke City that will be played Tuesday in Crew Stadium (7:30 pm ET, streamed live at thecrew.com).
“Stoke City and Port Vale are the two teams in that city,” Birchall told MLSsoccer.com. “I grew up there. Stoke is my hometown. My address is Stoke. All my best friends play for Stoke. It’s a bizarre thing that happened. I couldn’t believe it. Of all the teams that we’re playing, we’re playing them.”
Birchall, 28, played for Port Vale from 2001-06 but never faced Stoke City. The last meeting of the “Potteries Derby” was in 2002 in lower-division play before relegation and promotion among the clubs made scheduling impractical. Port Vale are now in the fourth division.
The naturalized Trinidadian international did face Stoke City twice in the second-division Championship while he was with Coventry City.
“I can say I got a lot of abuse when I went to the Britannia [Stadium],” Birchall said of Stoke’s home ground. “That’s normal as an ex-Port Vale player. Growing up, I was not really a fan [of Stoke], especially back in the day the rivalry was more intense and there was a lot of trouble between the two fans.”
Past differences have been put aside and Birchall is friends with about half of the Stoke roster, including defender Andy Wilkinson, who was his best man at his wedding last month.
As much as Birchall wants to go against Stoke City, he knows with a match on Saturday at Sporting Kansas City, there’s a chance he won’t.
“I’ll be telling the gaffer I really want to play in that one,” he said of facing his hometown side.
“It’s a game I’m looking forward to,” he continued, “but at the end of the day, it’s just a friendly. We’ve got more important games, the league games trying to get ourselves into the playoffs.”