Wrexham opens US tour with 5-0 loss to Chelsea before 50,596 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina

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Chelsea's Ian Maatson, left, celebrates a goal with Nicolas Jackson, center, while Wrexham's Jacob Mendy (19) walks past during the first half of a club friendly soccer match Wednesday, July 19, 2023, in Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Sue Martin had the summer mapped out for her family from St. Augustine, Florida.

Then along came word that Chelsea and Wrexham would play a preseason friendly on U.S. soil.

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“We had a whole vacation planned and they dropped this game,” Martin said before . “We needed to be here. We love soccer. We love Ryan Reynolds.”

Reynolds and co-owner Rob McElhenney have taken Wrexham from a struggling fifth-tier side to a fan favorite, largely through the globally-streamed docuseries “Welcome to Wrexham.” The Red Dragons opened a four-game preseason U.S. tour Wednesday night with a 5-0 loss to Chelsea, which got two goals from Ian Maatsen and one each from Conor Gallagher, Christopher Nkunku and Ben Chilwell. The game drew 50,596 to Kenan Memorial Stadium.

The match was a must-see event and the first of its kind in this college town. Chelsea, coming off a miserable 13th-place finish in the Premier League, was the 2021 European champion, Wrexham, the oldest club from Wales, earned promotion to English soccer’s fourth tier.

Both teams soaked in the atmosphere.

“It was amazing,” Mauricio Pochettino said after his first friendly as Chelsea manager. “It was full. We really enjoyed the game.”

There were even perks for the Red Dragons.

“It has been incredible with a great few days,” Wrexham manager Phil Parkinson said. “It was a really enjoyable night. You want to keep the score down in terms of the performance.”

Brian and Jenny Roper and their 11-year-old son Logan from St. Petersburg, Florida, saw Chelsea play last year in Orlando. They didn’t flinch at making a longer trek. As a bonus, this one included Wrexham.

“(Logan) plays a lot of soccer,” Brian Roper said. “I want to show him what real soccer looks like. There’s the novelty of them playing Wrexham. My wife would even enjoy this because she knows Wrexham.”

Martin’s family of four sported gear supporting both Chelsea and Wrexham. Pregame festivities on the humid night were spread around campus.

Matseen scored in the third and 42d minutes, the second goal on a shot from the top of penalty area. Gallagher added a goal in the 80th, Nkunku in the 90th and Chilwell in the third minute of stoppage time.

Wrexham, which opened the preseason last weekend with a 4-2 win over Wales’ Bala Town. plays at LA Galaxy II on Saturday against the Manchester United youth academy on July 25 at San Diego at at Philadelphia Union II on July 29. Wrexham opens the League 2 season at home against the MK Dons on Aug. 5.

Chelsea faces Brighton on Saturday at Philadelphia, Newcastle on July 26 in Atlanta, Fulham on July 30 at Landover, Maryland, and Borussia Dortmund on Aug. 2 at Chicago. The Blues open the Premier League at home against Liverpool on Aug. 13.

“It has been fantastic,” North Carolina athletics director Bubba Cunningham said. “It’s a great event. We all get excited about unique, fun events and this is one of them.”

The locals were checking it out as well.

Nathan Gardner, a teacher from nearby Efland, brought his 16-year-old son Carson to take in the scene. The elder Gardner said he became familiar with Wrexham through the streaming show.

“When it was announced, I saw it and said, ‘They’re coming here?’” Gardner said. “I was pretty shocked, but I want to see it.”

North Carolina men’s basketball coach Hubert Davis and family walked into the stadium without much fanfare about 40 minutes prior to the scheduled start. This is the same venue where in less than two months Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye will try to bolster his Heisman Trophy candidacy.

More than 1.5 million pounds of sod was installed last week to cover the stadium’s artificial turf surface. Hedges that circled the stadium’s field were removed in 2019.

“We couldn’t do it until the hedges came out,” Cunningham said of the stadium set-up. “One thing we all talk about in college athletics is it brings community. This is one that is a community event. It’s a nice economic impact. And when I looked at the other cities that are hosting this, we’re barely a neighborhood compared to some of those cities.”

From a global perspective, the past few days marked a huge chance to embellish the brands.

“It’s important to spread the word that it’s a great game,” Parkinson said. “The amount of people with Wrexham shirts and Wrexham caps has blown us all away.”

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