Man U cures Chicago's soccer hangover

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- The World Cup is over but soccer is not dead.

As the world's biggest sporting event ended this week, the hangover is just in its first stages but relief has come to the United States in the form of the planet's most valuable (estimated to be worth $1.8 billion) sports club, Manchester United of the English Premier League.

With so much emotion and time invested into the World Cup, it is now expected that naturally it will be a struggle to keep up interest in soccer in the United States as Major League Baseball enters the second half of its season and NFL training camps are just weeks away. Coach Bob Bradley's squad will next take the pitch Aug. 10 against Brazil at the New Meadowlands Stadium. Despite being eliminated by Ghana in the round of 16, United Manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who has been with Manchester since 1986, believes soccer's popularity in the States is skyrocketing.

"This is our third time over here and each time I've seen improvement first of all in American soccer," Ferguson said. "MLS has proven itself now, and the performance of the national team [in the World Cup] certainly helps. I think that gives the country a boost. I think that the United States showed it's very capable in the World Cup with their performance and I think that helps the younger people in the States."

Manchester United is in Chicago, headquarters of their new sponsor Aon, to train. It held an open session for the public this afternoon at Toyota Park, home of the Chicago Fire. It was the perfect opportunity for Jennifer Keel, from Waukegan, Ill., to come with her father and son to see their favorite team practice.

"I think having Manchester United in America can cure the hangover," she said. "I think that [fans] like us ... watch every weekend, we watch the Premier League so it's fun to watch people you know and players you know. … It's Manchester United, just so much bigger than anything and this is really such an enjoyable thing to watch them play."

The ratings for the World Cup final showed that is was the most watched soccer game in U.S. television history, and Ferguson has no doubt that soccer in America will only continue to grow.

"Oh yeah, I think so, absolutely," Ferguson said. "I'm sure of that. You only need to look at the number of kids that are playing and that'll tell you there is a demand for soccer in the country."

Despite that the team arrived more than an hour late for their scheduled training, a few thousand fans occupied the lower-bowl of Toyota Park to see their heroes participate in a light training session. It was not Manchester United against either Chelsea or Arsenal, just stretching, jogging and some light scrimmaging.

Manchester United and Chicago-based corporation Aon unveiled the team's new uniform Wednesday night at an event at Niketown in Chicago. The Red Devils will depart Chicago on Thursday and head to Toronto where they will play Celtic on Friday. Also on Manchester United's itinerary are friendlies against the Philadelphia Union, the Kansas City Wizards and a chance to take on the MLS All-Stars in Houston on July 28.

Media members across the country may put soccer on the back burner now, but to the fans that came to see the Red Devils train they were just hoping that soccer in the United States would continue to gain popularity.

"With the American great performance in South Africa, I think it will enhance [interest] actually," said soccer fan Mike Spence, who moved to Waukegan from London 20 years ago. "I think soccer will make it bigger and better in the U.S. now that the U.S. did a great job in South Africa. It's a great thing for Chicago [to have Manchester United here]. Manchester United are a global entity, they're not just a soccer team, they're an enterprise. I've said it for 20 years, Manchester United have always been a global phenomenon."

As the Manchester United players left the field after close to an hour of training, the fans screamed their names like they were rock stars. In Europe, footballers are rock stars. In the United States, that is not the case. Ferguson insists that it just takes time for soccer to grow in a country and that the USA's performance in the World Cup will only help.

"At the moment it's a young country as far as soccer's concerned," Ferguson said, "and it'll take time to build a pyramid of soccer that leads [to improvement]."