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SANDY — It’s not every day that one of the biggest names in world sports comes to the Wasatch Front. But on Monday night, Manchester United, one of the biggest names in international soccer, arrived at Rio Tinto Stadium to face Real Salt Lake.
While it was just a friendly match, for the 20,241 fans in attendance it was more than just a game — it was an experience the Salt Lake Valley has never seen.
Thousands of Manchester United fans packed the “RioT” along with RSL fans, as, for the third time in club history, Real Salt Lake hosted a past winner of the UEFA Champions League.
Manchester United continued their winning ways on their U.S. tour with a 2-1 victory over RSL on Monday night. For most fans at the game, the score wasn’t significant. What mattered was seeing one of the premier clubs in the world — beloved by millions worldwide — come to Utah and play a match.
Some even came from out of state to watch the likes of Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku play.
Brian Spere, who came down from Jackson, Wyoming to attend the match, has been a Manchester United fan since he was six years old. Spere said he couldn’t pass on the opportunity to watch his lifelong team in person.
“To see them in a small venue like this, with only 20,000 people, is pretty cool,” he said. “You get really up and close with the players.”
Spere acknowledged that getting big international clubs to the Salt Lake City area can be tough in the future, but said if Real Salt Lake could bring other big clubs to play friendly, it would leave a big impression locally.
“If you can get it, it’s sweet. Obviously, the draw from a smaller market is tougher, but it would bring a lot to the area,” he said.
In Utah, soccer is a family affair. Utah has grown into one of the country’s leaders in soccer popularity and participation, especially among youth. In a report by Brigham Young University in 2014, Utah saw youth participation in soccer grow 10 percent every year since 2009. With the popularity of RSL and the rise in youth participation (both league and school level), it’s no wonder why soccer has arguably become the favorite sport among Utah families.
Kathryn Butler of Sandy became a Manchester United fan thanks to her husband, who’s a fan. She said her entire family loves the team and the sport.
“We are big soccer fans. All of our children play soccer,” Butler said.
To further confirm the Bulters’ passion for Manchester United and the beautiful game, Kathryn and her husband named their son after a legendary United player.
“We named our son Beckham. That’s how big of fans we are,” Butler said with a smile.
Their son is named after David Beckham, who played for United from 1992-2003, and was one of the most popular players in his day — not only for his skills, but also for his model looks and celebrity wife, Victoria.
More than just a game
Butler said she likes how soccer teaches children so much more than just a game.
“When youth get to play soccer, it helps. It helps them develop so many skills and working as a team, working towards goals, and just having something positive in their life that look forward to,” she said.
Butler hopes participation in youth soccer helps her children build life skills and directs them away from trouble in the future.
“Hopefully it keeps them out of trouble. That’s what we hope with our kids that play soccer,” she said.
Dream come true
For young Callahan Droitsch of Salt Lake City, seeing her favorite team in person was a dream come true.
“I was very, very excited,” Droitsch said. “(It’s) a once in a lifetime opportunity 'cause I’m probably not going to go over to England anytime soon.”
Droitsch, a big soccer fan who also plays goalkeeper in youth soccer, said her favorite part of the night was seeing Manchester United’s goalkeepers, including Sergio Romero, who also plays for the Argentine national team.
In the media mixed zone after the match, young Callahan was fortunate enough to get autographs and photos with Romero and with starting goalkeeper David De Gea, completing a day she told her mother was “the best day of her life.”
Droitsch said she is grateful that Real Salt Lake has been able to bring two of her favorite teams to play in Sandy.
“I’ve seen my top three teams here: RSL, Man U and the United States Women’s National Team, so it’s been really cool,” she said.