Manchester United have departed Seattle and the Pacific Northwest and have flown to Chicago and the Midwestern United States. There the club will play in their third pre-season friendly on Saturday versus the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer (MLS). David De Gea is to don the No 1 shirt for the first time for United on Saturday as manager Sir Alex Ferguson announced in a press conference yesterday that the young goalkeeper will start. The England U-21 international group of Danny Welbeck, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, and Tom Cleverley joined the club in Seattle for training and it is possible they make their first appearance of the tour in Chicago. Dimitar Berbatov and Rio Ferdinand both picked up slight knocks on the tour's last stop - the former while training at the Nike headquarters near Portland and the latter in the friendly versus the Seattle Sounders - neither knock is deemed worrisome. Darren Fletcher and Antonio Valencia continue to be in Manchester recovering from illness and injury, respectively. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez is scheduled to join the tour in New Jersey next week.
Hot Time in Old Town, a Chicago Fire blog, was kind enough to do a Q&A exchange for us ahead of tomorrow's friendly. Here's what they had to say after the jump...
TBB: What is the anticipation like in Chicago for Manchester United's visit? In the past, crowds have tended to be pro-United during most of their visits, including the one in New England last week. However, I personally attended the match in Seattle on Wednesday and the crowd was decidedly pro-Sounders. Many hardcore SSFC supporters seemed to have mixed feelings over the friendly as it coincided with a congested fixture list. Will Chicago be like either of these visits or perhaps a mix?
HTiOT: The anticipation is pretty impressive. It's tough for the Fire to get a lot of media coverage in Chicago because while most major cities have no more than 4 other major sports teams (NFL,MLB, NBA, NHL), Chicago has two baseball teams with large fan bases to compete against in the summer time. They also face an ‘established' issue because the Bears (NFL), Blackhawks (NHL), Cubs (MLB) and White Sox (MLB) were all founded prior to 1927. The Cubs were founded in 1870 so not only were they founded before the Chicago Fire Soccer Club, they were founded a year before the Great Chicago Fire itself. Just as Manchester United has generations of fans from across the world, fandom for other Chicago teams has been passed down as a birthright. The Chicago Bulls may have only been founded in 1966 but Michael Jordan captured the world's attention and the Bulls current best player, Derrick Rose, is a hometown hero. The Fire have a large population to reach out to for fans but sports only get 5 minutes on the 10:00 PM news whether you are in Portland, Maine or San Diego, California.
The Chicago media is amped up for this matchup as evidenced by yesterday's joint press conference receiving coverage far and wide. Fire players have been making a lot of appearances on tv and radio shows this week. Soldier Field is expecting over 60,000 for tomorrow's game. The name and identity of Manchester United play well in Chicago.
In terms of the crowd for Saturday, I think it will be a mixed atmosphere. The ticket was included in the Chicago Fire season ticket package so there will be several thousand Fire supporters not to mention the friends and family they bring along for the game. Soldier Field is more of an attractive venue for certain people and it's more accessible via public transportation than the Fire's home of Toyota Park. Chicago is a very international city so I expect Manchester United to be well represented. If I have to make a guess, I'd say 33% for Manchester United, 33% Chicago Fire, 33% there for the spectacle and 1% VIPs, media, etc.
In terms of the game itself, even the most diehard Fire fan doesn't have too much room to complain about the placement of this game on the schedule. Chicago doesn't have a MLS regular season game until August 3rd and the team could use more attention in the Windy City. It's an uphill battle competing for fan support against other historic Chicago sporting franchises. This game makes the team money, the players like the opportunity to play against Manchester United and their world-class talent, and it gets that all important exposure too.
TBB: Who are some Fire players that United should be most aware about? Perhaps in a question that might yield a different answer, which younger players may have the potential to play someday in Europe?
HTiOT: The Fire's best players are the ones that have a chance to play in Europe someday because this is a very young team. Headlining that category is 22 year-old goaltender Sean Johnson. The 6-4 American has already received a cap for the USMNT and received league-wide accolades for his performance. Johnson is still a bit of a raw product as shown by some early season struggles but the sky is the limit thanks to a mixture of athleticism, quick reflexes and overall size. Marco Pappa is a 23 year-old Guatemalan international that recently played major minutes for his country in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Recent rumors have even said Newcastle is interested in having him trial with the team and Pappa himself said he is open to looking elsewhere when his contract runs out after the 2012 MLS season. The Fire recently transferred Gaston Puerari despite some solid production so if someone comes calling in the meantime with the right price, I expect Pappa to move on. Ghanaians Patrick Nyarko and Dominic Oduro are a little old at 25 to have dreams of playing in Europe but I don't think their window is completely sealed especially if we are talking something lower than the top four or five leagues. Nyarko has elite dribbling skills but is being held back by leg strength and poor long-distance shot/pass accuracy. Oduro has the speed to compete in almost any league but finishing had been his problem up until this year. He has made great improvements in that area compiling 5 goals in 19 games this year. Time will tell whether or not he's just enjoying a streak of good form or if he has made actual positive adjustments but this MLS off-season would provide a great opportunity for him to test the market if he's so inclined and available.
I would give honorable mention to Yamith Cuesta and Orr Barouch. Cuesta is a 22 year-old Colombian center back that has a mixture of size, physicality, and confidence to take him far. He's prone to the occasional mental mistake but youth is on his side for now. Barouch is a 19 year-old Israeli international who grew up in the United States. He played in Tigres/UANL youth system and attracted interest from European teams previously. In Barouch's time with the Fire he has looked promising but also had some epic misses hitting the crossbar on a couple of short range shots. Again, youth is on his side but he has some major work ahead of him. There will be some buzz about Chicago's most recent signing Sebastian Grazzini but the Argentine is 30 years old and almost certainly past making an impact for a well-known club abroad especially since he already had a go in some lower European leagues. His play was solid in Argentina though and the Fire are counting on him creating some magic in the midfield.
TBB: Are there any particular United players that you, or the readers of your site are excited to see? Is there a buzz in the community for any specific player? Something that I learned during this U.S. tour is that significant portions of the Portuguese and Brazilian communities in the Boston region were quite excited to see the likes of Nani, Anderson, Rafael, and Fabio.
HTiOT:Javier ‘Chicharito' Hernandez. There are an estimated 1 million people that live in the Chicago metro area and claim some sort of Mexican ancestry and that number may be much higher. Chicharito received a large amount of support from the fans last month when Mexico defeated Costa Rica 4-1 at Soldier Field in Gold Cup play. I personally have become a bit of a Chicharito fan because I root for all North American players when the stage is global. Ryan Sealock is one of the authors on the site and follows the EPL much better than I do. He is looking forward to taking a look at Nani even though he generally despises Manchester United. If an attacking mid like Nani was on the Fire, a lot of their problems would go away. Of course bankruptcy might be an issue too trying to balance his salary so we'll happily keep a positive future for the club and just stick with one day of watching Nani, Chicharito, and everyone else on Manchester United come to Chicago.