CHESTER, Pa. — The Cristiano Ronaldo Express has been steamrolling through the US over the past week.
Can it be stopped in Philadelphia when he and Real Madrid take on the Union on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field (9 pm ET, ESPN Deportes) in their third game of the Herbalife World Football Challenge?
The Union aren’t sure what to expect, although they’re certainly well aware of all the things Ronaldo can do.
“I’ve never played against him, so I can’t say what it will be like,” Union central defender Danny Califf said. “He’s a world-class player, so for me, it’s going to be fun to kick it around with him. Kick him around maybe a little bit — if I can catch him.”
Catching the reigning La Liga scoring champion might be hard. In Real Madrid’s first World Football Challenge game, the Portuguese striker had a highlight-reel goal to help the Spanish powerhouse to a 4-1 rout over the LA Galaxy on Saturday. Ronaldo followed that up with a second-half hat trick in Real’s 3-0 win over CD Guadalajara on Wednesday in San Diego.
“The one thing is he’s so unpredictable,” Union manager Peter Nowak said. “He can do so many things on the field. His speed, physicality — you have to be on your toes any time he touches the ball. How to limit him is a different story. Many teams try, many teams fail.”
Of course, the Union can’t worry about only Ronaldo considering Real Madrid brought a loaded team with them to the US that also includes, among other stars, Kaká, Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso.
“It’s not only Cristiano,” said Union goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón, who was given the night off during Philly’s 1-0 win over Everton on Wednesday. “It’s an honor to [host] a club like that and a coach and all the great players they have. You never know when you’ll have the chance to have such a great team with a great coach like Mr. [José] Mourinho back here.”
Perhaps no one on the Union understands what Real Madrid can do better than Veljko Paunović, who played in La Liga as part of crosstown rivals Atlético Madrid for much of his career.
Paunović said he knows Casillas and Ramos personally and is excited to see them on Saturday. He just hopes he’ll be able to get on the field with them; a hip strain has kept the 33-year-old attacking player out of commission since July 2.
“Of course they’re one of the greatest teams in the world,” Paunović said. “For us, it’s an honor to play against them. I expect a full stadium.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.