COLUMBUS, Ohio — Exactly 11 years ago Tuesday, Newcastle United played the Crew to a 2-2 draw before 18,212 fans in what is still considered one of the best matches in Crew Stadium history.
Magpies goalkeeper Steve Harper played the second half and allowed the tying goal in the 84th minute to a young Jeff Cunningham, who dribbled through midfield and past the Newcastle defense to nullify a goal by Carl Cort less than 60 seconds earlier.
Harper, entering his 17th season with the club, may get a chance to face Cunningham again Tuesday in Newcastle’s first visit back to Ohio’s capital city. The growth of the sport in the United States since 2000 hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“It seems to have taken a long time, but soccer seems to finally be taking off in MLS, plus the US women’s team did very well in the World Cup,” Harper said. “They probably should have won it. We all watched it.”
Newcastle are among a host of European teams traveling through MLS in order to prepare for their season, which kicks off next month.
“They’ve always been fit and strong, but I think the coaching has improved and the technical ability of the players is much more noticeable,” Harper said. “There’s a lot of skillful players in MLS.”
Newcastle tied Sporting Kansas City 0-0 last week and lost 1-0 Saturday to third-division Orlando City. Because there will be unlimited substitutions for Tuesday’s friendly each team is expected to go through most of their rosters.
For Crew coach Robert Warzycha, who played the full match against Newcastle in 2000, that means using his starters judiciously while still fielding a competitive squad before and after halftime.
“We’re going to have a mixed lineup,” Warzycha said. “I don’t want to see one team stronger than the other one. Perhaps some veterans will be with the young guys. I’d like to play the best lineup against these guys but it’s hard to do. It’s good competition, but we have so many more [MLS] games and some injuries, [so] I’m a little bit afraid, to be honest with you.”
Newcastle manager Alan Pardew expects his side to be sharper in their final US match after enduring excessive heat in Kansas City and Saturday’s match on Field Turf in the Citrus Bowl. Natural grass had been placed on top but was deemed unsafe and had to be hastily removed.
“We were a little bit hot and bothered and tired [in Orlando],” Pardew said after Monday’s practice in Crew Stadium, where 83 degrees felt comfortable. “The pitch, mentally we were pretty unhappy, I think, before we started.
“Coming here, there’s a breeze. The pitch is good, the stadium’s nice so our players will be in a better frame of mind,” he added. “MLS is growing as we’ve seen with the Premier League teams coming over here and having real difficult games.”
It’s a lesson that’s not been lost on Pardew nor his Magpies.
“We’ve found that out,” the Newcastle manager said. “We still haven’t won here so to beat Columbus would be a good result for us because they are one of the stronger MLS teams.”