Touring European clubs spice up summer soccer schedule

Record crowd for friendly at Michigan Stadium.

There’s a bounty of great soccer across the United States, as touring European clubs offer American fans some intriguing one-off match-ups, an international club tournament, and games played in venues across the country, including some of America’s most iconic stadiums.

Many of the biggest European clubs now tour regularly during the preseason, and recent sojourns have increasingly led to the promising soccer market of the United States. Now that fans can follow their favorite teams, via technology, across the globe, teams are recognizing (paying) fans everywhere — there are tickets and merchandise to be sold, as well as the potential for new fans, far beyond their traditional, local fan bases.

“It’s much more of a medium to a long-term fan-building strategy,” says Diego Gigliani, Manchester City‘s director of marketing and fan development. “We know our fans are more and more not in the [United Kingdom]. So rather than just watch us on TV or consume the content that we’re able to sort of generate online, there’s really nothing like physical contact with players in tangible ways.”

This is great for American soccer fans, and American soccer, as communities across the country get a glimpse of international, competitive soccer in some of the premier stadiums in America, and the MLS benefits from the revenue and attention.

“There’s certainly enormous overlap today between the international soccer market and the MLS soccer market,” said Don Garber, Commissioner of Major League Soccer. “Our goal is to continue to convert those people who begin their soccer fan experience through a connection to an international…”.

Matches have been arranged with a keen eye toward creating interest. Two matches featured former international players who now play in MLS against their former teams. American World Cup captain Clint Dempsey and Seattle Sounders took on his former English team, Tottenham Hotspur (7/19), and Thierry Henry’s New York Red Bulls played Arsenal in New York (7/26). Henry has a statue outside of Emirates Stadium in London, such is his status as an Arsenal legend, so his loyalties are sure to be divided.

Other summer matches were played in iconic American stadiums: the Rose Bowl, Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Michigan Stadium, where yesterday a record was set for the largest crowd in the United States to see a soccer match: 109,318. Games will also be played across the United States, in cities with and without MLS franchises.

One of the problems with these summer matches traditionally has been competitiveness, as the term “friendly” often applies in more than name only. In order to remedy this, Relevent Sports has developed the Guinness International Champions Cup. In its second year, the tournament features two groups, comprised of three English teams (Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool), three Italian teams (AC Milan, Intern Milan, and Roma), as well as Olympiakos from Greece, and Spanish Champions League winners Real Madrid. After round-robin group play, the two top teams — Manchester United and Liverpoolwill meet at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium on August 4. Last year’s championship game, between Real Madrid and Chelsea, was seen by nearly 70,000 fans in Miami. Silverware can be a great motivator, so the Guinness Cup may provide motivation for competition, even though it is still preseason for the European clubs.

Perhaps the most interesting game, from an American soccer perspective, will be the MLS All-Star Game, which will be played August 6th at Providence Park in Portland. MLS has played its All-Star game against European competition in past years (Roma, Chelsea, Manchester United, etc.), and this year’s match will pit the Americans against German uber-club Bayern Munich. With many World Cup winning players in the Bayern squad, and Pep Guardiola roaming the sidelines, playing against our best professionals, the game may provide an interesting indicator of the state of American soccer.

The American preseason tours of European soccer clubs should provide the medicine to soothe Americans’ World Cup withdrawals, at least until the European seasons start up again in late August. It may create new fans of European clubs, or it may drive more people to attend and follow the MLS — but without question, it is a good summer for American soccer fans.

Image courtesy University of Michigan.

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