THE MIDDLE GROUND

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St. Louis may seem an unlikely place to play an English Premier League post-season friendly. If it’s not exactly slap bang in the middle of The United States geographically, it is metaphorically.

Take your pick of the slogans associated with it: Where The West Begins, The Gateway to the West, the Jewel of the Midwest… In the minds of Americans it is where the continent divides, and where the dense, highly-populated areas of the north and east peter out into the flat, sweeping, rolling farmlands of the West.

On previous Stateside trips Chelsea have played in venues like New York, Miami, Dallas, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle and Washington DC. Big, busy, bustling cities, many of them on the coast and with large nearby urban populations from which to draw the attendance. St Louis on the other hand, is a relatively small place of around 300,000 and is miles – and miles and miles – away from anywhere.

I have no idea of the negotiations or thinking that went on to arrange for us and Manchester City to play in a baseball stadium in Missouri. But it obviously worked as the match sold out with close to 50,000 tickets snapped up in the same length of time it took to concede four goals. At least the locals got their money’s worth I suppose.

And indeed, the days leading up to the event and the game itself felt different to previous tours, with a more laid-back atmosphere you would expect to find in America’s heartland.

The spectators were not the same either. Less diehard fans, more curious onlookers. I’ve written before about the American phenomenon of turning up to watch Chelsea play wearing an Arsenal shirt or waving a Spurs flag, and while first-timers find it strange, after a decade of witnessing it I’m used to it. What I did see for the first time though, was a fan in a Manchester United jersey jump up, cheer loudly, and applaud wildly every goal City scored. You wont find that happening in many other places around the world. We had lots of soccer moms. And lots of teenage girls, many clutching the free Chelsea flags or badges given away by the club outside the stadium.

It seemed to me that the dedicated Chelsea fans had a different makeup from previous years as well. Of course there are always the hardcore True Blues, the faces that I see every year, and who follow our team over land and sea and Leicester and make it to every game from Seattle to New York. But they were joined by new faces as the central location and affordable destination opened up the chance to see the English football experience for the first time.

Many fans drove from hundreds – thousands – of miles away, converging on St Louis from all four major points of the compass. Some diehards drove for 16 hours. A hotel room split three ways right in the heart of downtown cost the equivalent of 25 pounds per person per night, a fraction of the sky-high rates on offer in Manhattan this holiday Memorial Weekend.

My friend Colin Dennis, based in Los Angeles but currently working in Chicago, was able to work a half-day, fly to St Louis for the game, then fly back early the next morning to go back to work. His wife was visiting him from California and she came as well. Well, it was her birthday after all. Colin bought her a discounted 2012 tour t-shirt for $5. And they say romance is dead…

So the Chelsea war to conquer the hearts and minds of the American public continues with another resounding victory. At least off the pitch anyway.

The battle rages on, from Sea to Shining Sea, and all points in between.

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