Manchester United went down to MLS outfit Kansas City Wizards late last night, with Sir Alex Ferguson blaming the Reds’ inexperienced defence for this summer’s first pre-season defeat. In truth though, United put in an embarrassingly haphazard performance, despite playing with a man advantage for more than half the match.
Kei Kamara scored the host’s winner in the 42nd minute as the MLS side provided United with its toughest fixture of the tour to date. Dimitar Berbatov had brought United level from the penalty spot a minute earlier following Davy Arnaud’s opener just 10 minutes into the match.
But when the Wizards’ Jimmy Conrad received his marching orders for the professional foul leading to United’s penalty the red not only reduced the hosts to 10 men but seemingly spoilt the game as an exercise for the tourists. No major trophies are handed out in pre-season and Ferguson’s undoubted wish is for his stars to get a good work out during the three week tour.
However, United’s advantage barely registered during a match in which Ferguson’s side offered almost no attacking threat, passed the ball poorly and looked extremely vulnerable at the back. The disappointment is magnified because the Reds faced just 10 men for the majority of match, played in front of more than 52,000 fans.
But if many of those supporters left the stunning Arrowhead Stadium, redeveloped at a cost of $375 million, disappointed with the result and United’s performance, then Ferguson at least will draw comfort from the knowledge that his young team may take some matches to bed together. After all the back four had an average age of less than 21.
“I thought the inexperience of the defenders showed in the first 15 minutes,” Ferguson told the media last night.
“That was a bit of a handicap and we never quite recovered from that. Bunbury was a handful physically – he gave us a hard time that way. But I felt young Ben Amos organised the defenders and calmed them down.
“The things we are looking for from the players are coming, but our possession of the ball today was ragged at times. Normally we are much better. Hopefully that will come with the games.
“It was a competitive match in a good atmosphere and despite the result I am satisfied with the progress we are making.”
That inexperience showed with Ryan Smith giving Rafael da Silva another lesson in a steep career learning curve and Chris Smalling facing a tough physical challenge from Canadian forward Teal Bunbury.
Elsewhere the excuses fell a little flat, with Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Dimitar Berbatov and Nani forming the backbone of an experienced attacking unit that will surely put the performance down to the thicker grass and Missouri heat.
The team now moves on to Houston Wednesday for a far tougher fixture, on paper at least, against the MLS All-Star XI with a more purposeful performance top of Ferguson’s agenda.
The defeat to Kansas certainly posed more questions than answers though – in particular those players who offered little in the way of future promise. After all, with the United squad in transition, Ferguson quiet in the transfer market and promising a youthful injection into the team, some players are more under the microscope than others.
Irishman Darron Gibson was hugely disappointing and fast becoming a one trick pony in United’s engine room. The criticism may be harsh in pre-season but the 22-year-old’s passing is conservative at best – worse still frequently wayward – and his technique is questionable. Indeed, if long range shooting is the Derry-born midfielder’s raison d’être then he will certainly have been disappointed to shank his only effort way over the bar.
The manager’s tour selections must also be questioned. Without injured or resting star names including Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen and Rio Ferdinand, the manager has chosen Giggs and Scholes from the start in each of United’s three tour games.
But is the tour about preparation for the season ahead or building new markets? Ferguson says that fitness and rhythm not victories is key, with marketing the club to an enthusiastic American audience a secondary concern. The cynic might suggest otherwise.
After all we’ve been here before when in 2004 Ferguson parachuted in United’s missing stars after a grumbling US public indicated it had been short-changed on the Reds’ previous tour to the Americas.
Not that any negativity has shone through with the US public to date and the match-going fans should be happy with the introduction of Javier Hernández on Wednesday night. In a minor change of heart the Mexican will now play some part in United’s fixture with the All-Stars before turning out for both sides on Sunday for the tie with Chivas Guadalajara.
Expectation is high, as with the remainder of United’s younger players. Chicharito will hope to shine just that little brighter than some of his colleagues managed last night.