SAN DIEGO — Not even the bright lights of New York and Las Vegas can distract Erik ten Hag from his mission to get Manchester United back to the top. The team are visiting some of the biggest and busiest cities in the world on their U.S. tour but, for the Dutch manager, nothing is allowed to get in the way of the football.
During the first stop, in New York, club sponsor Marriott repurposed a London bus and decked it out as a traditional English pub for fans to watch the game against Arsenal. It visited Times Square — the perfect place for a photo opportunity — but with no plans to allow the players into Manhattan, it had to be driven out to the team hotel in rural Basking Ridge, New Jersey, for pictures with Raphael Varane, Diogo Dalot and Aaron Wan-Bissaka.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
Commercial days on tour — when sponsors are granted time with players for marketing purposes — have been cut from three to two on Ten Hag’s instruction because football has to come first. It’s gone down well with the squad, many of whom don’t like attending them anyway. Christian Eriksen and Jadon Sancho walked into one event and posed for a quick picture before Sancho — half joking — asked: “Are we done now?”
On preseason tours in previous years, the team hotels and training sites have been mobbed with fans, but this visit has been far more sedate. Eriksen, Sancho and the rest of the squad had a police escort to take them to the Delta by Marriott Hotel, and security guards wearing James Bond-style earpieces scanned the lobby before they were allowed to enter, but none of it was needed.
A couple of supporters milled around the car park and managed to get an autograph from Donny van de Beek as he got back on the team bus, which is branded with the slogan “United across America,” pictures of the Statue of Liberty and the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign.
The only other people at the New Jersey training base at Pingry School — a $50,000-a-year prep school — were a group of toddlers in a summer camp learning how to blow bubbles. It’s just how Ten Hag likes it, and even when his boss is in town, there’s only time for football. When club co-owner Avram Glazer and his family turned up at Pingry, his interaction with Ten Hag amounted to a brief handshake on the way to the training pitches. There is no time for anything else.
It’s the same in San Diego, the second stop on the tour. The hotel, the $450-a-night Estancia La Jolla Hotel and Spa, is located within walking distance of the training base on the seasonally deserted campus of the University of California San Diego. The team’s presence there has, for the most part, been kept under wraps.
When a small number of supporters turned up and asked a campus employee where the team were training, he had no idea what they were talking about. “A soccer team is here?” was his confused response.
The night before Tuesday’s game against Wrexham at Snapdragon Stadium, former United goalkeeper Ben Foster was spotted being refused entry to a bar in downtown San Diego, but Ten Hag is keeping his players on a much tighter leash. On Monday evening, Harry Maguire, Scott McTominay, Tom Heaton and Dean Henderson were allowed out of the hotel to walk the famous golf course at Torrey Pines, just four minutes down the road, and a number of players or staff went back to play a round during a day off on Friday.
It is a Ten Hag demand that there be one completely clear day on tour. Last year in Perth, Australia, the players used it to go to the zoo.
There is always some glad-handing to do on these trips, and on Monday, at the team hotel in San Diego, the club put on a garden party for a carefully selected group of sponsors. Each player was expected to attend, wandering around among the large, white tables to sign shirts and pose for pictures.
The entertainment came in the form of table tennis and table football, but Lisandro Martinez was particularly fond of the basketball game and spent a while shooting into the small hoop. One shot bounced away and into the bushes, so the next couple of minutes were spent trying to score from the wrong side of the backboard. He was delighted to finally see one go in.
In New York, the smiles and handshakes were reserved for Oscar-winning actress Julia Roberts. United have maintained a good relationship with Roberts since she began coming to tour games as a treat for her football-mad family, and the club always invite her when they’re in the United States.
After beating Arsenal 2-0 at the MetLife Stadium, Martinez presented Roberts with a shirt, which he signed, and almost every player asked for a picture. She likes them all, but her favourite is Marcus Rashford.
There were fears earlier in the summer that Ten Hag was growing more and more frustrated by of a lack of transfer activity and ongoing questions about the takeover, and there was even a suggestion, mainly generated in Spain, that he could be tempted by an offer from Real Madrid if Carlo Ancelotti took the Brazil job.
But after getting deals done early for midfielder Mason Mount (£55m) and goalkeeper Andre Onana (£50m), he has cut a relaxed figure on tour. Leaving MetLife Stadium after the Arsenal game, he was asked when he wanted a new striker to arrive by. “Last year,” he replied while laughing.
He’s been promised there is money available to sign a goal scorer without the need to let players leave to raise funds — sources said that talks with Atalanta over a deal for 20-year-old Denmark international Rasmus Höjlund are picking up pace — and that, with the right departures, there could even be room for a fourth addition to the squad. Possibly Morocco midfielder Sofyan Amrabat from Fiorentina.
Transfer business doesn’t stop on tour, and after Nottingham Forest lodged a bid to sign winger Anthony Elanga — which could rise to £20m and includes a significant clause for his next transfer — Ten Hag and football director John Murtough spent an evening at the team hotel in New Jersey talking to the Sweden international to discuss the pros and cons.
In the end, they told Elanga that he should be proud to come through the academy to play more than 50 games for the first team but that, with the emergence of 19-year-old winger Alejandro Garnacho, the time was right to move on.
Moulding his squad is an important part of Ten Hag’s plan to return United to the top of English football, but so is the isolation and focus he has created in the United States. Hunkered down without distractions, it’s almost time for the Premier League battle to begin again.