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Soccer fans ready to welcome their brand of football to M&T Bank Stadium

More than 40,000 expected for Saturday's exhibition between English clubs Liverpool and Tottenham

By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

5:35 PM EDT, July 27, 2012

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M&T Bank Stadium has been transformed again this week, to accommodate another kind of football team and fan.

While the Ravens are getting ready for their season in relative seclusion in Owings Mills, two English Premier League soccer teams will be taking over their stadium Saturday when Tottenham Hotspur takes on Liverpool in a 1 p.m. preseason match.

Tickets are still available, but Ravens officials are pleased with what they expect to be a crowd of more than 40,000. That would make it the second-largest crowd among more than a dozen friendlies so far in the U.S. this summer involving at least one international team.

While Tottenham and Liverpool might not be as big a draw as Chelsea and AC Milan, teams that attracted a sellout crowd of over 71,000 here in 2009, more tickets have been sold for Saturday's match than the 37,000 who came two years ago to watch Manchester City and Inter Milan.

"We're expecting a crowd somewhere in the range of 45,000," Ravens president Dick Cass said Friday. "These are two really good teams. Liverpool has a long history and Tottenham has a good history and they had a very successful season. They don't have the following in this country that some teams do, but these are good teams."

Both teams have enough of a following in the U.S. that hundreds of fans came Friday to watch them practice.

"I think Liverpool probably has a little more cache than Tottenham, but it certainly helps that Under Armour is now affiliated with Tottenham," said Jeremy Mullentore, a software engineer who lives in Catonsville. "I didn't have a team when I started watching soccer, but Tottenham had an open, flowing exciting style that attracts the neutral fan."

That's what hooked Mullentore to become a Spurs fan about seven years ago. Two years ago, he traveled to New Jersey to see Tottenham play Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls. He also tried to see his favorite team play on its home ground, White Hart Lane in North London, but a conflict with the FA Cup tournament (pitting teams throughout England) canceled the match Mulletore was scheduled to see.

The same thing happened to Daniel Gaj of Crofton when he and his brother went over to England to see some matches last year. Gaj, who plays soccer at Dickinson (Pa.) College, came Friday with his father Steve to watch the Spurs go through a 90-minute practice under their new coach, Andres Villas-Boas.

Gaj, who started to follow Tottenham four years ago because of right wing Aaron Lennon, seemed mesmerized seeing Lennon and the Spurs train close-up.

"It's pretty cool," he said.

Brad Friedel, Tottenham's American-born, 40-year-old goalkeeper, has seen the sport grow not only in the level of performance by U.S. players now competing internationally, but also by how knowledgeable the fans seem to be on these summer tours.

It's one thing in Los Angeles, where England's David Beckham has played for five years, or in the New York area, where France's Tierry Henry joined the Red Bulls three years ago. But the Spurs were greeted Friday — in a city that doesn't have an MLS team — with some of the songs and chants they hear at White Hart Lane.

"It's grown immensely," Friedel said Friday. "Whenever I come back, even when I come back on vacation, if we're going through an airport, people recognize you now where many moons ago nobody knew who a soccer player was in the United States. It's come on leaps and bounds from where I started."

Norb Moore of Toronto has been a Liverpool fan long before Friedel played there in the late 1990s. His father emigrated from England, where he had been a fan of "The Reds". The younger Moore started going to games when he was 9 and has been to nearly 30, including all three on the team's current U.S. tour.

"We went over [to England] for a family holiday and he took me to a game and I was hooked right there," Moore said as he watched the team practice Friday with some friends from Toronto.

Moore likes the idea of seeing Liverpool play another English Premier League team.

"This is the big game we're looking for," Moore said. "It's a good kind of litmus test to see how prepared we are for the season. The previous games we've seen a lot of new faces and the guys coming up from the reserves. Now I think we're going to see more tactical play from our new manager [Brendan Rodgers]."

Nathan Athay thinks about his team every time he gets dressed in the morning. Athay, who also came down from Toronto for Saturday's game, had Liverpool's insignia tatooed into his left bicep when the team last won the Champions League in 2004-05.

Though the team is now owned by the same group that owns the Boston Red Sox, being a Liverpool fan these days is more akin to being an Orioles fan. Once a English Premier League power, Liverpool finished seventh and eighth the past two seasons in the 20-team league.

"It's never easy," Athay said.

Athay, who bears a striking resemblance to English comedian Ricky Gervais, then smiled.

"It's an abusive relationship," he said.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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