Stoke City are not just expecting a tough challenge when they face the Dynamo in the BBVA Compass Charities Cup tonight – they are hoping for one.
The English Premier League side trained at BBVA Compass Stadium on Tuesday in their first taste of Houston’s heat. With the Dynamo in mid-season and at home, Stoke are anticipating a true test that will be a useful learning experience for new manager Mark Hughes.
“We’ve had a fantastic welcome in the short time that we’ve been here,” said Hughes on Tuesday. “Everything is in place for an outstanding game of football. We’re looking forward to a very competitive match ... The games that we have in the U.S. are vitally important in terms of our preparation for the coming season.”
With less than a month to go before the English Premier League season kicks off, Stoke landed in Houston on Monday for the opening leg of a three-match U.S. tour that also sees them face FC Dallas and the Philadelphia Union. Wednesday’s match at BBVA Compass Stadium kicks off at 8 p.m. (TICKETS) and Hughes thinks fixtures pitting America’s best against Europe’s elite will become increasingly common.
“MLS is viewed very much as a league that is growing and getting stronger year on year. I think the quality of the players that they now have and produce is very commendable, I think it’s going to grow,” said Hughes. “I think you’ll find more top teams from Europe will come over and test themselves against MLS teams because they have the required standard now.”
After being given time off following his summer exploits with the U.S. national side, Geoff Cameron has only been back in training for about a week. But Hughes likes what he sees from the versatile former Dynamo stand-out, who swapped Texas for England last year.
“He’s a big character and I like that trait in him ... he’s a good player, a good person as well and he adds positive energy to the group,” he said. The manager suggested he is willing to try him out at center back – one of Cameron’s favorite roles. “I’ll be looking [on Wednesday] to play Geoff in a number of positions that I feel he’s accomplished at,” he said. “Maybe [right back is] where he still ends up but I need to get a better understanding of his capabilities in other positions as well.”
Cameron is eagerly anticipating tonight’s reunion with Dynamo players, staff and fans. “It’s good to be back, Houston’s my home away from home. I spent four-and-a-half years here and they were great,” he said. “It’ll be an awkward feeling going out wearing a different jersey but I’ll enjoy it.”
This is the fifth edition of the BBVA Compass Dynamo Charities Cup, the annual match which pits Houston against leading international clubs with a portion of the proceeds going to good causes - this year, the Building a Better Houston initiative that aims to make improvements in the East End.
Dynamo president Chris Canetti said at a media conference on Tuesday that the Cup was created to give a deeper significance to the exhibition games the club, like many MLS franchises, plays every year. Stoke are the second Premier League team to take part, following Bolton Wanderers' 2-0 win in 2011. Last year, the Dynamo lost 2-1 to Valencia of Spain in front of a full house at BBVA Compass Stadium.
“We’ve played some great teams over the years, some great personalities and individuals. Stoke over the years have been very strong and I’d expect no less [on Wednesday],” said Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnear, who will have to juggle his line-up with Saturday’s home MLS fixture against the Chicago Fire looming.
Stoke are one of the most storied names in British soccer for two key reasons: their long history and the astonishing career of the club's greatest-ever player. Nicknamed “The Potters” thanks to the region’s pottery industry, they predate the creation of England’s Football League by 25 years, having been founded in 1863 by railroad workers.
And there are few local heroes anywhere to compare with Sir Stanley Matthews. The "Wizard of Dribble" had a 35-year career with England, Stoke and Blackpool, retiring in 1965 aged 50. Even then, he felt he had quit too soon. After his death in 2000, his ashes were buried underneath the center circle at the Britannia Stadium, the club's 28,000-capacity arena that opened in 1997.
After years of struggle, Stoke finally won promotion back to the top division in 2008 amid jubilant scenes to end a 23-year absence. Unlike so many other new arrivals in the Premier League, they have succeeded in sticking around for the long term in world soccer's richest domestic tournament, underlining their ambition by spending heavily in the transfer market.
Stoke were remarkably consistent under Tony Pulis's management – between 42 and 47 points in each of the past five seasons, good for a high finish of 11th in 2009-10 and a low of 14th in 2011-12. They reached the FA Cup Final in 2011 and lost 1-0 to Manchester City, but taking part qualified them to play in the UEFA Europa League the following year.
The roster includes three Americans: Brek Shea, Cameron and Maurice Edu, though Shea is on Gold Cup duty with the U.S. team. Internationally, the best-known player is Peter Crouch. The 6 feet, 7 inches former Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur striker has commanded more than $60 million in transfer fees during his career.
“The facilities are always good [in the U.S.], beautiful stadium, pitch looks in good condition as well so all in all it’ll be a good test for us,” Crouch told HoustonDynamo.com after training on Tuesday.
He has claimed 17 goals in 59 league starts for Stoke since joining two years ago and has one of the best goals-to-games ratios in the history of the England national team, with 22 goals in 42 caps.
Hughes was an outstanding striker himself before managing clubs including Manchester City, Blackburn Rovers and Fulham, where Clint Dempsey was one of his charges. The 49-year-old replaced Pulis in May and said on Tuesday that he will send Stoke out with a brief to play crowd-pleasing soccer.
“I think we’ve got an accomplished group in terms of technical ability. In terms of the way we’re going to play we may be a little bit more expansive than possibly we have been in the past,” he said.
“If you look at the clubs I have been involved in both as a player and as a manager they’ve always played football that’s been based on good attacking play. So that’s what I’ve built my own personal philosophy on and that will never change, I will always try and build teams that will entertain and win football matches.”
Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian and SI.com.