ST. LOUIS – Two of the most powerful and prestigious soccer clubs in the world will kick-off a two-game exhibition series when they take the field to battle it out at Busch Stadium on Thursday night.
It will be the first non-baseball event at the stadium since its inception in 2006.
The Cardinals anticipate standing-room attendance of about 46,000 for Thursday night’s match and a two-day conversion process got the seal of approval from the Chelsea groundskeeper. The second game is Saturday at Yankee Stadium.
Attendance was announced as 10,259 with fans paying $20 for the practice session followed by a concert by Cracker and fireworks display in a nearly empty stadium.
Mata and Ivanovic, the only players made available to reporters, promised they’d be playing to win and took note of hundreds of fans who showed up in team regalia. Three hours before the practice, fans lined up 20 deep to pose with Chelsea’s Europa championship trophy.
“It’s a huge stadium, it’s a pleasure for us to play here and we are expecting a great atmosphere,” Mata said. “All we can do is try to do our best.”
If there were complaints about the extended season, they kept them to themselves.
“We’ll have our rest in the summer,” Mata said. “Now it’s time to enjoy it here in the States, try to enjoy these two friendly games.”
They had limited knowledge of the Cardinals, who have the best record in the National League. Chelsea is using the visitor’s clubhouse.
“The Cardinals, yeah they’re famous,” Mata said. “But I don’t follow too much the sport.”
Manchester City arrives on game day Thursday set for changes. Roberto Mancini was fired one season after winning the English league title, and it has been reported Malaga coach Manuel Pellegrini has been lined up as a replacement.
The Busch Stadium soccer layout is just shy of FIFA dimensions. Sod covering the pitcher’s mound, which was taken out with a back hoe, and the infield dirt, stripped with a machine that mimics a wood planer, was a lighter shade of green.
Seams appeared evident at ground level, but Joe Abernathy, director of stadium operations, said Chelsea had no complaints.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in the makeover was dealing with a quagmire of mud in the infield after a 10-foot stretch of tarpaulin ripped open during violent storms Monday night.
Chelsea worked out Tuesday at Saint Louis University as the team watched. The Billikens, whose uniforms are the same shade of blue as Chelsea, toured the field and posed for a group photo while sporting a Chelsea flag.
The game will start at 7:30 p.m., but fans can enjoy a pep rally at Kiener Plaza beginning at 4 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.