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Mid-Season Friendlies An Unfortunate Reality In MLS, But Sounders-Manchester United Shaping Up To Be As Good As They Get

A world without big distractions smack in the middle of the calendar is probably better for the league's quality of play, but as long as they boost the bottom line they're not likely to be going away any time soon. That being the case, the Sounders clash against Manchester United tonight at CenturyLink Field appears to be as positive an experience for the club as possible.

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After a major backlash against the three mid--season friendlies played by the club last season, the Sounders promised that their would be just one in 2011 but that it would be massive. No one can accuse Seattle's powers-that-be of going back on their word; Manchester United is of course one of the world's biggest clubs and beyond that the Sounders have turned the entire event into a spectacle and celebration of the game. A week of very heavily publicized build-up, open training sessions, coin toss photo-ops on the Space Needle observation deck; this isn't being treated as just another game by the Sounders. It's been big sports news in Seattle even outside of the normal soccer-heavy channels.

There's something about the feel of the way this game has been promoted that's different than times past. This isn't about coming out to see Manchester United in Seattle; it's about coming out to see the Sounders take on Manchester United. That might not seem like a huge distinction, but it is. When Chelsea and Barcelona came to town in 2009, there was very much a sense that the hope was to convince soccer fans that the Sounders were worth coming out to watch and to a certain extent that's still present. But it's far less a driving force (at least in terms of the way this game is being promoted) than it has been in the past.

The club has been very coy in their promotion of this match, showing proper respect to Manchester United while also attempting to project a "big club" sort of image, consistent with their goal of making the Sounders the most well-known name in American soccer. The questions about the team's popularity and importance to the city have been answered, but there's clearly a desire on the part of the Sounders to continue to expand the team's reach even further. This game isn't about pandering to Europhiles or anything of the sort. It's about packing the house and putting on a show.

To a certain extent, it's likely about developing relationships as well. There are numerous high-ranking members of Manchester United's hierarchy in town and a club with global aspirations as high as the Sounders could find few better examples of how to build a brand. The Red Devils youth and reserve ranks are bursting with talent and if the Sounders organization can impress Sir Alex Ferguson it's possible that Seattle could become a temporary home for some of United's future stars. If nothing else, positive word of mouth from Manchester United can never been a bad thing in the world of football.

To their credit, Manchester United seem willing to live up to their end of the bargain. They'll be starting a strong side against the Sounders and many of their stars will likely play all 90 minutes. Their players are saying the right things ahead of the game, and aside from half-complaints about the view from his hotel room Rio Ferdinand's Twitter Tour of the Great Northwest has been quite enjoyable. This is United's pre-season and for them their US tour is likely more a vacation than a competition worth taking seriously, but they're still one of the greatest collections of footballing talent ever assembled and are sure to impress with their abilities.

For all of the good that can be said about it however, it's tough to think that an MLS where games such of these aren't par for the course is a league in a better position than MLS in its current state. Friendlies are fine, but during the middle of the season they're a distraction, a source of extra wear-and-tear and an injury risk. Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure suffered an ankle injury in Monday night's friendly against the Whitecaps and could miss a significant amount of time. How would the Sounders chances for the rest of the season look should they lose a key player to injury? It's hard enough lose someone when there's something on the line but it would be a bitter pill to swallow were it to happen in an exhibition game, especially one taking place right at the beginning of the league play stretch run and just before the start of international competition.  

Eventually, games like this will become a thing of the past. Instead of Manchester United, Real Madrid and the like coming to town in August, the Urawa Reds or Newcastle Jets will pay visit in February. But those days are still a ways off. And until mid-season friendlies against big European clubs are a thing of the past, Sounders fans could hope for worse than games such as this one. It's not necessarily a game for the hard-core supporters, but though there continues to be a great deal of skepticism about games such as these the outrage has certainly been tempered this time around. That's likely for the best. This game couldn't fall at a better time on the calender for Seattle and the odds of anything major going wrong are quite slim. I'm one of the grumpy few that would prefer this game never take place, but it's looking increasingly likely that the club isn't going to change their minds any time soon. Since the game's going to happen no matter what (and, importantly, the club have shown a willingness to listen to the concerns of supporters about the number of friendlies scheduled last season) I might as well go ahead and enjoy it.