PHILADELPHIA — Back in 2006, Spanish defender Aitor Karanka played one season for the Colorado Rapids.
Since then, Karanka, who’s now an assistant coach for Real Madrid, believes Major League Soccer has made significant and noticeable progress.
“They have improved all their teams and players,” said Karanka following Real’s narrow 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union in a World Football Challenge tilt at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday night.
“There’s still a slight difference between the leagues, but things are improving,” the Real Madrid assistant added. “Each club has its own soccer-specific stadium, better facilities – and that’s important. Step by step, I believe this league will position itself at a very good level.”
The Union certainly proved to be a good standard-bearer for the league, giving their Spanish guests all they could handle Saturday, slicing Real’s lead in half late in the second stanza before peppering them with potential game-tying shots in the final minutes.
“I was impressed with the Union,” said Kaká, Real Madrid’s star midfielder. “The Union hung in there and took it to us. I thought they played with a lot of intensity in the second half and we didn’t take advantage of our chances like we could have.”
Still, Real Madrid walked away with the “W” to finish with an unblemished 3-0 record in the Herbalife World Football Challenge, having already routed the LA Galaxy and Chivas de Guadalajara earlier this week.
For the storied La Liga franchise, however, winning games was almost secondary to getting in some good seasoning to kick off their preseason on the right foot.
“We are just preparing ourselves physically,” Real Madrid midfielder Esteban Granero said. “We aren’t thinking about any games yet; first we have to prepare ourselves. I think that the players are very good and we are very strong and we will be strong when we get to the season.”
And if they get off to a good start when their regular season begins next month, they could certainly point to a good US tour as a possible reason why. The competition in MLS, after all, is much better than it used to be.
“This game has been the weakest we’ve played of all three,” Karanka said. “We can see though that there has been progress, and that’s a positive. We had a very good game against the Galaxy, so all that progress is what we’re taking from this tour. It has been a great experience and a great stay in the US.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.