For Wednesday night’s International Champions Cup match, I sat in the press box inside MetLife Stadium, which will host the World Cup Final in eight years as reigning Premier League Champions Manchester City took on Champions League runners-up Liverpool in their first meeting since the quarterfinals of the Champions League this past spring.
This was my third consecutive year attending the International Champions Cup. Each year, I’ve experienced three drastically different matches, all of which have taught me a lot about the growth of soccer in the United States.
In 2016, I sat in the third to last row of the upper deck as Bayern Munich took on Real Madrid. I bought the tickets for my dad as a Father’s Day present, and we sat with the true soccer fans in the United States. These people, mostly immigrants, paid a large sum of money (even the upper deck tickets weren’t cheap) to see their team in person, an experience that is understandably rare. Despite reserve right back Danilo scoring off a deflected shot past Bayern Munich backup keeper Sven Ulreich, the Madridistas in the crowd exploded. And the Bavarians hung their heads. Even if the stakes weren’t high, the emotions surely were.
In 2017, I had almost the exact opposite experience. I sat in a box with my father and several of his colleagues. I was given an overwhelming assortment of free food and drinks, and sat back and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle that I had only dreamed of. The football was terrific as well. FC Barcelona played Juventus, a rematch of the 2015 Champions League Final, and the overarching question hanging above the stadium revolved around one man: Neymar. The Brazilian winger torched Juventus for two goals, which only further fueled rumors of his imminent departure from the club for PSG. The match was more of a showcase revolving around one man and the narratives he created than the rest of the action on the pitch.
In 2018, I tackled the International Champions Cup at MetLife Stadium in the third different capacity, as a journalist. As such, I decided to arrive a few hours early. Three, to be exact. The press box opened at 5pm, and I parked at 4:15pm, eager to come in and explore. To my surprise, I wasn’t even close to the first one there. Fans who wouldn’t be allowed entry for at least another 90 minutes were already tailgating with friends and family.
My immediate reaction: If you want soccer to grow as an American sport, it has to grow in an American way. And tailgating three hours prior to kick off, clad in jerseys, grills blazing? That’s as American as it gets.
Another early reaction was that of disappointment in Pep Guardiola who started just one player (new signing Riyad Mahrez) that would be a justifiable selection in a Premier League match. Jurgen Klopp, conversely, started 5 players that also started the Champions League Final in May (Milner, Wijnaldum, Robertson, Van Dijk, and Karius). Salah and Mane were on the bench for Liverpool, whereas almost all of City’s big names weren’t even in the squad. Bernardo Silva and Leroy Sane were in, but David Silva, de Bruyne, Sterling, Aguero, Kompany, Gundogan, Ederson and others weren’t even featured.
I understand it’s a preseason tournament and its in a World Cup year (the tournament ended just 10 days ago), but it would have been wonderful to see some of the bigger players if they didn’t have to have their break after an exhausting World Cup.
Another takeaway. The amount of red shirts in the stadium was overwhelming, which is surprising considering Manchester City have an affilliated team that plays down the road from MetLife Stadium. Liverpool, clearly, had home field advantage in this match, and formed a mini-Kop behind one of the goalmouths. It wasn’t surprising that the stadium public address system played “You’ll Never Walk Alone” right before kickoff.
The match, or at least the first half, was predictably dull. It was Liverpool’s B team against City’s C team, and save from an odd moment of quality from an established player such as Mahrez or Milner, it wasn’t the most riveting opening period.
The second half was better. Chances came from both sides, and eventually Manchester City scored through Leroy Sane off the assist from Bernardo Silva. As someone in the press box said, “that’s what happens when you put world class players on the pitch.”
The biggest roar from the crowd, however, came not when Sane scored but when Mohamed Salah was introduced in the 62nd minute. Less than sixty seconds later, he scored with his second touch. It’s so wonderful to see, especially live, when one player is so clearly better than everyone else. That was the case with Salah, who almost scored three goals in his first six minutes on the pitch.
The best moments of the match came directly before and after the 90 minutes with the late penalty scored by Mane as well as the Liverpool supporters belting out their final rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” of the night, which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
This was trumped during the post match press conference. First, Pep Guardiola answered questions in both English and Spanish with wit and honesty. Then, a moment of magic. Midway through one of Pep’s answers, the crowd outside the press conference room erupted as Jurgen Klopp walked in. Pep immediately got up, nodded at his Liverpool counterpart, and said “I guess I’m done,” much to our amusement. As Klopp settled down, he turned to a departing Pep, exclaiming “Bye!”
That intimate moment between two of the greatest managers in world football is something I will never forget.
Football is a game of moments for the casual fan. And despite a poor opening fifty minutes, those who attended can say they saw Leroy Sane, Mo Salah, and Sadio Mane trade goals, like it was any Saturday afternoon at Anfield. That’s the point of this tournament, isn’t it?