HOUSTON -- Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson is ready to give Major League Soccer its due.
The Red Devils wrap up their American tour at Reliant Stadium on Wednesday against a collection of All-Stars from the MLS, a league that Ferguson said is rapidly gaining worldwide respect. Manchester United beat Philadelphia 1-0 last week, then lost to Kansas City 2-1 on Sunday in its first preseason tour in the United States since 2004.
"The progress is obvious," Ferguson said. "We realized that in the game against Philadelphia and just as much against Kansas City. There’s a massive improvement in the organization and standard of play. That would be the reason I think they’re ready to play the best teams in Europe now."
Manchester United is playing without several top players, including World Cup participants Wayne Rooney, Patrice Evra, Michael Carrick and Nemanja Vidic. The Red Devils are using the tour to tune up for their Premier League schedule, which begins Aug. 16.
Exhibition or not, the MLS players are eager for a chance to validate their league against one of the world’s pre-eminent soccer powers. The All-Stars have won five of six matches against international opponents in previous years, including a 1-0 win over former Premier League champion Chelsea in 2006.
"It’s a game where we’re representing our clubs and we’re representing MLS," said Real Salt Lake goaltender Nick Rimando. "We want to put MLS on the map, and we want to come out and beat these teams. That’s where the competitive nature comes up, being an American, being an American league, we want to win every game. We’re getting the best teams in the world, and to get results is huge for our league."
Los Angeles Galaxy teammates Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle, Colombian star Juan Pablo Angel and Argentine standout Guillermo Barros Schelotto headline the All-Star roster, though it’s uncertain how much Donovan and Buddle will play. The Galaxy, led by All-Star coach Bruce Arena, was scheduled to play a team from Puerto Rico in a CONCACAF Champions League match on Tuesday night.
"You can’t put the players’ health at risk," Houston Dynamo coach and All-Star assistant Dominic Kinnear said. "It’s a delicate thing that he (Arena) has to handle. He’ll be very careful with what he does with his players."
Ferguson, meanwhile, said Mexican star Javier Hernandez may make his Manchester United debut in Houston.
The Red Devils acquired Hernandez, their first Mexican player, in April from Chivas Guadalajara. The Red Devils play Chivas in Mexico on Friday, but Ferguson may move up his first action, depending on Hernandez’s conditioning.
The 22-year-old Hernandez scored two goals for Mexico during the World Cup.
"We’d like to use him, one, because I know there is a big Mexican population in Houston and it would be a very exciting attraction for them," Ferguson said. "Secondly, we want to try to integrate him into the team as quickly as possible.
"We would like to play him, but we want to just have a chat with him and see what he has been doing physically," Ferguson said. "I don’t think it would be wise playing him without any real physical preparation for this game."
The Red Devils can’t wait to see what the speedy Hernandez can do for them. Earlier this year, he set a Mexican league record with Guadalajara with eight goals in the first eight games of the season.
"I didn’t know too much about him before the World Cup," said midfielder Ryan Giggs. "After we signed him, I took an interest. Just like the fans, players are excited when you sign new players. He scored two very good goals in the World Cup and as a forward player, I’m excited to play alongside him."
Manchester United’s game on Sunday drew the largest-ever crowd to see a soccer match in Kansas City, and organizers are expecting another huge turnout in Houston, with more than 63,000 tickets sold as of Tuesday afternoon.
The record crowd for the MLS All-Star game was set in 1996, the league’s inaugural year, when 78,416 watched at Giants Stadium. The largest attendance figure for a soccer game at Reliant Stadium is 70,550, set in 2006 for an international friendly between FC Barcelona and Club America.
"There will be no bigger All-Star game in Major League Soccer than the one (on Wednesday)," Kinnear said, "and luckily for me, I’ll have one of the best seats in the house."