Little more than an hour’s drive from Jose Mourinho’s reunion match with Chelsea, before the largest southern Californian soccer crowd in a decade, the Gold Coast simultaneously played host to an international friendly of a smaller scale, but a truer sense of the term.
Burnley, the tradition-rich Lancashire club which earned promotion in May’s playoff final win over Sheffield United at Wembley, pummeled its host, the Ventura County Fusion of American soccer’s fourth tier, 5-0, Tuesday night before 3,358 in a high school football stadium.
Yet the Clarets were so welcome in Ventura that Fusion general manager Ranbir Shergil proclaimed the event “the greatest night in Fusion history,” having seen his team play before the biggest crowd in its three-year history.
Come Aug. 15, Burnley will assume the role of Premier League minnows.
During its weeklong training camp at Oxnard College, its braintrust admitted that it will be running on the top tier’s smallest budget. But that doesn’t mean Burnley manager Owen Coyle doesn’t have a roadmap to survival.
“We live under no illusions,” said Coyle. “We’re going to be everybody’s favorite to be relegated… Even last year in the Championship, which consisted of 24 teams, we were in the bottom four for turnover, for revenue, for everything else.
“But we showed that you don’t have to necessary have the most money to have the best team. In the Premier League, we’ll have the lowest budget, by far and away. But we want to put together a young, energetic, vibrant team that we believe can win points and look to remain in the Premier League.”
On display in Southern California Tuesday were several of Coyle’s cheap, young recruits, including former Manchester United defender Richard Eckersley, former Newcastle United defender David Edgar and former Hibs striker Steven Fletcher, who is the club’s record signing at a reported £3 million.
Against the U.S. Premier Development League (PDL) side, Fletcher set up one goal and, from the penalty spot, scored another, his third in two preseason friendlies. But so did another young attacker in Burnley’s white change strip.
Nineteen-year-old Ecuadorian international Fernando Guerrero, a former Real Madrid reserve, shone on the left wing in his first match as a trialist. He earned the earned the 39th-minute penalty that Fletcher finishes and, seconds after hitting the post in the 70th minute, converted a diving header from Wade Elliott’s cross.
His performance surely would have convinced the tens of Burnley supporters who had traveled thousands of miles from Lancashire for the match.
“He’s a young kid with a lot to learn in the game,” said Coyle. “Certainly not the finished article. But he’s the type of player that I like. He’s exciting. We’ve got a few of them, but I like four or five of them.”
In the future, the club may be looking for those players in North America. Coyle and several Burnley directors have said that they expect the U.S. to compete for the World Cup within the next 12 years.
Burnley have already entered into a “franchise” agreement with the PDL team in Cary, N.C., now know as the “Cary Clarets.” Burnley managing director Brendan Flood hinted that the club is also interested in a similar agreement with the Ventura County club.
“We think there’s some real talent here in the US,” said Flood. “We know that that talent gets diluted by other sports. But we want to give it a route to European soccer.
“We feel like we’d like to franchise ourselves in the East Coast and West Coast and try and work more long term to source players here. In due time, we’d expect two or three players a year to be coming into the senior squad in Burnley from US links.”
The Fusion have already had one former player sign with a Premier League club this season. Former Cal Poly midfielder Anton Peterlin signed with Everton this month.
For more exclusive photographs from Burnley’s friendly against Ventura County Fusion, view the collection on Flickr or take a look at the slideshow.
Thanks to Joe Curley for the article and photographs. Read his blog for more Burnley coverage.