The International Champions Cup Is Coming to a City Near You. But Is It a Fraud?

It’s been only three weeks since the U.S. lost to Belgium and mainstream America was, if not drunk on soccer, then at least a little tipsy: thinking about ordering another round and eyeing the karaoke machine for an encore rendition of “I believe that we will win.”

As casual fans stumble out of the bar, foggy but happy, MLS is parked in the taxi rank: light on, for hire. But wait, isn’t that the English Premier League pulling up in a glossy stretch limo? Is that Wayne Rooney inviting us in, promising to take us to the ultimate after-party? Hey, Steven Gerrard’s sitting next to him!

MLS launched a new ad campaign after the World Cup: “Stars of Brazil, here.” Indeed they are. Clint Dempsey, Matt Besler, Rooney, Xabi Alonso, Yaya Toure. The latter three are on tour with their clubs in the U.S. as part of the International Champions Cup. Running from July 24 to August 4, it sees seven major European powers (and Olympiacos) play 13 matches in 13 cities in across America and Canada.

The International Champions Cup is the latest attempt to codify and commodify pre-season exhibition matches played by European clubs in the U.S., and it’s a notable escalation in comparison with previous years. More than a decade ago there was Champions World, which wooed the likes of Manchester United, Bayern Munich, and Barcelona but hit financial trouble, because these clubs don’t play for beer money and U.S. Soccer wants its cut, too. Then came another cluster of friendlies, the World Football Challenge, which teamed up with MLS and its SUM marketing arm.

Last year the Cup rolled up honking its horn, with a big-name sponsor (Guinness), a FOX Sports TV deal, and the powerful promoter-organizer Relevent Sports, part of an empire masterminded by Stephen Ross, owner of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.

With a group structure and a final at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium, it’s the latest evolution of the pre-season unfriendly: supposedly competitive matches that are tune-ups for players and coaches no doubt conscious of fatigue and avoiding injury, yet important to clubs given the large crowds and money at stake. Tickets currently on sale on Ticketmaster for Manchester City versus Liverpool at Yankee Stadium range from $60.25–$264.15, which is more than it would cost to watch the teams in Manchester or Liverpool during the EPL season.

Including Champions Cup, there are 29 exhibition games involving major foreign teams in the U.S. and Canada this summer, according to a list on MLSsoccer.com. Given the rapacious brand-building of leading clubs, the international ethos of competitions such as England’s Premier League, and the belief that the U.S. is a potential goldmine, it’s obvious what Liverpool and Manchester City can get out of a pre-season tour. But what about MLS, which is in the middle of its regular season?

The Champions Cup seems to exist in a parallel universe. When Manchester United play Real Madrid in Ann Arbor on August 2 the crowd is expected to be in excess of 102,000, which would be a record for a soccer attendance in the U.S. Yet there is no MLS club within a three-hour drive of the stadium.

Everton played Juventus at AT&T Park in San Francisco last year in front of 22,208 fans on the same night that a sell-out 21,175 watched MLS’s All Star Game in Kansas City. In 2013, there was a token American presence in the form of the Los Angeles Galaxy but this year all eight clubs are European. This summer, only one current MLS venue, BMO Field in Toronto, is being used, with bigger NFL venues the norm.

Post-World Cup swing voters will cast their ballots in favor of clubs that are successful and accessible. Every Premier League match is available live in the U.S. and the top teams are frequent fliers. Chelsea have visited eight times in a decade. This weekend there are four MLS fixtures and nine U.S. exhibition matches featuring European sides. Seven of the teams are from England.

At the least, the arrival of these overseas luminaries seems to invite American fans to think global at a time when the nation’s domestic league is asking them to buy local. It’s a chance to be seduced by the similarities between the home brew and the foreign import—or repulsed by the differences.

Are these teams invaders or allies? MLS executives like to say that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” but it’s moot whether leading European leagues are a lifeboat or a gunship.

 

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