Sounders FC goalkeeper Kasey Keller believes Major League Soccer teams have earned their right to share a pitch with the great clubs of the world.
“In the past, you couldn’t have done it,” said Keller, who played 12 seasons in England. “First of all, an MLS team might have not been able to bring the crowd that they needed. Now we can. They wouldn’t have been able to bring the competition. Now we can.”
Keller’s belief will be tested tonight when Manchester United of the English Premier League visits Sounders FC of MLS.
He already is certain to be proved correct in terms of drawing power. As of Tuesday, the game was within striking distance of the largest crowd ever to watch a soccer match in the Northwest. The record is 66,848, which turned out in 2009 to watch the Sounders play FC Barcelona.
But the mere number isn’t what gets Keller’s attention.
“They’re not going to be rooting for Man U,” he said. “There will be a handful, but they’re going to be the away team. And that doesn’t happen too often when teams come to America.”
Especially when that team is Manchester United, which may be the most popular club in the world (it claims 333 million fans), the most valuable (Forbes has estimated its worth at $2.66 billion), and among the best (Man U is preparing to defend its record 19th English top-level title).
But for all that, Keller believes MLS has reached the point where its clubs belong amid such royalty.
“You can now bring teams over and we can compete,” he said. “ What’s important for English supporters to understand is that the game is truly getting to a level now over here where it’s worth watching, where it’s worth paying attention to.”
The Red Devils began their U.S. tour last week with a 4-1 win over New England in the first game of this season’s World Football Challenge.
“Play opened in the second half and we wound up playing very well,” Man U manager Sir Alex Ferguson said. “Hopefully, with one game behind our belts, we’ll be better (tonight), which will be a tougher game, of course.”
On Saturday, Real Madrid beat the Los Angeles Galaxy, 4-1. On Monday, Manchester City came from behind to edge Vancouver, 2-1.
That puts MLS teams 0-3 so far this summer against three top European sides, while being outscored 10-3.
“You have to recognize it’s a young league,” Ferguson said. “Something just growing takes time. You can’t expect it to just flourish immediately.”
Ferguson also implied that the 15-year-old league’s growth is being slowed by the American system of developing players through schools and colleges, rather than the academy and club system that is common through most of the world.
“In Manchester, we have under 16s, under 17s, under 18s then there’s Division Three, Division Two, Division One. In the United States there’s only one way.”
The current Red Devils tour is in preparation for its coming EPL season. Meanwhile, the Sounders are in the middle of the MLS regular season and preparing to begin a CONCACAF Gold Cup preliminary series in Panama next week.
That means winning a match that will be part competition, part celebration probably won’t be the top priority for either club tonight.
“It’s a little bit more relaxed for us because it’s not for the league or some important game,” said Sounders midfielder Mauro Rosales, who faced Man U once before when playing for AFC Ajax. “We can enjoy this. They have some good players, and we can show that we are good players and that we have a good team. We will try to do our best against a huge team. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
MANCHESTER UNITED AT SOUNDERS FC
7 p.m., CenturyLink Field
TV: Fox Soccer. RADIO: 97.3-FM.
NOTES: This friendly will draw one of the largest crowds in Northwest soccer history. The record is 66,848, which watched the Sounders’ friendly against FC Barcelona in 2009. This is the Red Devils’ third Seattle appearance. In 1982, they lost to the NASL Sounders, 3-0. In 2003, they defeated Celtic, 4-0. The Sounders are 10-4-8 in Major League Soccer. Man U is preparing for the defense of its English Premier League title. The Red Devils opened this U.S. tour with a 4-1 win at New England on July 13. Man U’s EPL trophy and Seattle’s two U.S. Open Cups will be on display inside the Northwest Gate in the North Plaza. Gates will open at 5 p.m.
ROSTERS: Sounders trialist Mrisho Ngasa of Tanzania is expected to appear. On the United travel roster are keepers Ben Amos, David de Gea, Sam Johnston, Andres Lindegaard; defenders Fabio Da Silva, Rafael Da Silva, Jonny Evans, Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Nemanja Vidic; midfielders Anderson, Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, Ryan Giggs, Nani, Gabriel Obertan, Ji-Sung Park; forwards Dimitar Berbatov, Mame Biram Diouf, Javier Hernandez, Federico Macheda, Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young. (Some players will join tour in progress.)
QUOTABLE: “I think it’s a great opportunity for our fans. It’s a great opportunity for our players. It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s not often you get to play against a team of Manchester United’s quality.” – Sounders coach Sigi Schmid
NEXT: Seattle will play a CONCACAF Champions League preliminary-round match at 5 p.m. Tuesday at San Francisco FC of Panama. (The Sounders’ previously scheduled Saturday home game against Philadelphia has been postponed until Oct. 8.) Manchester United’s U.S. tour continues Saturday at the Chicago Fire.
Don Ruiz, staff writer