Aston Villa strengthening U.S. ties with preseason tour

Two Americans saw the field for Aston Villa in the 1-0 friendly win over the Philadelphia Union to kick of Villa's preseason.
CHESTER, Pa. – Aston Villa’s offseason trip across the United States got off to a positive start as it churned out a 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Union in a friendly at PPL Park on Wednesday evening.

The Birmingham-based outfit, looking to rebound from a disappointing campaign in which it finished a mere two points shy of relegation, impressed new manager Paul Lambert with hustle and competitiveness. Scotsman Lambert took the helm from the deposed Alex McLeish on June 2, after guiding Norwich City to promotion from League One to the Premier League in just two seasons.

“What happened last year is in the past – I can’t control that,” said Lambert. “It’s a big football club that I’m the manager of, and so the expectancy level is very high. If I keep getting that effort from them and that commitment, we’ll be okay.”

Star striker Darren Bent, with 173 goals on his ledger across all competitions, made his first appearance since rupturing his ankle tendons on Feb. 25 against Wigan Athletic. Bent had an inviting look at goal in the second minute, only to be denied by a diving Zac MacMath at the Union keeper’s near post.

MacMath’s sterling first half was blemished in the 43rd minute, however, as Nathan Delfouneso, Bent’s little-used strike partner, launched a 22-yard shot that beat the keeper low, taking Villa into the break with a one-goal lead it would not relinquish.

The England U-21 team member said, “It was a frustrating year for me last year, so I just have to keep my head down and stay focused. I’m just looking for a chance, and when I get it, I’ll take it.”

“It’s my first time visiting America, and I’m obviously enjoying it so far,” added the goal-scorer, “so hopefully I’ll continue to have a good time the rest of the trip.”

The squad that Aston Villa took the field with had a bit more of an American flavor than usual. Starting between the pipes was 2007’s MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Brad Guzan, newly re-signed by Villa. Fellow U.S. international Eric Lichaj watched on from the visitors’ bench until entering the game in the 60th minute.

Lichaj showed flashes of the pace and attacking instinct from the back that made him a mainstay in former U.S. coach Bob Bradley’s 2011 Gold Cup starting XI, and Guzan played the entire game. He is tussling for first-choice status over the incumbent keeper, Ireland’s Shay Given.

“Shay Given is a fantastic, world class goalkeeper. And every time I’ve seen Brad Guzan play, he’s been excellent. It’s great that he’s signed with the club again,” said Lambert. “Everybody’s on a level playing field.”

“After I had a meeting with [Lambert], he said everyone’s going to have a go at it,” said Guzan of the competition between he and Given. “But for this game, it obviously means a lot to me coming back here as an American.”

Having first traveled to America in 1969, Villa sports a history of success in both English and European competition. Seven-time winners of both the FA Cup and the First Division (predecessor to the Premier League), it also defeated Bayern Munich to lift 1982’s European Cup in Rotterdam.

After three impressive years at Norwich, Lambert relishes the opportunity to make his mark at a club of this stature.

“Norwich was brilliant, and I really enjoyed my time there,” he said. “But Aston Villa has tradition, it’s huge and it’s won the European Cup. Not many teams in European football can say that.”

Owned by Cleveland Browns boss head man Randy Lerner, Aston Villa is but one of six Premier League clubs making its way across the pond this summer. Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Swansea City and Stoke City will fan out and play all over the country in the coming weeks, with Chelsea making a special stop at PPL Park on July 25 for the MLS All-Star Game.

Villa’s MLS tour continues in Guzan’s hometown of Chicago against the Fire on Saturday, and wraps up with a visit to Portland to face the Timbers on Tuesday, July 24.