Alumni Stadium at Davidson College has been alive with activity over the past few days, but surrounded by security guards shooing away passersby. That’s because players from Italy’s AC Milan – including striker Mario Balotelli and other stars – used the field Sunday through Tuesday for daily workouts while on a pre-season US tour.
Milan’s training sessions were closed to all but a handful of invited guests, including players and coaches from the Davidson men’s and women’s soccer teams.
Davidson men’s coach Matt Spear was excited about the rare visit, calling it “inspiring” for players and coaches.
“Seeing these world class players, millionaires, players they dream to be, (and) to do it on our pitch, on 1992 Team Field … it has an aura about it. I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it, and watching them. And I’m sure our players will feel the same,” Spear said.
The Italian team was in Charlotte for a big match last Saturday night, which they lost 2-0 to British league power Liverpool. They picked Davidson to camp out for a few days until another pre-season match Wednesday night in Houston, against Mexican club Chivas de Guadalajara.
Spear said Liverpool actually contacted the college first about using the field and athletic facilities during their stay in Charlotte for last week’s International Champions Cup game. Representatives visited two months ago, but ultimately chose a site in Charlotte.
Then AC Milan sent its advance team, and they liked what they saw. “We didn’t actually sign a contract until two weeks ago,” Spear said Monday.
After Saturday night’s game, the Milan squad used the field for a 90-minute workout on Sunday, a 45-minute workout on Monday and a final session Tuesday afternoon. Balotelli and his teammates ran through passing and shooting drills in preparation for Wednesday night’s game in Houston.
It wasn’t the first time Davidson College hosted international teams. In March 2010, Mexico’s national team was based here while they were in Charlotte for a match against Iceland at Bank of America Stadium.
And Major League Soccer club Chivas USA was here in July 2010, playing the semipro Charlotte Eagles at Alumni Field in a tournament.
With the recent World Cup in Brazil still fresh in mind, a growing number of people in the Charlotte region seem to be acquiring a taste for the game.
“The World Cup fever is kicking in for sure,” Spear said. “You’ve got lot of people that are so-so about soccer that are loving it. The TV ratings are through the roof, obviously. … The soccer purists totally get it, but now most of the rest of the country’s getting it as well.
On Saturday night, more than 69,300 people attended the Liverpool-Milan game in Charlotte. And at the University of Michigan Saturday, more than 109,000 watched Manchester United defeat Spanish team Real Madrid.
The increased interest is driving a new enthusiasm for soccer among young players, and for Spear, that’s a good thing.
“The knowledge and the passion, the affinity is certainly better,” Spear said. “The abilities of the players, that’s ongoing.” When you see the game up close and on TV, it certainly inspires and invigorates you.”
Listen to an audio interview with Davidson College soccer coach Matt Spear, about what it meant to have Italian professional team AC Milan practicing at Alumni Field, and how soccer is now reaching an audience well beyond aficionados here.