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Soccer Is Better Than the Field

Times Staff Writer

Their name and their fame preceded them to Los Angeles, none more so than Ronaldinho, who caused camera flashes to sparkle like gold dust in the Coliseum twilight Sunday evening.

For months, soccer fans in the area had talked about the summer visit of FC Barcelona, the defending European and Spanish champion, and its game against Mexican power Chivas de Guadalajara.

A more mouth-watering clash of club teams could hardly be imagined, which is why a sellout crowd of 92,650 showed up at the Coliseum.

That number set two records. It was the largest crowd to watch a club match in the U.S. and the largest soccer crowd ever at the Coliseum, surpassing the 91,585 who turned out to see Mexico play Argentina in 1999.

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The game didn’t quite live up to the billing, but both coaches pronounced themselves satisfied with the 1-1 tie, especially Guadalajara’s Jose Manuel “Chapo” de la Torre, who enjoyed a bizarre day.

De la Torre had to split his Chivas players into two squads. The first played a Mexican league game against Toluca on Sunday morning, losing, 1-0, after which De la Torre had to catch the private jet chartered by team owner Jorge Vergara so that he could make it to Los Angeles in time to coach the other half of his team.

He arrived 15 minutes late, but the trip was worth it, he said.

“I don’t know if anyone has done this before,” he said of coaching two teams in two countries in the same day. “It was quite an experience.”

Barcelona has made five visits to the U.S. since its first tour in 1937, but this was the first trip to Los Angeles.

Given that, it was a pity that the setting did not come close to matching Barcelona’s own state-of-the-art Nou Camp stadium and its immaculate playing surface. The Coliseum was fine, but its playing surface was deplorable.

Don Garber, Major League Soccer’s commissioner, was more than a little angered at the faded, patched-up, uneven field that spoiled not only the nightcap that was televised live back to Spain, but also the MLS game that preceded it.

“I’m furious about the field,” Garber said. “It’s an embarrassment to the city of Los Angeles. It’s disrespectful to the teams we have brought here and to the progress the sport has made in this country.

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“There are lots of places we could have brought this game. It’s not a great day for the Los Angeles Coliseum.”

Matters did not improve when, midway through the second half, two sprinklers came on in Barcelona’s goal area while the game was in progress.

Shortly after this unexpected display, which caused only a brief delay, the goals finally arrived.

Brazil’s Ronaldinho, who played only the second half, created the first, sending a pass through the Guadalajara defense to Eidur Gudjohnsen of Iceland.

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Gudjohnsen, who appeared to be about two yards offside, slammed a shot against the left post, then slotted the rebound into the net past goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez, who earlier had made a fine save on a Ronaldinho shot.

No offside call came from referee Brian Hall, and Gudjohnsen’s 74th-minute goal stood.

Guadalajara tied it up nine minutes later when forward Adolfo Bautista sent a cross in from the right and Diego Martinez leaped to head the ball powerfully past goalkeeper Victor Valdes.

Guadalajara fielded four of the six players it had on Mexico’s World Cup team, the only absentee being defender Carlos Salcido, whose World Cup performance earned him a $4-million move to PSV Eindhoven in the Dutch league.

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Barcelona’s Dutch coach, Frank Rijkaard, made more sparing use of his stars. He started Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o and Mexico’s Rafael Marquez, but kept Argentina’s Javier Saviola and Lionel Messi on the bench, saving them for the next two games on the tour -- against Club America in Houston on Wednesday and against the New York Red Bulls in New Jersey on Saturday.

He also was grateful that the Coliseum visit had not damaged his multimillion-dollar team.

“Obviously, the field wasn’t in great condition,” he said, “but that’s what was available. Thankfully, we didn’t suffer any injuries.”

As for Guadalajara, forward Omar Bravo said: “I would have preferred to play in Toluca today.”

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Goalkeeper Sanchez echoed the sentiment, saying: “We tied, but what was more important was to win in Toluca, and we didn’t get that.”


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