A new generation of Ferguson Fledglings, including another young American, is being given the opportunity to make an impression on the club's United States tour, which begins against Bayern Munich in Chicago today. Jonathan Spector, a tousle-haired 18-year-old defender signed from Chicago Sockers last summer, would be the most popular inclusion on his home patch in a Manchester United team missing a number of leading players.
Spector's presence in the squad has further increased local interest, just as Tim Howard's did in New Jersey a year ago, when the goalkeeper's debut against Juventus attracted a crowd of 79,000. Howard performed well enough under the intense spotlight there to persuade Sir Alex Ferguson that he would cope comfortably with the Premiership and Champions' League football, as proved to be the case, and he ended the season as the first American to collect an FA Cup-winner's medal. "Playing for Manchester United is more mentally and physically intense than I ever imagined," he said on his return to the States this week. "There's no let-up."
Some 60,000 are expected at Soldier Field today for the first of United's three games, this one on new ground-breaking (or shirt-selling) territory. There may be some names on the shirts unfamiliar to English fans, let alone American ones. Phil Bardsley, Paul McShane and Chris Eagles are among those hoping to make an impression in the absence of more established players. Also back after long loan spells at Burnley and Red Star Belgrade respectively are Luke Chadwick and Bojan Djordic.
The Neville brothers have only just joined the squad and three other players - Diego Forlan, Gabriel Heinze and Kleberson - have been at the Copa America, where the latter pair are involved in today's final between Argentina and Brazil. They were due to join the tour in time for Wednesday's second match, against Celtic in Philadelphia, but to Ferguson's fury Heinze, his new Argentinian signing, has been summoned to the Oly-mpics along with Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo.
United are equally annoyed about both cases, for different reasons: Heinze's because he should be settling in with his new team; and Ronaldo's because of the fear of burn-out. "We will effectively see Heinze in early September and we have paid his salary for two months," said their chief executive, David Gill, who will use the case as further evidence for the G14 clubs' demands for financial compensation when their players are on international duty.
Ferguson, more concerned with football implications than monetary ones, says of Ronaldo: "When you cut up a cake too many times there is nothing left. Next season the boy may be exhausted. To be honest, we might give him two months' rest after the Olympics and not use him until November, which to me is absolutely ridiculous. We do not want a player like that to get to 24, 25 and we are still talking about potential because he has been delayed by overuse. It is a delicate situation."
"Preparation is vital," Ferguson added. "Greece did it perfectly. The players were fresher so more could be done with their preparation. One thing is obvious. The major countries failed in Portugal and you have to ask why. Was it down to preparation or was it down to what happened before preparation? Greece were disciplined, committed and the fittest team in the tournament."
Alan Smith is due to play for the first time since his transfer from Leeds United, and may have to undertake a long stint in the midday heat as the only other senior strikers available are David Bellion and Ryan Giggs.
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