06/01/11 7:24 PM ET
Citi set to transform for one of soccer's greats
Tuesday's Ecuador-Greece match to feature Man U's Valencia
By Jay Greenberg / Special to MLB.com
Either side of it, though, Ecuador's Antonio Valencia has few equals. You don't have to take that just from Howard, the Mets' executive vice president of business operations, but from Wayne Rooney, one of the world's greatest soccer scorers.
"First name I want to see on the team sheet," Rooney once said of Valencia, wingman on probably the most fabled team in the world, Manchester United.
And since the Mets want to make their three-year-old stadium a world-class show and sporting venue, they would seem to be getting their soccer experiment off on a good foot Tuesday night when Valencia's Ecuadoran National Team takes on top-20 world power Greece at 8 p.m. ET.
"It's part of our broad strategy of using the facility for major events," said Howard. "We think soccer in Queens, the most diverse borough of our very diverse city, is a natural.
"There are 140 languages spoken in Queens and in almost every one of those languages soccer is the favorite sport. Queens has the largest concentrations of Ecuadorian and Greek communities outside their native countries. It made prefect sense for us."
With an advance sale of 25,000 tickets, there is reason to believe this is the start of a beautiful relationship between The Beautiful Game and The National Pastime.
"We are already in discussion about possibly hosting an exhibition match later this summer between a European club team and a Central American team," said Howard. "And Major League Soccer is on record as saying they would like to have a second team in New York."
In addition, the Mets have their hand up to bring the annual NHL New Year's Day Winter Classic to New York, their chances improved 50 percent by the Yankees' commitment to the Yankee Stadium Pinstripe Bowl, which debuted in December.
"[NHL officials] have toured the facility, know we're very interested," said Howard. "In addition to Mets games, we had over 200 events here from things as big as concerts to as small as Bar Mitzvahs, birthday parties and weddings. We are very interested in maximizing use of the facility."
After signing a four-year, $16 million contract with Manchester United. Valencia continued maximizing the striking talents of Rooney. There were big shoes to fill, replacing the legendary Ronaldo, who left for A.C. Milan. But Valencia, discovered on a dusty field at age 11 in Lago Agrio, developed by El Nacional, the military-backed club in Quito, and identifiable as a budding superstar at Wigan in the British Premier League before moving to ManU, is fast, shifty, and when all around him are losing their head, can find Rooney's in the greatest crowds.
A gruesome broken ankle -- the bone protruded through his skin -- suffered when tackled in a game on Sept. 14, 2009, left Valencia out almost an entire year, but he returned to help the club win this season's Premier League championship, becoming the first Ecuadoran player to win one.
"The quality of the balls he puts in the box for me is unbelievable," said Rooney.
The Mets, thinking outside the box, have brought Valencia to New York to showcase his skills on behalf of his country. There will be more than a few flags waving at Citi Field on Tuesday night, no red ones that soccer can't make a home in a baseball park.
Jay Greenberg is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.