ManU Tour: Theaters of Dreams

Manchester United drew more than 270,000 fans for four games - three of them sellouts - on its U.S. tour. United's offensive explosion and the spectacular debut of new signing Tim Howard in goal left its supporters dreaming of another Premier League title.

Manchester United certainly did its best to leave a good impression on the American public. The Red Devils not only rewarded the droves of fans who paid to see them by scoring 14 goals in four victories, but also extended their diplomacy off the field in the form clinics, symposiums and overall accessibility packed into a 16-day tour of five cities.

As hosts, the United States and its soccer fans stamped a positive impression on the members of the reigning Premier League champs - one that seems certain to result in future visits of similar ilk.

Concurrent with those two themes was goalkeeper Tim Howard's almost fairy-tale debut with the club. Howard, a New Jersey native, played all 90 minutes of the two games nearest to his home town and wowed the sellout crowds with a barrel of saves while allowing just two goals.

Defender Phil Neville was one of several United players who raved about the crowds, which averaged more than 69,000 per game.

''I think it's been an excellent tour,'' Neville said. ''People expected us to come to America and probably not be as popular as in other parts of the world, but it has astonished us, the level of support we've received. The crowd lifted us in every game. We did a lot of traveling and a lot of hard training.''

United president Peter Kenyon said that 18 months of planning facilitated opportunities such as a clinic at New York's Metropolitan Oval, a symposium featuring manager Alex Ferguson and MetroStars coach Bob Bradley at St. Benedict's Prep and a special presentation at the United Nations. The team held several practices - open to premium ticketbuyers - some of which drew more than 3,000 observers.

''It was about giving exposure to Manchester United, and I think we've done that at every level,'' Kenyon said. ''There's some [events] that you want to be mass, and some that you want to be intimate. I think people got a good balance of activities in just two weeks.''

Forward Ruud Van Nistelrooy bristled at the media's overemphasis on the business aspects of this preseason, but lauded the tour's comforts.

''Everything was worked out in detail and we didn't have anything to complain about,'' Van Nistelrooy said. ''Once in a while, we got out of the hotel to walk about and relax. We all made some appearances, soccer clinics, some press things - every player did two or three appearances. We came here to play football and show our appreciation to the fans who are here. I think the [crap] about conquering the Americas is just [crap].''

The Dutch striker led the conquering on the field, scoring once in each match. With a pair of two-goal games, Uruguayan forward Diego Forlan also finished with four tallies. All the team's stars who were healthy played considerable minutes.

''That's the way we have to play,'' Neville said of the team's attacking style. ''Our fans won't accept anything else. Once we get out on the pitch, the manager and the club demand that way of playing anyway. We need to score goals. If we score four, we need to score five.''

United's commitment to going forward meant chances at the other end, where Howard shone against Juventus and Barcelona. In a 3-1 win against Barca at Philadelphia's new Lincoln Financial Field, he sprawled to paw away Patrick Kluivert's clean breakaway in the eighth minute and soared to deny Xavi Hernandez's swerving free kick in the 58th.

Earlier in the tour, Ferguson warned against gleaning too much significance from Howard's early tests. Howard constantly redirected reporters' leading questions, reminding them of Fabian Barthez's rTsumT and saying, ''I've got miles to go before I sleep.''

''I want to watch my tongue, because I don't want to say I'm too excited - but I am looking forward to the new challenge,'' Howard said. ''It was a little daunting [debuting here] because I had so many familiar faces in the crowd and ticket requests, but either way it was going to be daunting for me, stepping on the field with these guys. I'm just happy I fit in pretty well.''

Kenyon said that signing Howard happened to add a dimension to the tour's popularity.

''I think this is a market which we'll continue to support as we have with Asia, and it'll be a key market for Manchester United in terms of looking for players and improved business,'' Kenyon said. ''We might sleep on it tonight, but I think overwhelmingly, if we can get back here, it's a great place to visit. [With] the overall quality of football and the way we've played - I think it's been one of the best preseasons we've had and that showed up in our football.''

by Soccer America Senior Editor Will Kuhns and Brian Straus

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