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Rivera thrilled to get close look at soccer's best

Rehabbing closer to be in attendance at Sunday's match at Yankee Stadium

NEW YORK -- The backdrop of New York City's skyline was the perfect accent to the portrait of greatness on the Timex Center's practice fields at the Meadowlands Sports Complex on Saturday evening.

Five-time World Series champion Mariano Rivera visited the Super Bowl champion Giants' practice facility to watch the English soccer club Chelsea -- this year's champion of the UEFA Champions League -- prepare for its friendly on Sunday against Paris Saint-Germain at Yankee Stadium.

Rivera is a longtime soccer fan, and he used to play forward and defense while he was growing up in Panama before switching exclusively to baseball because of injuries. Despite the urge to relive his playing days and kick the ball around with Europe's finest, Rivera was relegated to watching Chelsea's practice from the sidelines, as the Yankees closer continues to recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

"I was tempted," Rivera said. "But I have to be smart."

After practice, Rivera posed for pictures with defensemen John Terry and David Luiz, midfielders Ramires and Frank Lampard and goalkeeper Petr Cech. He then handed out Yankees jerseys with his number on the back, which Rivera signed for Luiz and Cech upon request, and was presented with a Chelsea one with his name on the back.

While the Chelsea players were excited to meet Rivera during the photo shoot, the Yankees closer couldn't keep his eyes off the pitch during the hour-long practice, refusing to start his press conference until after it had ended. On Sunday, the fun will continue for Major League Baseball's all-time leader in saves, who will return to Yankee Stadium as a spectator of a different game he loves and respects.

"Hopefully, tomorrow they have a good performance in front of the New York fans," Rivera said. "The reporters that cover the Yankees see me. When a soccer game is playing, I'm watching the soccer game. I'm attached to the TV because I love it. I have a passion for it, and I respect the guys that play the game because I understand what it takes to play the game and do it right."

When asked if he'd given any further thought to returning this season, a door his doctor left open because of the 42-year-old's outstanding work ethic in rehabilitation sessions, Rivera once again dismissed the notion as something that could cloud his focus. He doesn't want to get his hopes up.

For now, Rivera is still focusing on range-of-motion exercises and stretches. His eye hasn't quite fixated on the prize, yet. Since the injury, Rivera has not completed a squat, and he still wears a brace around his right knee from time to time.

Still, there's a sense that Rivera is ahead of schedule. Interim closer Rafael Soriano's success this season has given Rivera some breathing room. He doesn't feel the need to rush back from the injury this season, even though he said he'd like nothing more than to return. He remains in contact with Soriano almost daily, offering advice on a regular basis.

There's nobody more serious about Rivera's rehab than Rivera. He's been busy working with his trainer in Manhattan every day, but this week he's gotten a nice mental break. Rivera has found time around his workout schedule to participate in once-in-a-lifetime events around New York City. In addition to Saturday's practice and Sunday's game, Rivera opened the financial markets on Wednesday by ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

"It's nice to do something a little different," Rivera said. "It takes your mind off it a little bit, but I still have to do my therapy. It's wonderful what I did with the Stock Exchange and being here today is astounding."

Rivera could've been a difference-maker Friday night in a 3-2 walk-off loss against the A's at the Oakland Coliseum.

Cody Eppley took the loss, with Soriano still in the bullpen. The Yankees are still looking for a consistent replacement for Cory Wade.

"What [Wade] did for us over that six-month period was pretty special," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said in Oakland on Saturday. "And you do miss that, and that's one of the reasons we brought [David Phelps] back, because we believe he's a guy that can do that. Being a starter, we feel that he can get left-handers and right-handers out because that's what he's done his whole career."

Ethan Asofsky is an associate reporter for
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