TORONTO -- The major challenge this week for visiting West Ham is to block out the hullabaloo of a high-profile encounter and keep the big picture squarely in focus.
Manager Alan Curbishley and 22 West Ham United players know they will be tested Thursday against the MLS all-stars, an A-list collection of North American natives and soccer transplants featuring the likes of David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Juan Pablo Angel. And the Upton Park bunch certainly understands the task before it, as fellow English Premier League brethren Chelsea and Fulham already have emerged on the wrong side of past MLS all-star encounters.
But the side from East London also knows better than to focus singularly on Thursday's contest on the FieldTurf at BMO Field. The grueling test of a nine-month EPL campaign looms, and Curbishley's men know the risk of disregarding a preseason plan, one that's structured to build a base of fitness for the entire season.
That means front-loading the preseason with exhausting workouts, then tapering as the season gets closer. So the Hammers' workouts this week and last are all about running, running and more running, supplemented with strength work in the gym.
Team captain Lucas Neill talked about how hard the players worked during demanding sessions Tuesday and Wednesday despite stormy weather, exerting far more effort than normal for the two days leading up to a big match.
"We are here for hard work, and we have to look at the bigger picture," he said. "We have a season to be preparing for."
|2008 MLS All-Star Game|
MLS all-stars vs. West Ham
BMO Field, Toronto
7 p.m. ET (ESPN, ESPN360.com)
Of course, they don't want to be embarrassed, either, especially as this match is being televised internationally and is therefore available back home. Although it will be seen in the wee hours there, Beckham's presence should amplify interest.
The former England captain attended last year's all-star contest, a 2-0 win for the home side over Scotland's Celtic. But Beckham was just a guest in Denver last year, still recovering from an ankle injury.
West Ham's players are well aware of Major League Soccer's perfect (4-0) record in these showcases. West Ham striker Luis Boa Morte participated in one of them. He was with Fulham back in 2005 as the West London side fell to the MLS blue chips 4-1.
"It's more about conditioning," Boa Morte said of the trip to North America. "Of course, we'd like to come here and get two wins, because at the end of the day, who doesn't like to win? I like to win, but most important is to get football games without injuries and to enjoy it as much as we can."
The all-star contest is the third of seven friendlies for West Ham before its Premiership opener Aug. 16 against Wigan. The Hammers claimed victory in their first friendly of the brief North American tour, a 3-1 win Sunday over Columbus at Crew Stadium.
Dean Ashton and Kyel Reid scored for the Hammers (who also benefited from an own goal) in an entertaining match despite the oppressive heat. Columbus played with mostly a reserve side, although some first-teamers did enter in the second half.
Boa Morte missed Sunday's contest, as did midfielder Matthew Etherington. Both should be available Thursday, as Curbishley expects to have almost an entire first-choice lineup at his disposal. That includes forward Craig Bellamy, as the combustible Wales man is back from injury.
Etherington is likely to feature on the left side of midfield, with Julien Faubert on the right. Ashton and Bellamy appear set to start up front.
One top Hammer who won't be seen is Kieron Dyer, the well-regarded 29-year-old midfielder who fractured both the tibia and fibula in his right leg almost a year ago during West Ham's Carling Cup match against the Bristol Rovers. He remains back at West Ham's training ground in London and targets a friendly at Ipswich Town in two weeks as a potential return date.
Nor will fans get their first look at Swiss international Valon Behrami, who has yet to join the club after signing a five-year deal on Wednesday after a move from Italy's Lazio.
Curbishley and his men have been willing ambassadors on their trip to the United States and Canada, with Neill leading the way in availability for autographs, photos and interviews. They have been delighted to see so much support so far away from Upton Park, from ex-pats as well as native Americans and Canadians.
In fact, Curbishley says that broadening the West Ham brand is part of the reason his East London bunch took on the North American adventure.
"We wanted to come to America," he said. "We wanted to prove ourselves. We want to help America promote soccer and do our part. Not only the first-team squad came along, but a lot of the academy coaches came out to do camps and soccer schools as we go along.
"We're here for a whole bundle of reasons. One of them is to get fit. The other is to show everybody what we're about at West Ham."
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.