The Chronicle's Sports Blog has been dominated by basketball talk all winter, but across the pond in England, former Blue Devil soccer player Mike Grella and Leeds United face a much tougher opponent than any Duke Basketball has seen, or will see, this season: the Red Devils of Manchester United.
Leeds United currently lead League One--the equivalent of Double-A baseball. In addition to playing in their own leagues, though, British squads compete in a knockout competition, called the FA Cup, which involves every division of the English game. The teams in the Premier League typically get byes in the early rounds while lower league teams knock each other out, but eventually, the giants get paired with the minnows.
That's what will happen Sunday--sort of--when Leeds, one of the nation's most popular teams, take on Manchester United, maybe the best-supported team in the world and last year's UEFA Champions League runners-up. Leeds United's players and fans would be offended by my calling the team "minnows", because really, the team isn't one. It reached the semifinals of the Champions League in 2001 and is expected to bring 9,000 fans to Manchester United's famous stadium, Old Trafford, Sunday afternoon. The rivalry is called the "War of the Roses", so you can sense a little history there.
"I used to enjoy the rivalry," Manchester United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, told ESPN Soccernet in typically British English. "It makes you perform. There have been some fantastically feisty occasions over the years and there was always a tinge of hostility.
Grella, one of Duke's most talented players the last four seasons, isn't expected to start, but he is Leeds' leading scorer in this competition with three goals. Grella came on as a substitute in a game against Liverpool earlier this season, yet if he appears in this one--against his team's biggest rival, in the world's oldest and most prestigious cup competition--it should be a dream come true for the forward.
Leeds United and Manchester United faced each other twice a year while both were in the Premier League, but the two have not met in six years, since Leeds were relegated from English soccer's top division.