Man United kick off tour by beating Celtic

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TORONTO - Empty seats proved that in some markets, even the world's most famous football club must do more than simply show up to fill a stadium as Manchester United kicked off their North American tour with a 3-1 win over Celtic.

Making their first visit to Canada since 1982, the Red Devils were greeted by an enthusiastic audience of 39,139 on a perfect summer's evening but the number of empty seats were no doubt an unfamiliar sight for a club use to seeing sellouts wherever they go.

The slightly disappointing crowd might have been expected with ticket prices for Friday's match against their Scottish opponents ranging from $75 to $165 and United doing little to help promote the contest.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson cancelled his only pre-match media appearance on Thursday and when his squad were delayed arriving in Toronto by bad weather, only one player was available to the media with Scottish midfielder Darren Fletcher fielding just five questions.

The Red Devils were also forced to share the sporting stage this weekend, going head-to-head with the Toronto Indy being raced on city streets and offering free admission on Friday.

Despite the absence of players who represented their countries at the World Cup in South Africa, the crowd was treated to an entertaining contest with Dimitar Berbatov, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley scoring for United and Georgios Samaras replying from the penalty spot for Celtic.

"I thought the atmosphere was very good," Ferguson said, downplaying the 10,000 empty seats. "The first game is one you always want to get over because fitness comes into it.

"The surface was quite firm and it is a pitch I would not have taken a risk on with certain players to play 90 minutes."

Toronto had rolled out the green carpet for the Red Devils, laying down a temporary grass field on the Rogers Centre's concrete floor with 18 tractor-trailer loads of specially grown Kentucky bluegrass shipped in for the one off friendly.

UNIMPRESSIVE START

While the four-city tour is being billed as preparation for the upcoming Premier League season it is also an opportunity to expand sport's biggest brand and reconnect with their nearly 10 million North American supporters after a six-year absence.

Attendance may not have been what organisers had hoped, they averaged 60,000 a game in 2004, but there was no dismissing United's massive appeal.

Wearing their new kit in competition for the first time, United's legions of loyal supporters were lined up five deep around souvenir kiosks at half time eager to be among the first to grab the new shirt.

"Interesting that they (United) chose to go to Toronto to launch their Tour which I guess is a reward for soccer having taken off in Toronto with the incredible fan base there," Robert Tilliss the CEO of Inner Circle Sports, a global investment and advisory merchant bank focused on sports, told Reuters.

"I'm sure they took some direction from the MLS who said, "Toronto has been one of our stalwarts, you guys should think about playing up there, they'll sell a lot of tickets and its a soccer haven."

United continue their tour with a games against Major League Soccer's Philadelphia Union (July 21) and the Kansas City Wizards (July 25).

They wrap up the tour in Houston on July 28 against the MLS All-Stars but before returning home they will travel to Mexico, where they will help Guadalajara (July 30) open their new stadium as part of the deal when they signed Mexican striker Javier Hernandez.

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