Stage set for Fire-A.C. Milan match

Foreign competition is not new to the Chicago Fire. The Men in Red have posted a successful 10-5-1 record against clubs such as Germany's Hamburg SV (5-1 in 2001), Poland's Legia Warsaw (3-2 in 1999), England's Derby County (1-0 in 2001) and Mexico's Pumas (1-0 in 1998).

But while the majority of the league steps aside this week in preparation for Saturday's Sierra Mist MLS All-Star Game, the Fire will play host to six-time European champion A.C. Milan on Wednesday night at Soldier Field (8 p.m. CT).

The match represents the Fire's highest profile international exhibition in their eight-year history.

"Our guys are looking forward to measuring themselves against, arguably, one of the great clubs of the world," said Fire head coach Dave Sarachan.

"The exhibition also excites me. Whether you are a coach or a player we are all fans of the game and fans of the game hold a lot of respect for clubs like Milan. An opportunity to be involved in something like this does not come around very often," said the Fire boss.

The throngs of rabid Milan fans worldwide also have reason to highly anticipate Wednesday night's match.

Milan signed 23-year-old striker Alberto Gilardino last week by way of a $30 million transfer fee to AC Parma, and Gilardino will make his rossoneri debut against the Fire.

Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti didn't mince words when setting out his expectations for his new young player.

"I expect a lot of goals. He's a young player with a lot of abilities and represents the future of AC Milan," he said.

MLS isn't entirely foreign to Milan.

Veteran defender Alessandro Costacurta, affectionately nicknamed "Billy" for his love of U.S. Western-style movies, is Milan's resident expert on U.S. soccer having trained with the MetroStars during the summer of 2002.

"When I trained with the MetroStars, I saw the level of play in this country firsthand. I saw all of the kids playing in the park. I now see the FIFA World Rankings and know that the United States is ranked sixth, many places ahead of Italy, so United States soccer has arrived," said the 19-year Milan veteran.

Costacurta was also in tune about Wednesday's opponent.

"I know the Fire is among the top teams in the league and that they lost 4-1 this past Saturday. I think the Fire lost because they were looking ahead to us," he said. "I think they are going to be ready for us."

Sarachan hopes so.

"The timing of this game is good for us, right before the break. We can concentrate on getting ready for Milan," he said.

Will the Fire coach need to watch game tape to prepare his team? Doubtful.

"I know Milan. I've always admired Milan as far back as when they had [Franco] Baresi and all the way through the years. We feel like we know what they can bring," said Sarachan.

Milan's fire may have been stoked on Monday. A media member told Ancelotti that Chicago soccer fans were treated to an excellent exhibition involving Real Madrid and Chivas de Guadalajara a few weeks prior.

"If Real Madrid came here and put on a good show, we want to put on a better show. We want to show our soccer to the people," quipped the Milan boss.

Ivaldo Basso is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.

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