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Real Salt Lake: Manchester United are ‘the Yankees of football’ and they’re coming to Utah

Manchester United’s Paul Pogba, center, runs past Celta’s Nemanja Radoja, left and Iago Aspas during a Europa League, semifinal, first leg soccer match between Celta and Manchester United at the Balaidos stadium in Vigo, Spain, Thursday May 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Lalo R. Villar)

Because when it comes to world football, there’s no question that Manchester United is America’s team.

"When you think of soda, most people say Coke or Pepsi. When you think of blowing your nose, you think of Kleenex; you don’t say ’tissue,’" Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke said. "Manchester United is along those lines when you think of soccer."

Call them what you want — United, Man. United, Man. U, or even the Red Devils — Manchester United boasts the largest fanbase of any club in the world, claiming to have more than 650 million fans in all. The club is beloved in England, of course, but its reach extends into Africa and Asia. In America, thousands of supporters wake up early on weekends during the British Premier League season to watch their favorite club. No soccer team has a larger supporters group in the country, according to Herman.

"They’re the Yankees of football," he said.

Despite tepid ticket sales for United’s match in Los Angeles, a Real Salt Lake spokesman said the club only had a few hundred seats left in the 20,000-seat stadium as of Friday and planned to open standing-room space for Monday’s match. Team officials took extra steps to ensure RSL fans would be the ones in the seats for the exhibition game. Even so, RSL expects about half the crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium to be wearing a slightly different shade of red.

Herman credits the club’s star power and success — and its timing — along with its outreach efforts in the U.S. for the number of American fans who now cheer for the Red Devils.

The English Premier League, as you know it today, was founded in 1992, and Manchester United would be its first champion. The club went on to win the league 12 more times under famed — and knighted — manager Sir Alex Ferguson before his retirement in 2013.

That success helped breed familiarity. For RSL defender Chris Wingert, the options for watching his favorite sport were limited as a kid growing up on Long Island in New York in the early 1990s, but he always could count on seeing one team.

Manchester United "was the only team on television" he said.

The English club, meanwhile, made great efforts to extend its reach across the Atlantic. United has visited the U.S. more than a dozen times in its history.

"Even people with an arm’s length familiarity of United have been brought in by David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo," Herman said. "They’re world-class players that also have world-class personalities."

Even in the midst a disappointing few years by United’s standards, the club has been able to maintain its worldwide presence.

One of the best players in the world, Paul Pogba tends to draw a crowd of defenders wherever he is on the field.

On Monday, the biggest crowd might come after the game. RSL defender Justen Glad is hoping to get the shirt off the star’s back when players swap jerseys at the end of the night.

"We’ll see if I get it," Glad said. "[RSL forward Joao] Plata might beat me to it."

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Manchester United’s Paul Pogba, center, runs past Celta’s Nemanja Radoja, left and Iago Aspas during a Europa League, semifinal, first leg soccer match between Celta and Manchester United at the Balaidos stadium in Vigo, Spain, Thursday May 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Lalo R. Villar)

Real Salt Lake » English powerhouse’s marketing prowless in U.S. has paid off handsomely.

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Wingert, meanwhile, hopes to land Pogba’s signature on a jersey he recently purchased for his nephew.

RSL assistant general manager Elliot Fall can attest to the power a shirt can have over a young boy’s fandom. When he was a child, Fall’s parents returned home from a European vacation with some gifts that would leave a lasting impression. "They bought me a bunch of Manchester United gear because they knew I was a soccer fan," he recalled.

Now Fall counts himself among the millions of people who root for the legendary English club.

That fanbase has helped grow United’s fortunes even more. A recent Forbes valuation listed United as the third most valuable sports team in the world, behind only the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees. The English club is said to be worth $3.69 billion in all. Adidas is paying $1.5 billion to supply the team’s uniforms, and Chevrolet pays $80 million a year to have its logo featured on the chest.

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