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United impress on tour in the U.S., though midfield questions remain

It is usually best to be tentative in one's assessment of the preseason [unless of course the subject is Mario Balotelli, in which case a casual backheel is definitely the end of his Manchester City career, if not the end of soccer as we know it]. Remember Tottenham Hotspur's abysmal start to the 2008-09 season? In the summer weeks before they lost to Middlesbrough, Portsmouth, Hull and virtually everyone else on their way to the bottom of the table, Juande Ramos' side had gone unbeaten and racked up a plus-28 goal difference.

Still, Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson will hardly mind that his side has traversed the U.S. leaving behind a trail of appreciative editorials. United "schooled" and "embarrassed" the Sounders, wrote the Seattle Times, prompting the Chicago Tribune to worry that the Fire would be a "lamb to the slaughter" a few days later. For those who doubt the instructive capacity of wins in the Herbalife World Challenge this is first and foremost a marketing fillip, but with Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City to play before the new season even reaches November, Ferguson will be looking at more than shirt sales.

The highlights so far have tended to come with "first-teamers" on the pitch -- it's been difficult to remain cautious in predicting Wayne Rooney's impact this season after two successive appearances that alloyed intelligent linkup play with the kind of swagger and touch that first excited us nine years ago -- so, ahead of Wednesday's MLS All-Star game (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2/Galavision), Ferguson's insistence that results have masked the tests posed by MLS opposition sounds like the platitude of a well-mannered guest. But he has had to make halftime changes whether starting Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov (as he did against New England Revolution) or bit-part players Michael Owen and Federico Macheda (vs. the Sounders); using unlimited subs, the manager been given ample opportunity to plumb the depths of his squad.

The new arrivals have made a good impression. Between them, Phil Jones, Ashley Young and David de Gea cost United around £50 million ($81M); Ferguson was already convinced, and remains so. He initially felt De Gea could have done better to keep out Chicago's Cory Gibbs (who also outleapt Jones) but concluded that the header was unstoppable, and the keeper later made an impressive save with his feet. Jones' composure on the ball did not vanish under pressure, and both he and Chris Smalling can break out of defensive situations at pace. Young wears the look of a man about to do something spectacular, and appears to have forged an instant connection with Patrice Evra on United's left -- even if they will come up against far better right backs than the Sounders' James Riley.

The fringe players have had more mixed success. Mame Biram Diouf has previously been earmarked by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and scored against Seattle, but his contribution against Chicago was invisible to the naked eye. By contrast, Gabriel Obertan has frequently been written off by fans, but looked tantalizingly close to what they call "United standard" here; his movement, the deftness of some of his exchanges with Berbatov, in particular, beg further opportunity to prove his mental strength. Danny Welbeck, who this week told the Manchester Evening News that he is determined to make it at United, offers gamboling pace on the break but is yet to prove a reliable decision-maker in the final third. It is hard to see where on the pitch (he has played wide left as well as up front) his chance could come.

Nonetheless, Ferguson does not intend to send Welbeck, or Tom Cleverley, out on loan again this season. This is Cleverley's second summer in the U.S. with United, and though he has yet to produce quite the excitement that he did a year ago, he has again shown off his vision threading passes through United's midfield. While Anderson and Michael Carrick tend to fumble one or the other, Cleverley balances intelligence and urgency with the comparative poise of a silver service waiter.

When you consider the speed and breadth of the impact that Jack Wilshere has made at Arsenal, however, and 18-year-old Josh McEachran's eye-catching contribution to Chelsea's summer tour of Asia -- even the pace of Rafael and Fabio da Silva's integration in to United's first team -- it can start to feel like it is taking Cleverley a long while to make his mark on a central midfield that has now lost Paul Scholes and is running out of yards to wring out of Ryan Giggs. Though Carrick's fine end-of-season form doesn't look to have dipped in the break, Darren Fletcher's ongoing health problems are a significant concern. United will miss his strength, particularly away from home, and he seems almost certain to miss October's trip to Anfield.

Yet Ferguson said this week that he has finished his summer shopping. "At this moment, I can't see another addition," he told reporters. "The type of player we might have been looking for is not available. I am happy with the players I have got at this moment in time." Such is Ferguson's wily reputation that it's impossible not to take this amply mitigated statement with a pinch of salt, even if Evra's warbling serenade of Arsenal's Samir Nasri is doomed to fail.

It wouldn't be a disaster if Nasri, or Luka Modric, or Wesley Sneijder, remained out of United's reach -- its central midfield has required life-support from elsewhere on the pitch for several seasons, and hasn't done too badly for it. But it was noticeable, at least against the Chicago Fire, how often moves broke down in just the area such a player would control. There is still relatively little to fend off the feeling that without further investment, United will succeed despite its midfield rather than because of it.

Georgina Turner is a freelance sports writer and co-editor of http://www.retrombm.com/.

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