FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Manchester United players and staff spent their first morning in the Boston area touring historic Harvard University and otherwise exploring their surroundings following Monday afternoon’s cross-continental journey.
While further opportunities for similarly lighthearted excursions will undoubtedly present themselves during the Red Devils’ three-week, five-game tour of the United States, the business end of the trip kicks into high gear on Wednesday, July 13, when the Barclays Premier League champions begin their preseason slate against the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium.
After claiming an English record 19th league title last season – but suffering a heartbreaking 3-1 loss to FC Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League Final – United has its sights set on more trophies in 2011-12. In order to accomplish the task at hand, the work must begin in earnest in the coming weeks.
“On this tour it’s important for us to get the fitness work in and get fit for that first game of the season,” said Wayne Rooney, who scored 11 league goals in the 2010-11 campaign. “Through the games we know we’ll do that because teams in MLS are physical teams. They work hard and that’ll push us as well to get more work in the games. I’m sure come the end of the trip, we’ll have gotten a lot of fitness work in.”
In addition to Wednesday’s meeting with the Revs – a match which will kick off the 2011 Herbalife World Football Challenge – United will play matches against Seattle Sounders FC (July 20), the Chicago Fire (July 23), the MLS All-Stars (July 27) and FC Barcelona (July 30). Manchester United opens its 2011-12 Barclays Premier League schedule two weeks later on August 14 against West Bromwich Albion.
While increasing fitness levels will be the primary goal for United on its preseason tour, the players admit they’ll be approaching each game with a desire to win no matter the circumstances. With that in mind, the Red Devils are well aware of the improving level of competition they’ll face in MLS sides.
New signing Ashley Young recalled playing against Toronto FC with former club Aston Villa in 2007 and admits MLS has improved dramatically since his last visit.
“You look at how teams are these days, and the football has come on leaps and bounds in the past few years,” Young said. “We know we’re going to have tough games throughout this tour and that always helps to be able to have tough games. It sets you up for the league when you go back to England.
“We’re looking forward to every game that we’ve got,” he continued. “It’s about building your fitness up, but at the end of the day, you don’t want to go out there and lose the games.”
Perhaps no one is more alert to the quality of MLS sides than Rooney, whose younger brother John joined the New York Red Bulls at the start of the current season. Rooney has managed to catch a few Red Bulls games on TV in Europe, while the England National Team star receives all of his brother’s games on DVD and watches every time he’s involved.
Rooney’s knowledge of American soccer also extends to his own playing career, which has included stints alongside Brian McBride and former Revolution forward Joe-Max Moore at Everton, and Tim Howard at Manchester United. Former Revolution midfielder Clint Dempsey and veteran goalkeeper Brad Friedel also earned high praise from Rooney for their exploits in the Premier League.
“You look at those players and obviously when you see the way they play and then you look at MLS, it’s similar to the way they play,” he said. “They work hard, they’re physical and they’ve got quality.
“They’re so committed,” continued Rooney, who played the full 90 minutes in England’s 1-1 draw with the United States during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. “I think for any team to have players who are committed like that, it’s a great ability to have to be that committed and to work hard. I think the league’s definitely on the rise and I’m sure within the next five or 10 years, it’ll be one of the major leagues in world football.”