It has been just 43 days since Manchester United last played – a drab scoreless draw against Hull City at the KC Stadium. Yet, Louis van Gaal’s return to work last week signaled the start of United’s “preparation time” ahead of the new season, which begins when Tottenham Hotspur visit Old Trafford on 8 August. Indeed, with the Dutchman’s players gathering for pre-season training on Monday, Van Gaal’s squad has just over a month before the Premier League kicks off once again. With a short tour of the United States planned this summer, and a manager now firmly in place, expectations are high that United will start the campaign proper in more positive fashion than a year ago.
Louis van Gaal’s insistence that the club cuts down the tour schedule will remove a long-held concern that the true objective placed by the club’s hierarchy on pre-season is commercial rather than “preparation.” Both the Dutchman, and David Moyes in the summer of 2013, have complained about pre-season’s intensity. Especially sponsors’ demands. This complaint has been at least partly addressed, with the club set to play just four games in the States this summer, to five the year before, and with fewer commercial-led requirements demanded.
United will start pre-season fixtures a week earlier than in 2014 and complete the tour inside 12 days, with games scheduled in Seattle, San Jose, Santa Clara and Chicago. Travel, although not light when it involves a transatlantic flight, will not force the squad to criss-cross the US this summer as it did last. With no confirmed domestic warm-up date ahead of United’s Premier League start Van Gaal can have few complaints about a heavy schedule.
“Last year in the United States of America, we won everything playing against big, top clubs, and then we had to play our first match against Swansea City and we lost. That cannot happen next year. The most important aspect is building up our team with individual players so they are thinking like a team, but also we need fitness and match rhythm. We have to play matches, but we also have to train. The problem was when we went to America we didn’t have so many times to train because we had to fly and travel a lot.
“Now though, we have improved our America tour because we have two basecamps and can build up our fitness better. Last year we had a lot of time differences.”
With the schedule set to Van Gaal’s liking the veteran coach can keep at least half an eye on the transfer market, although United has added only the Dutch winger Memphis Depay to the squad to date. With just a week before before the squad sets off for the west coast there remains legitimate fears that United faces yet another last-minute dash around Europe to fill obvious limitations to Van Gaal’s side.
At least the Dutchman enjoys a mostly fit squad. While the traveling party is yet to be finalised, most of the squad has enjoyed a reasonable summer break, with few suffering for tournament commitments. Only Argentinians Marcos Rojo and Angel di Maria may need to miss part of the US tour due to lengthy participation in Copa America. Still, Van Gaal will no doubt be hugely relieved, not least with United facing two decisive Champions League qualification games in mid-August.
And once again the tour will be a chance for some of United’s youngsters to earn a place in Van Gaal’s squad, with Patrick McNair, Tyler Blackett and – to a lesser extent – Reece James having used last summer to force their way into the Dutchman’s first team plans. Andreas Pereira will surely play some part over the next month despite featuring in the Under-20 World Cup earlier this summer. Javier Hernández, injured and due to be sold, and Nani, sold to Fenerbahce this week, will play no part, although Robin Van Persie and David de Gea remain at the club longer than many expected.
United vs Club América – 8pm, 17 July – CenturyLink Field, Seattle
Club América lays claim to being the most successful side in Mexican history, having won a record 12 league titles and five Copa México trophies. Formed in 1916, América plays at Estadio Azteca – home to the comically deep nets of the 1986 World Cup and more than 95,000 fans. Managed by former Mexico coach Ignacio Ambríz, Las Águilas boasts a mix of local and South American talent in a squad that finished second in Torneo Clausura in May. América appointed Ambríz as the season closed when former coach Gustavo Matosas was sacked after just six months in charge.
The game takes place at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, which is home to both the Seattle Seahawks NFL team and the Sounders MLS side. Located in the heart of downtown Seattle, CenturyLink field was completed in 2002 using public money and seats around 67,000 fans in a well-appointed stadium. It is a notoriously rowdy venue during Seahawks matches, where the fans once recorded a ‘roar’ at more than 136.6 decibels. Although the Sounders regularly attract more than 40,000 to MLS games the atmosphere is far more likely to be ‘pre-season sedate’ come 17 July.
United vs San Jose Earthquakes – 8pm, 21 July – Avaya Stadium, San Jose
San Jose was home to an original North American Soccer League team, operating under the Earthquakes moniker from 1974 to 1988. Indeed, George Best played 56 games for the club in ’80/81, scoring 21 goals. NASL closed after the ’84 season, although the club played in the Western Soccer League until ’88 when the outfit finally folded, albeit living on through ownership as the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks.
Despite being resurrected in ’94 as an inaugural MLS team the Earthquakes have failed to make an impression in recent seasons. The club finished last in the Western Conference in 2014 – 18th overall – although the Earthquakes can boast two Supporters Shield titles for the best record in the regular season in 2005 and 2012 and MLS Cup victory in 2001 and 2003.
The game will be played at the Earthquakes’ ‘soccer specific’ Avaya Stadium, which houses just 18,000 fans, and is located on the outskirts of Mineta San José International Airport. The original venue for this tie – the California Memorial Stadium, located on the Berkley campus and home to the University of California Golden Bears ‘football’ team – was apparently changed at Van Gaal’s behest, with the Dutchman loathe to make his players travel 45 miles north through the Bay area’s notorious rush-hour traffic.
United vs Barcelona – 1pm, 25 July – Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara
Barcelona’s La Liga campaign does not start until 15 August so Los Culés might well be a touch under-cooked come matchday against United – not that the European Champions will provide anything but the sternest test. Luis Enrique’s outfit won La Liga, Copa del Rey and the Champions League last season, although the campaign did not pass without drama. In fact Enrique’s continued employment at Camp Nou beyond this summer came under question more than once over the past year.
On the pitch, Lionel Messi may not take part due to the Copa America tournament in Chile this summer, leaving Enrique with a strike duo of Neymar and Luis Suarez. The pair scored ‘just’ the 64 goals last season.
Newly opened Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara is home to the San Francisco 49ers NFL team and holds just under 70,000. It is scheduled to host Super Bowl 50 next February and was built at a cost of more than $1.3 billion. The 49ers atmospheric old venue on Candlestick Bay was closed when the team moved to Levi’s in 2014.
United vs Paris Saint-Germain – 8pm, 29 July – Soldier Field, Chicago
Qatari-owned PSG cantered to the Ligue 1 title last season. It was a third victorious campaign in a row. Mind you, Laurent Blanc’s side secured the trophy by just the eight points last May – a low over that three-year period. Former United defender Blanc remains manager despite Rouge-et-Bleu’s failure to make an impression on the Champions League although – with Financial Fair Play restrictions now lifted – PSG will once again compete at the top table of the European transfer market this summer. Whatever the coming spend Blanc’s squad is replete with talent, including the incomparable Zlatan Ibrahimović, and Ed Woodward’s wet-dream, Edinson Cavani.
The fixture will be played at the 60,000-capacity Soldier Field. The stadium opened in 1924, making it the oldest operational NFL venue, albeit with more than $800 million having been recently spent on renovations in recent years. Soldier Field is home to the Chicago Bears NFL team, but the Chicago Fire MLS outfit moved out in 2005. United lost to Bayern Munich at the venue in summer 2004.