This summer has been another win for soccer in the United States, but should we be surprised?
It seems that every summer in the United States is now positioned as “the summer of soccer,” and this year’s edition was no exception as many of the best clubs from around the world descended on the United States. Plus, there was the CONCACAF Gold Cup as well as domestic club soccer to keep everyone busy during the hot summer months.
But while soccer was the big winner in the United States this summer, Major League Soccer and the Gold Cup were completely overshadowed by the most successful International Champions Cup in the five-year history of the tournament.
The International Champions Cup set soccer attendance records in New Jersey and Tennessee to combine with the records it has already set in Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota. This year’s tournament featured five sellouts with nearly 700,000 fans in attendance across the 12 matches taking place in the United States. In total, the International Champions Cup averaged 56,950 fans per game.
Last week was a particularly rough one for MLS as they came under fire after both the MP & Silva revelation of the $4 billion TV rights offer as well as the International Champions Cup, which “stole” the headlines. Everyone’s focus seemed to be on Barcelona, in particular, who were in the middle of the biggest transfer story this summer as well as completely outshining Real Madrid in el Clásico Miami as well as winning the International Champions Cup. Real Madrid, without Cristiano Ronaldo, looked a pale shadow of themselves.
And it wasn’t just the transfer headlines and big names that outshined MLS and the Gold Cup. The quality level played by the teams in the International Champions Cup combined with the competitiveness displayed on the pitch far exceeded anything we’ve seen in the Gold Cup or MLS.
The fact of the matter is that MLS and one of the worst Gold Cup tournaments in memory weren’t able to compete with the International Champions Cup. The level of play in ICC was far better. The attendances were greater, and the level of interest among the media was off the charts.
Take last Wednesday night, for example. The International Champions Cup had a tripleheader of games on the same night as the Gold Cup final. The teams featured were Barcelona-Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain versus Juventus, and Manchester City against Real Madrid. The attendances for these games were 80,162 in Maryland, 44,444 in Miami and 93,098 in Los Angeles. In contrast, MLS’s record attendance for a regular season game is 69,000 — and that was from 21 years ago, during the league’s first-ever season. So far this season, MLS is averaging a reported attendance of 21,562.
While it was no shock that Saturday night’s el Clásico Miami between Barcelona and Real Madrid was the main attraction of the tournament, the most surprising aspect was ESPN’s wall-to-wall coverage on Sportscenter. On Friday night, ESPN spent two hours of Sportscenter focused exclusively on broadcasting the training sessions for both teams combined with analysis as well as interviews with NBA and NFL stars who are soccer fans. Then, for the game itself on Saturday night, all three major ESPN networks (ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes) simulcasted the game into millions of homes across the United States.
The spectacle was an ideal opportunity for the sport of soccer and ESPN to win over new fans to the sport.
While it isn’t surprising that the clubs in the International Champions Cup were able to outplay and outdraw MLS clubs, even though the ICC games are ridiculed by MLS fans as “meaningless,” what is surprising is the fact that the International Champions Cup completely outshined the interest and attendances of the US Men’s National Team on their home soil.
Perhaps it’s an indication that club soccer is more competitive or popular than the national game, but consider these comparisons of attendances on the same nights when the USMNT played in the Gold Cup as International Champions Cup matches:
|USMNT games in Gold Cup||International Champions Cup games|
|7/19/17||USA vs. El Salvador (quarterfinal)||7/19/17||Roma vs. Paris Saint-Germain|
|31,615 attendance||36,289 attendance|
|Lincoln Financial Field; Philadelphia, Pa.||Comerica Park, Detroit, Michigan|
|7/22/17||USA vs. Costa Rica (semifinal)||7/22/17||Barcelona vs. Juventus|
|45,516 attendance||82,104 attendance|
|AT&T Stadium; Arlington, Texas||MetLife Stadium; East Rutherford, New Jersey|
|7/26/17||USA vs. Jamaica (final)||7/26/17||Real Madrid vs. Man City|
|63,032 attendance||93,098 attendance|
|Levi’s Stadium; Santa Clara, Calif.||LA Coliseum; Los Angeles, Calif.|
On every night when there was a USMNT game in the Gold Cup in the knockout stages of the tournament, there was an International Champions Cup game that outdrew the home nation’s attendance. While there were no ICC games played during the group stage of the Gold Cup, we can look at one more indicator. The USA’s opening game of the Gold Cup drew 47,622 fans in Nashville for the game against Panama. Three weeks later at the same stadium, the attendance for the International Champions Cup game between Spurs and Manchester City drew 56,232.
Altogether, the games throughout the United States this summer continue to show that the sport of soccer is thriving. No matter whether you follow MLS, the national game or the leagues from around the world, soccer was the victor this summer in an eyeopening two months that showed the power of the beautiful game in winning over spectators.
There’s no doubt that soccer continues to grow. The worry, though, is that MLS and, to some degree, the US Men’s National Team, is continuing to lose ground against the riding tide of interest in the world’s game. Unless MLS in particular is willing to make changes to compete, the domestic top-flight league risks getting left further behind.