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Aston Villa’s U.S. Tour Kicks Off Tonight Against the Philadelphia Union

Lambert's Limes
Lambert's Limes

Doing previews of pre-season friendlies is always a bit of a struggle; for the most part, no one cares too much about the result and that's likely even truer given the fact that Aston Villa will be playing just its second game under new manager Paul Lambert. Most Villa fans will be far more interested in seeing how the team lines up, how the team goes about the game, and how the players look to be adapting to the new system. A win would be nice, clearly, but it's quite easily possible to come out of a loss in pre-season feeling encouraged.

Most of Villa's presumed first-choice (for the moment, at least) will likely start the evening on the pitch. That doesn't mean we should read too much into Paul Lambert's starting XI, but it could give us an idea of which players are currently up the pecking order at some of the positions whose hierarchy is a bit less clear. Lambert has also likely had enough time to think about the way in which he wants to go about things from a tactical perspective, so we might get some insight into the formation he currently favors given his personnel. Friendlies such as this one carry no motivation to plan around the opponent; might as well play the way you'd prefer in an ideal world.

Related: Villa Preseason Fixture List | Follow us on Twitter

And to be frank, were this some weird universe in which a game against a team a continent away did carry some importance, the Union would not be the kind of team Villa would consider altering their preferred approach for in any event. Many Villa fans both in the US and abroad don't likely follow MLS very closely (if at all) and those folks might not know a thing about Philadelphia, but people that are familiar with the league would likely tell you that the Union are not a very good team. After a respectable inaugural 2010 season and playoff appearance in 2011, Philadelphia currently sits in 9th place in the 10 team Eastern Conference; were MLS a single-table league, their 20 points from 17 games would put them 15th overall. A horrendous start to the season led to the dismissal of head coach Piotr Nowak, with the patience of fans exhausted after an off-season that saw the departure of several of the Union's best and most popular players.

The team's fortunes improved shortly after interim coach John Hackworth took the reigns, with a shocking 4-0 win over Eastern Conference leaders Sporting KC in his second game in charge a dramatic statement that things were heading in more positive direction. Since Nowak's dismissal, the Union have looked downright respectable and at times quite dangerous, but in a league with as much parity at MLS that' not particularly surprising. And to be sure, there are legitimately good players on this team; Freddy Adu is the most instantly recognizable name, with young striker Jack McInerney turning heads since being given more of a chance by Hackworth and veterans such as Lionard Pajoy and Gabriel Gomez adding to the attacking threat. This attacking talent has been far more potent under the Hackworth's watch, and in front of a resolute back line that has allowed just 19 goals-tied for third best in MLS-this is a club with a future that's looking brighter.

But at present, they're a below-average MLS team. The American top flight has made major strides over the past five years and its actual quality likely outpaces its reputation abroad, but there's still an enormous gulf in class between MLS and the Premier League. Aston Villa is, it should go without saying, a significantly better team in every facet of the game. But that doesn't mean that the Union won't give Villa a good game. Indeed, as the domestic league improves in quality and the popularity of football continues to grow in the U.S., Premier League teams may find a trip the the States to be an increasingly attractive proposition. Good competition, a decent payday and an opportunity to tap into new markets and grow the brand*? That's not a bad proposition at all.

*Please be assured that I hate the use of this term as much as you do, in a general sense but especially in the context of football. But whether it's right, wrong or indifferent, it's the reality of the game today. And if marketing and smart business can help Villa become more viable financially and that leads to increased investment in the squad, facilities, scouting, and other football-related aspects of the club, I think most fans would agree that it's a net positive.