Midfielder Eric Masi of York and the Seacoast United Phantoms, right (No. 12), battles Oxford United’s Jon-Paul Pittman during an exhibition last July in Exeter, N.H. Oxford opens its preseason tour of the United States tonight against the Seacoast United Mariners, a team comprised of players with ties to Maine high school, club and college programs. Masi’s team takes on Oxford on Friday night in Portsmouth, N.H. (No. 10 is Jesse Schram.)
By GREG REID/Special to the Press Herald
PORTLAND — Fazal Nabi and his teammates aren't shy about it: They're working toward the dream of playing professional soccer.
Tonight, they can gauge their progress.
The Seacoast United Mariners, comprised of players with ties to Maine high school, club or college programs, take on Oxford United, a professional club playing in England's League Two, as the U's kickoff their United States summer tour at 7 p.m. at Thornton Academy's Hill Stadium.
"It's definitely going to be an eye-opening experience," said Nabi, an All-State midfielder who played at Portland High and is entering his sophomore year at Providence College. He played the U's last summer on their first U.S. tour. That game ended in a 1-1 tie. "They're all extremely skilled. You try to look at it like it's a normal game, but you need to play quicker. It's all technique and speed."
The Mariners, who recently completed their first summer season in the National Premier Soccer League in the fourth level of American soccer, intend to test the U's, who beat Premier League side West Ham 1-0 in an exhibition on July 20. Their regular season begins Aug. 18 at Bristol Rovers.
"They're looking to get some sun on their backs, get fit, play some games and avoid injuries," said Paul Willis, president of the Seacoast club and a native of Newcastle, England. Willis said business ties through Nike helped create a unique partnership between American and English clubs.
After tonight's game, Oxford plays two games in Portsmouth, N.H. On Friday, the U's take on Seacoast's Premier Development League team, the Phantoms, before ending the tour Monday against a college all-star team.
While three levels below the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal, Oxford does feature Michael Duberry, a 36-year-old center back who played 116 games for Chelsea in the 1990s.
"What a fantastic opportunity for these lads from Maine," said Willis. "The next step is we'll eventually send some players over to them. One day, we'll have a player on their first team. Ultimately, that's what the relationship is all about."
Mariners center back Ben Brewster of Cape Elizabeth intends to take full advantage of the opportunity.
"Kyle Lucas and I have talked about maybe going abroad and playing in Europe after college," said Brewster, now playing for Bowdoin. "This game should show us how good these guys really are. We'll gain some valuable perspective."
Willis points to tonight's game as another step forward in the growth of soccer in Maine, which now includes the presence of the Mariners, Seacoast's semi-professional women's team, and the Portland Phoenix PDL team.
"Four years ago, none of that existed," Willis said. "If you asked me if we'll have a future professional player in the stands at one of these Oxford United games, I could make an argument for it, yes. That's coming. It's only a matter of time."
Meanwhile, Lucas, a Falmouth High graduate playing at Lehigh, is focused on the here and now.
"We're all going to study this game, see how these guys play and see what we can learn," he said. "But we're also playing for home and country, so we'll get after it, too."Tweet