Seattle rolls out the red carpet for the Red Devils

Jul 20, 2011, 10:41 AM | Updated: 1:41 pm
Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney signs an autograph during practice at CenturyLink Field on Tuesday. ( Gershovich)
( Gershovich)

Seattle has a pretty fair soccer club. How will they fare against the “World’s Team”, Manchester United?

These are the New York Yankees of soccer. They have a fan club of nearly 330 million. Man United’s net worth is pushing $2 billion, making it the most lucrative sports franchise on earth.

While it’s only an exhibition game, or as soccer people call it, an “international friendly”, tonight’s event at CenturyLink Field is a big deal. It’s a chance to showcase Seattle as “Soccer City USA” to the millions of fans watching on television.

No matter where Manchester United tours, players are welcomed by adoring legions of Red Devil fans and treated like rock stars. It’s the third time this European soccer power has come to Seattle. They lost to the NASL Sounders in 1982, and defeated Celtic 4-0 in 2003. Both games drew huge crowds.

65,000 are expected to witness tonight’s match in person, hoping to see Manchester United stars like Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs. Because it’s the offseason, more than likely you’ll see starters in the first half, then plenty of talented substitutes.

Sounders FC play-by-play voice Arlo White gave me some perspective on what makes Manchester United so popular.

“They’re a very special club, and it goes down to the ethos of how they play the game,” White said. “They’ve always been an expansive, technical, attacking club. You will not see Manchester United play for a nil-nil tie, for example.”

The star power is another reason for their legions of worshipers.

“They are glamorous,” said White. “The players they’ve had like George Best, David Beckham, and Sir Bobby Charlton, that’s why people love them.”

They’re also despised by rival soccer fans, White admitted.

“They’re seen as giants of English soccer, arrogant, and walk around with a swagger,” he said. “When you have a dynasty like that you’re going to rub other clubs up the wrong way. If you ask a Manchester City or Arsenal fan about Manchester United, they will spit bile!”

Seattle goalkeeper Kasey Keller has played in Europe’s highest levels and faced Manchester United more times than he can remember. For Kasey from Lacey, personally, it’s not a huge game. For Seattle and Major League Soccer, it’s another barometer of where we stand compared to the best of the best.

“You know it’s cool, but I’m looking forward to the day when we get 65,000 for a league game every week,” Keller said. “That’s where we’re all trying to get to, and if games like this help bring a few extra fans into the stadium, and they are interested in buying season tickets, then it’s well spent.”

This is the offseason of English Premier League, but Manchester United takes all its exhibition matches seriously. Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid would obviously like to slay the giant soccer power. Schmid’s bigger task is trying to get many deserving players on the field.

He told me in the Coach’s Corner interview, “obviously, everybody wants to play in this game, so we’re figuring out how to get lots of guys in but keep the game realistic. The only trialist we’re trying to get in the game is Mrisho Ngassa from Tanzania.”

There should be one emotional moment when forward O’Brian White enters the fray. He hasn’t been in a Sounders FC match since April when doctors removed a blood clot from his leg.

Coach Schmid is looking forward to White’s appearance.

“We’ve told him to take it a little easy because he’s been a little heavy-legged this week,” Schmid said. “I think our fans will be pleased he’s going to step back onto the field.”

So what chance does Seattle have of beating Manchester United? Sounders FC are definitely playing their best soccer of the season. They are 6-0-3 in their last nine MLS matches, and have reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. I think it will be very competitive.

No matter the final score, Northwest soccer fans are the big winners tonight. Schmid believes the exhibition format will mean fewer hard tackles, more open passing, and a high level of entertainment.

Sounders FC advise fans to leave for the match early, and use public transportation or carpool. You can get traffic reports all afternoon during the Ron and Don Show. Then Arlo White has the call at 7 p.m. on 97.3 KIRO FM.

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Seattle rolls out the red carpet for the Red Devils