WASHINGTON — They’re the reigning English Premier League champions, the 2008 European champs and perhaps the most recognizable soccer club on the planet.
But Manchester United immediately took on the role of star-struck tourists upon arrival in the nation's capital on Thursday, heading straight to the White House, where the squad took a private tour — and a bevy of photos.
“It’s fantastic,” said Sir Alex Ferguson, the club’s illustrious manager. “It was fascinating. I’ve been before, but it still excites. It’s such a historic and incredible place. We all enjoyed it.”
The visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was one of many wide-ranging topics broached at a press conference held shortly after United’s arrival at a fashionable hotel in the heart of Washington on Thursday afternoon, where the appearance of Ferguson and club captain Patrice Evra was nearly upstaged by the breaking news of Bob Bradley’s dismissal after five years as head coach of the US men’s national team.
“It's disappointing to hear, because I think he's done a fine job,” said Ferguson of Bradley, noting his American counterpart’s achievements in the last FIFA World Cup cycle. "He’s always been a diligent, honest worker."
The veteran Scottish manager also offered warm words about the larger progression of the United States’ soccer scene, comparing his observations from this year’s visit to Manchester United’s first venture across the Atlantic nearly a decade ago.
“From being here eight years ago when we first came over and what we see today, the improvement — not just in the interest, but also on the actual playing field — is dramatic,” said Ferguson. “There’s a big, big upswing towards the quality of football, a bigger league, a better national team and more focus on television.
“ESPN, for instance, covers so much soccer today, you can watch it almost anywhere. But I think eight years ago, you’d find it difficult to watch it anywhere,” he added. “So these are the obvious, but improvements. And on the back of that, we are seeing this incredible reaction from our fan base here now. It’s amazing. And it’s getting almost like the Far East, where thousands come up to the hotel, every game, all night.”
United have showcased dominant form on their travels, scoring 18 goals and allowing just two in four exhibition matches against the New England Revolution, Seattle Sounders, Chicago Fire and Wednesday’s clash with the MLS All-Stars. Yet when asked to give his evaluation of the club’s preseason tour thus far, which wraps up after Saturday’s World Football Challenge match against FC Barcelona (7 pm ET; ESPN2, ESPN Deportes), Ferguson nonetheless cited a desire to shore up his team’s defensive rigidity.
“Teams have been creating chances against us, I don’t think there’s any doubt of that,” he said. That’s the area which, with these games we’ve played together, hopefully will bring that together.
“But I think the essence of these long tours is for the young players to take back. They can get to know how the older players handle them, they can get to know each other,” he added, noting the value the trip has held for United’s newest signings. “David de Gea, Phil Jones and Ashley Young, I think it’s been great for them.
“These tours are fantastic for that team spirit and understanding the personalities of each other. Because teams are made up of personalities, and the stronger personalities can be the best teams.”