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Wembley to Wertz Stadium: Wigan's Trip to Small-Town America

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Wembley to Wertz Stadium: Wigan's Trip to Small-Town America

European football clubs have made a habit of travelling the world during their preseason preparations over the past few years.

Some clubs go to faraway lands to spread their brand like Manchester United's tour of Thailand, Australia and Japan. Some go to resort areas to train in seclusion while getting some team bonding in, such as Southampton's trip to Girona, Spain.

Wigan Athletic's preseason tour doesn't fit either category.

Wigan came to America primarily to face the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer last Saturday; a match the Latics won 2-1. The FA Cup champions also have a match scheduled against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds of the United Soccer Leagues Pro Division, the third division of American soccer, at their brand new Highmark Stadium on Friday.

But with five days between matches, Wigan had some time to fill, So the Latics hastily arranged a friendly with the Dayton Dutch Lions, another USL Pro Division team for Tuesday night. 

Despite the fan wearing a Chelsea jersey, Wigan manager Owen Coyle poses for a quick photo before the match.

The Dutch Lions don't have their own stadium. They primarily play their matches at Beavercreek High School's stadium, which is primarily used for American gridiron football. The field is artificial turf and lined for football, so it wasn't the ideal field for Wigan to play on.

So the match was moved 25 miles North of Dayton to Wertz Stadium in Piqua, Ohio. Piqua (pronounced PICK-wah if you are curious) is a small town of just over 20,000 people according to the U.S. Census. While Piqua isn't exactly a soccer hotbed, neither their boys' nor girls' high school teams finished above .500 last season, Wertz Stadium is one of the best high school soccer facilities in the area.

Wertz Stadium seats 5,600 people and features a natural grass surface (which isn't a given in the area), so it was seen as the proper venue for the match, despite the distance from the Dutch Lions' usual home base.

Yes, there are Wigan Athletic fans in America.

Over 2,000 fans turned out for the friendly on Tuesday night, including a handful of fans wearing Wigan jerseys. No one would have blamed Wigan for fielding a bunch of reserves given the setting and opposition, but manager Owen Coyle fielded a starting lineup with familiar names like James McCarthy, Ben Watson, Shaun Maloney, Callum McManaman, Roger Espinoza, James Perch and Marc-Antoine Fortune.

While third-division soccer isn't exactly a huge draw in the U.S., the Dutch Lions do have a small group of dedicated supporters who do their best to keep the atmosphere lively. The Oranje Legion have a sense of humor about themselves, singing "We are orange. Nothing rhymes with orange!" among their various songs.

An estimated 2,000 fans watched Wigan take on the Dayton Dutch Lions in Piqua.

The heat, which was 92 degrees Fahrenheit at kickoff, and the humidity made the temperature feel more like 105 degrees, certainly slowed the pace in the first half. Wigan also had some problems adapting to the heartier grass surface that was longer than they were used to. But the Latics thoroughly controlled the early play. There were a couple of early penalty shouts that went unheard by the referee, but Wigan goals by Fortune and McCarthy gave the visitors a 2-0 lead at halftime.

The second half have the hosts a glimmer of hope and one player a memory of a lifetime. Just two minutes into the second half, Dayton forward Brandon Swartzendruber looped a header over Wigan keeper Mike Pollitt to make the score 2-1.

Any thoughts of a comeback were quickly dashed a minute later. Grant Holt, who had come on as a substitute at halftime, quickly re-established the two-goal lead by re-directing a cross from Maloney into the net. The Latics scored two more goals, with Nouha Dicko and Rakish Bingham getting their names on the scoresheet.

Wigan goalkeeper Lee Nicholls in the strange situation of facing a penalty kick from his own teammate, Grant Holt.

The spirit of goodwill throughout the evening could be summed up in a two-minute sequence that occurred when Holt had a one-on-one opportunity against Dayton keeper Wichert de Wit. The new transfer from Norwich City easily beat De Wit, but he beat him so badly that De Wit injured his ankle. Holt, seeing the keeper was down, kicked the ball out of play instead of scoring on the open net.

De Wit continued for a couple of minutes. But when Dicko was taken down inside the Dayton penalty area, Wigan keeper Lee Nicholls, who started for the Latics, ended up finishing the match for Dayton. Holt would end up getting his second goal after all, beating his teammate on the ensuing penalty kick to make the final score 6-1.

Wigan goalkeeper Lee Nicholls signs an autograph for a young fan after the match.

After the match, both teams signed autographs and posed for pictures along the fence line near the benches.

Both teams got what they wanted out of the evening. Wigan got each of their players a run-out without major injury (McManaman did leave the match early with a minor hamstring strain, but nothing serious). The Dutch Lions got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play a major club from England. And the town of Piqua, Ohio, will get to tell the tale of the time the defending FA Cup champions visited small-town America.

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