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Is a title challenge possible for Man Utd?

Manchester United
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Manchester United seeks U.S. foothold

LONDON -- Get ready, America: The globe's mightiest sports franchise is coming your way.

Manchester United, the world's wealthiest and most popular soccer team, is hitting U.S. shores for a four-game preseason tour starting Tuesday in Seattle.

Of course, one player won't be coming: David Beckham.

The England captain, pop icon and biggest name has left Manchester United for Real Madrid, taking some of the luster off the visit by the English Premier League champions.

But even without Beckham, the trip offers the Red Devils a chance to gain a foothold in the lucrative American market and lift soccer's profile in a country where it still gets little respect.

``It's huge,'' said newly signed American goalkeeper Tim Howard. ``The true soccer fans in America are just going to eat this summer up. It's really going to be like rock stars. It's fantasy. People who love soccer in America can't fathom what Manchester United really are all about.''

Try this: Take the winning tradition and financial muscle of the New York Yankees, the Hollywood flash of the Los Angeles Lakers, and the love-hate cult of the Dallas Cowboys in their ``America's Team'' heyday.

Put all those ingredients together, and you might begin to get a sense of Man U's colossal global status.

What other sports team can claim a global fan base of 53 million?

Manchester United is especially popular in Asia, where its games are televised and its replica shirts and other licensed products are huge sellers.

Just after his transfer to Real Madrid, Beckham was mobbed like a rock star when he made a promotional visit to Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia.

``In most markets other than the U.S., we are the Beatles meets Michael Jackson meets the New York Yankees,'' marketing director Peter Draper said.

The road show begins Tuesday when the Red Devils play Scottish team Celtic at Seahawks Stadium in Seattle, followed by games against Club America at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on July 27; Juventus at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on July 31; and Barcelona at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Aug. 3.

All except the Los Angeles game are sold out. Draper said 30,000 tickets for the game in Memorial Coliseum had been sold so far, with organizers expecting a walkup turnout of 30,000. ``If we get over 60,000, we would consider that a success,'' he said.

South American club champion Boca Juniors of Argentina and European Cup winner AC Milan are also playing in the eight-game exhibition swing.

Manchester United is the team with the most to gain by promoting its brand in a still untapped U.S. market. But team officials recognize they won't conquer America overnight.

``People ask: Can Manchester United crack America?'' Draper said. ``It's not about that, quite frankly. That's a real tall order. We are working very much on a long-term basis.

``I'm pretty sure that when we leave, there will be some people in Houston or Arizona or the Midwest somewhere that still have never heard of Manchester United. It's the nature of the size of the place.''

The immediate goal, Draper said, is to raise the team's profile in the States, win over some new fans, and attract sponsorship, marketing and media opportunities. The team already has sponsorship deals with U.S.-based companies Nike, Pepsi and Anheuser Busch.

``Hopefully we can make some ripples in the business community,'' Draper said.

Manchester United, a publicly owned company listed on the London stock exchange, was valued this week at $628 million. It posted pretax profits last year of $51.6 million and had revenues of $244 million.

On the field, Manchester United has been the dominant force in England for the past decade. Under the forceful leadership of Scottish manager Alex Ferguson, it has won the Premier League title in eight of the past 11 seasons, as well as three Football Association Cups in 1994, 1996 and 1999.

In 1999, United completed an unprecedented sweep of the league, FA Cup and European Champions Cup.

In American terms, the team is frequently compared with the Yankees. The two franchises signed a marketing alliance three years ago that paved the way for this summer's tour.

Fans of Manchester United always have high expectations, Ferguson said in an interview.

``When we do something, it's more illustrious. When we fail at something, it's the most degrading. We get the most sensational headlines. In that respect, that's where you see the similarities between Manchester United and the Yankees,'' he said.

Yet, outside committed soccer fans, Manchester United remains relatively unknown in the United States.

The presence of Beckham would have generated big publicity for the tour, but he was shipped last month to Real Madrid for $39.4 million.

``We've never promoted David Beckham,'' Draper said. ``It's never been the David Beckham tour. We believe in promoting the collective. I don't think this franchise stands or falls on any one individual.''

Manchester United still boasts some of the world's top players, featuring Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy (43 goals last season), Welsh winger Ryan Giggs, Irish midfielder and captain Roy Keane, Argentine midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron, England midfielder Paul Scholes and defender Rio Ferdinand.

``We want to make football very popular there,'' van Nistelrooy said. ``It's not about conquering the States, it's about having a good time, showing that football is a great sport.''

U.S. fans should also get the rare chance of seeing an American playing for United.

Howard signed a four-year contract with the team after six seasons with the MetroStars of Major League Soccer. He is expected to take over as the starting goalkeeper, ahead of incumbent Fabien Barthez of France.

Ferguson said Howard will join the club in Seattle, but will be given time to settle in and probably won't make his first appearance until the Juventus game.

While many Americans may struggle to comprehend the Man U mystique, Howard certainly embraces it. After getting his first look at the team's Old Trafford stadium, he summed it up aptly: ``It's a fantasy really to even think of playing here.''