Man United's U.S. tour falling flat amid missing stars and subpar results
Beverly Hills has become a second home to Manchester United in recent preseasons. The team have played in Los Angeles in four of the past five years and stayed in the city's best hotels surrounded by designer stores. It's where Jose Mourinho wants to be, even if Anthony Martial doesn't.
The French attacker has long been unhappy at Old Trafford, but the club has been unwilling to sell the hugely talented 22-year-old. And there are still many fans who would love to see Martial become a star for United.
United's squad is stocked full of talent, and several who need to perform better. Selling Martial would leave it looking a little short, and with limited time to find a replacement before the transfer window closes. When asked by a journalist if his current squad was capable of winning the league on Tuesday, Mourinho said: "I don't answer your question."
Keeping a player who wants to leave isn't the norm in football, but then United aren't the norm. The club is under no financial pressure to sell their best young players and regularly trigger extensions in their contracts so that they have a greater resale value.
Martial may cut a discontented figure, but he wasn't unhappy when I spoke to him on Sunday evening after the dire goalless draw in San Jose, a chat about where he was from rather than where he might be going. He said nothing about his future; it's not in his interests to.
And he was smiling as he left United's hotel with teammates on Monday afternoon to climb into one of the fleet of luxury black cars used to ferry United's players and staff to their various engagements in the city. United do charity and commercial work. They invite the city's movers and shakers to say hello when they're in town. And all the while, young professional footballers -- some as young as 16 -- wearing black Adidas training kits walk around watched by the club's security.
Security in the form of a contract is one thing that all the players on the tour have, but this is an uncertain time of the year for many on the tour. The youngest are enjoying the experience of travelling as first-team United players, the luxury, the adulation. Some of their families are visiting while they're in L.A. -- there are worse places to be. Some of the players not on the tour, like Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini, are on holiday in L.A.
The older, but yet to be established at Old Trafford, players like Andreas Pereira or Axel Tuanzebe hope that they'll do enough on tour to feature in the first team this season, but they're aware that they could be sent on loan, where they'll get more first-team action.
New players Lee Grant and Diogo Dalot are making friends and creating positive impressions. While those like Luke Shaw, who've been at the club for a while but have yet to win the heart and mind of the manager, are looking to get noticed.
Every player is thinking from their own perspective first -- about their fitness level and their prospects. They'd put a good individual performance over any team result during the preseason. They'll also be in regular contact with their agents asking about any suitors.
Fans, meanwhile, will look at the bigger picture from a United perspective -- results, performances, goals and games. And when United fail to overcome the reserve side of one of the weakest MLS teams and fail to score as happened on Sunday, there will be plenty of criticism.
Preseason form is seldom a marker of what's to follow. United have beaten Real Madrid in July but were nowhere to be seen when Los Blancos were winning the Champions League the following May.
Preseason anxieties are often misguided. Barcelona fans were so worried at the start of last season after Neymar departed that a motion for the club president to be replaced attracted thousands of votes from members. Week by week, as the Catalans won game after game, the criticism and motion melted away. In six weeks, the president went from a disaster to a strong hand guiding his club towards winning La Liga.
It can't be denied that United's two preseason games so far have been woeful, and attempts to sell the games as a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see Manchester United are wide of the mark. Even with reduced ticket prices, the stadia are half empty. That's set to change on Wednesday for a sellout encounter between United and AC Milan at the smaller 27,000-capacity StubHub Center. The game has been sensibly switched from the hard-to-fill and hard-to-reach 92,000-capacity Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
If any United fans are fretting because the team have started the preseason poorly, they should take a look at Wednesday's opponents to see how far a giant can really fall.
Milan, a long-standing titan of world football, have finished outside the top five and as low as tenth in Serie A in the past five seasons. That record is so bad that it makes United's lowest finish of seventh and last season's second place look impressive when it has felt anything but. Milan haven't played Champions League football since 2013-14.
United fans' biggest concern is the defence. The club -- rather than the manager -- is not currently looking to sanction the signing of a left-back.
Ashley Young, 33, could be good for another season while Shaw could break into the side properly, though you do worry when he gets beaten by a reserve player for a poor MLS side as on Sunday. Shaw is certainly determined to do his best, but will it be good enough for Mourinho, who has expressed his doubts about him so publicly? Diogo Dalot, 19, can play at right-back or left-back or perhaps Demetri Mitchell, one of the many United players unsure where he's going to be making his living in a month's time, will be given a chance as cover on the left.
These are the questions Mourinho is grappling with during his daily session at the Drake Stadium. He'd prefer to be working with all his players, but wouldn't every top-level manager after the World Cup? Barcelona are setting off on their U.S. tour with 13 B-team players. Like United, Barca's reserve side was relegated last season.
Even though many of the players on the tour won't be first-team regulars, United must do better against Milan, Liverpool and Madrid this month. Any defeat to Liverpool, even in a friendly, stings. Poor performances leave disappointed American fans wondering what the fuss is about surrounding England's biggest club. United got their 2003 tour to America, their first in a couple of decades, so right. This one feels a little flat so far.