Manchester United has arrived in the Bay Area to take on the San Jose Earthquakes in an exhibition friendly Sunday at Levi’s Stadium.
The clubs are in different stages of their respective campaigns; while the Red Devils have just begun their preseason preparations, the Quakes have already passed the midway point of the MLS regular season.
Nevertheless, as they face off for the second time in four years, they do have something in common: a bit of displeasure with their current state of affairs.
For the English Premier League side, head coach Jose Mourinho has accepted but bemoaned the fact that several of his stars like midfielder Paul Pogba, forward Romelu Lukaku, and goalkeeper David de Gea will be taking an extended break to rest their bodies after the World Cup.
The absences were evident in attack last Thursday when Manchester United opened their American road trip by drawing 1-1 with Liga MX giants Club America in Phoenix.
“Today was [Anthony] Martial and when Martial left the pitch was [Juan] Mata, and when Mata went to the sides, it was a kid that was a first time he trained with us in this preseason,” Mourinho said at a press conference, referring to 18-year-old Tahith Chong. The Dutch phenom helped set up the team’s lone goal, which was scored by Mata.
Still, Bay Area soccer fans should expect to see a few stars in uniform. Mourinho asserted that Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez “has to play” after resolving U.S. visa issues.
Over in the South Bay, the Quakes are seeking any kind of spark to break out of their current doldrums. Mired in a 10-game winless streak, Sunday represents a chance to regain some semblance of confidence with a good result against a world-class opponent.
However, a couple of recent controversies off the pitch have only added fuel to the fire. Head coach Mikael Stahre found himself on the receiving end of criticism after replacing midfielder Fatai Alashe mere minutes after entering the game during San Jose’s 2-0 loss in Montreal last week.
In addition, midfielder Florian Jungwirth revealed his frustration in an interview with Quakes Epicenter’s Joel Soria, stating that “we don’t have the quality to compete with most of the teams in this league.”
Of course, it’s worth noting that just last season, San Jose had earned a playoff berth with a similar core of players, so perhaps the answer is much more complex than that. Amid the polemics, team captain Chris Wondolowski addressed the public on social media.
“Sorry kept quiet long enough but can’t take people who are not in our locker room blaming our coach! It’s on myself and is (sic) players to step up to do the right thing.”
Back on the pitch, any hopes for a turnaround should start with the Quakes gaining some clarity on the back line, specifically with the emergence of a starting left back Sunday. Kevin Partida appeared to be a worthy candidate but was ruled out for nine months after undergoing ACL reconstruction surgery and a partial meniscectomy on his right knee last Thursday.
In attack, Danny Hoesen has been a bright spot for the Black and Blue with 10 goals and four assists. The Dutchman should figure into the Quakes’ plans to avenge 2015, when they fell 3-1 to Manchester United at Avaya Stadium.
There’s a San Francisco connection with Sunday’s match; players from SF Glens Evolution, the youth club of the USL PDL’s San Francisco Glens, will once again be escorting both teams onto the field before the 2 pm. kickoff.
“Our club’s proud to be partnering with the Quakes and Manchester United for the second time,” said Glens Evolution director of football Mike McNeill (pictured above in gray), who was on hand for Manchester United’s practice at UCLA this week. “We’re grateful for the opportunity and this is just one benefit of joining our club.”
Fans can still purchase tickets at Ticketmaster.com.
LA LIGA EXPANDS FOOTPRINT IN U.S. AHEAD OF UPCOMING SEASON
When it comes to European club football the past seven seasons, only one league has sent five different teams to the Champions League and Europa League finals, winning a combined nine of them.
If you guessed the Premier League, you’d be wrong. The English clubs are big in name but have only captured three of those trophies during this span, with three of their teams (Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester United) advancing to the final of either competition and the latter two victorious at least once apiece.
The answer is Spain’s La Liga. Despite Real Madrid and Barcelona garnering the majority of global headlines, Atlético Madrid, Sevilla, and Athletic Club de Bilbao have also advanced to the Champions League and Europa League finals since 2012—with four of those five teams lifting at least one of the two cups at some point.
America is the land of the brands, and La Liga is intent on building theirs across the pond while changing perceptions about its depth and quality. Last Thursday, league representatives traveled all the way from Madrid to celebrate the start of their upcoming season at LAFC’s new Banc of California Stadium in downtown Los Angeles.
“The American fan is a lot more sophisticated now when it comes to soccer and these gods of the game,” said Ray Hudson, La Liga’s loquacious color commentator for BeIN Sports.
Legendary forward Patrick Kluivert, now a La Liga ambassador, joined Hudson in espousing the league’s virtues.
“The Spanish league is the best league in the world,” said Kluivert, who scored 90 league goals in the blaugrana colors of Barcelona. “In the English Premier League, you have some good games, but you see a more attractive style when you watch LaLiga.”
The current demand and potential for growth is there. Over 66,000 fans in Miami last year spent between $240 to $4,500 per ticket to watch Barcelona beat Real Madrid 3-2 in an exhibition friendly, no less. The issue now is how to make the other 18 teams household names in the United States.
While the league would like to increase their profile with all demographics in America, one obvious place to start is the Spanish-speaking market; Telemundo set weekday ratings records during the World Cup and their viewership for Liga MX remains strong.
“Building fan support here in America is very important to grow La Liga, and it starts with events like these to engage the media, but also our peñas (supporters’ groups) in America,” said Rebeca Díaz Gonzalez, who works in international business development for La Liga.
Among the topics discussed was Cristiano Ronaldo’s recent transfer from Real Madrid to Juventus. Hudson acknowledged the impact of the move.
“Unquestionably, it’s a loss. … When that spotlight became hotter, somehow he came alive, and that’s what made him so special,” Hudson said of the Portuguese superstar. “The question is, ‘How do you replace the irreplaceable?
“The man who’s really going to feel the pressure is Gareth Bale. … He’s always felt he’s been underappreciated. … Well, now the show is yours. There’s the high wire. Get on it and dance.”
While Real Madrid and Barcelona will be making their well-publicized trips stateside once again through the preseason International Champions Cup (the latter coming to Levi’s to play AC Milan on Aug. 4), other La Liga teams like Espanyol will be making their presence felt east of the Mississippi River. The Pericos are slated to take on the Richmond Kickers and FC Cincinnati later this month.
La Liga will release its official 2018-19 schedule on Tuesday, July 24, on laliga.es/en.