FOXBORO, Mass. — New England Revolution and Manchester United supporters filed into Gillette Stadium on Wednesday night to see a much anticipated friendly in the Herbalife World Football Challenge, a two-week slate of games between international clubs and MLS teams.
Before Wayne Rooney's first touch to start the match, Gillette Stadium had already made history.
The crowd of 51,523 was the largest crowd for an international club friendly in the stadium’s history. And although many supporters donned the Red Devil colors, the growth of the sport here in the states is being recognized by many.
"It's great you know, when you see teams of this caliber coming in and playing against an MLS team," said Revs midfielder Benny Feilhaber. "It generates a lot of publicity and it shows people that if they’re willing to come and get preseason in with our kind of competition, something’s good. We’re doing something the right way.
"It's always good to see those kind of teams come and it's always fun to play against them."
Sir Alex Ferguson started the match with nearly the entire regular first team for United, including Rooney, Nani, Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov. Revs head man Steve Nicol countered with the likes of captain Shalrie Joseph, Feilhaber, Rajko Lekic and Sainney Nyassi.
The fans got what they had come to see.
"It was a big match for our guys, to get a chance to play against guys like [Nemanja] Vidic and [Rio] Ferdinand," said Lekic. "It's world class soccer and in front of a big, big crowd, and it was a big game for us.
"It was a nice game for us to try and play against these players and get some confidence back that we actually could keep the ball."
Although it was in essence a training session for Manchester United (their regular season begins in August), the first 45 displayed flashes of offense at both ends.
Berbatov was denied by Revs keeper Matt Reis inside the 18-yard box while Joseph directed a header towards the far post off a Chris Tierney cross that rolled just wide. The first half, ending in 0-0 tie, showed that MLS teams have continued to improve over the years.
"Well it certainly does, obviously it was only our first game tonight, but we're looking forward to our other four games," said Michael Owen of Manchester United about the leagues progress.
"There will be different tests and challenges with each team we face during the challenge."
Owen has already had a taste of playing in the states and believes events like these are a great opportunity for every league involved.
"We came over last year as well, and it’s become a popular place for a lot of big teams to come," said Owen. "I came over here when I played for Real Madrid as well, and I think these games are good, it's a pleasure to play over here."
Wednesday marked the beginning of the World Football Challenge, and although the European clubs are the big draw, the exposure to the MLS environment bodes well for the league going forward.
Lekic, who spent time in the Danish leagues before coming to New England, understands there is still a big gap between the MLS and leagues overseas. However, he has come to understand the culture of the MLS that features, "stronger and faster athletes."
Play might not be as pretty as international clubs, but there is no denying the growth of MLS. Since its first season with 10 teams in 1996, the league has nearly doubled with 18 current teams.
"I think the future looks really good for the league, they keep bringing in good players, said Lekic. "I just heard Torsten Frings from Germany was coming to Toronto, he's a good player.
"So many good names and big names and that’s very good for the league. It's older players, but you can still see they are very good players."