Muted welcome as United go west in search of converts

Without Beckham the Premiership champions make a low-key arrival for a tour of the United States that starts against Celtic tomorrow
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The Independent Football

Tomorrow night will not be the first time that Manchester United and Celtic have played a pre-season friendly in front of more than 60,000 fans, but it will be a first for the game's novel location.

The encounter in the far north-west of the United States is the first on United's two-week, four-city American tour, while Celtic will play a second game against Boca Juniors in Cleveland on Friday. The trip is the Old Trafford club's first Stateside visit since 1980 and represents a shift from their recent strategy of touring Asia every two years. United's director of marketing, Peter Draper, explained: "After successful Asian tours, we now want to continue to popularise Manchester United in the US. We want people to get hooked and think 'I wouldn't mind following this team for the rest of my life'."

He added: "We're also looking to cement our relationship with some of our US-based partners - and we never know what is around the corner from a commercial standpoint with other companies. People like Microsoft, Kellogg's or Ford might see what Manchester United stand for and may be more interested in talking to us in the future.

"Most importantly, however, for the first time the team have got a training camp where they can spend a week focusing on the season ahead. On previous tours the team had pottered from place to place and that wasn't ideal."

The quality of the opposition is markedly different, too. When United played a Singapore XI in 2001, their goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez, was introduced as an outfield player in an 8-1 win that showed the gulf in class between the two sides. No matter that Sir Alex Ferguson described him as a "capable" outfield player, there's two reasons why it won't be repeated in the States.

One is the type of teams they will be facing. United have a game against Mexico's biggest side, Club America, in the LA Coliseum on Sunday, then Champions' League finalists Juventus will renew acquaintances in New York's Giants Stadium on 31 July. Barcelona are the final opponents in the inaugural event at Philadelphia's Lincoln Field on 3 August, just six weeks after the Catalans finished their own domestic season.

Barça will no doubt be keen to impress under their new manager, Frank Rijkaard, after a poor domestic season and as United's Phil Neville noted: "Playing such a high quality of opposition should really help improve our fitness ready for the new season."

The other reason the French goalkeeper will not be introduced as the resident showboat is because he is not making the trip. Alongside his compatriot Mikaël Silvestre and his fellow Confederations Cup performer, the new Cameroon midfield signing, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Barthez is being allowed time to recuperate.

He is likely to be replaced by the new American signing, Tim Howard, who is included in United's travelling squad of 21 that also features the youngsters Darren Fletcher, Mark Lynch, Danny Pugh and Kieran Richardson, as well as another new signing, David Bellion.

Unusually, the players are looking forward to a pre-season tour and the prospect of visiting a country where their profile is not as high as United officials would wish. "I don't think we'll need bodyguards like we did in Asia," one commented, "they don't know anything about us in America."

Certainly, Portland, Oregon, did not exactly lay on a tickertape parade when the party flew in on Saturday. The welcome at the airport extended to 12 fans and one television reporter. The distinct lack of hysteria - in contrast to their previous forays into the Far East - made a mockery of the club's decision to whisk the players direct from the plane to their downtown hotel.

When they do emerge they may notice the current issue of Men's Journal magazine on American newsstands bearing the face of one David Beckham on the cover. The magazine introduced Beckham to their readers as "the most famous athlete in the world", an indication that United will have to work extra hard to captivate a new audience.

Tickets for the Seattle game sold out long before Beckham's move to Real Madrid, the former United No 7 being one player who does have a mainstream profile in the States - peculiarly, after the film Bend It like Beckham became a US box office success. Before that, the player occupied the front of USA Today under a variation on the Men's Journal headline: "He's the most famous athlete in the world (except in the USA)".

On Saturday, the people of Portland were more consumed with a weekend of Highland Scottish Games and, although traffic was stopped in the city centre, it was for a parade of soldiers returning from war in Iraq. Still, around a quarter-of-a-million tickets have been sold for the four United games, and around 1,000 travelling fans from the two British clubs are expected to cross the Atlantic, their numbers swelled by ex-pats and American "soccer converts".

United are spending a week at a training camp owned by the club's merchandising partners, and the only time they will leave the Nike Campus is to make the short hop to Seattle's 67,000-capacity Seahawks stadium. After previous criticisms of United public relations, players will host football clinics and, later in the tour, promote Unicef in New York.

While fans in China and Hong Kong complained when Beckham was not included in past United pre-season tours, the fact that black market tickets are going for $300 (£200) on the internet shows that interest is still high in Seattle. The question Celtic and especially United officials want to know the answer to is whether those who have paid to see what all the fuss is about will become "soccer converts". And if they do, both clubs will be waiting to court and convert their dollars.