As any soccer fan will tell you, while watching your favorite club on television is pretty great, seeing their favorite club live, in the flesh, is a luxury.
As I watched the thousands of eager fans stream into Red Bull Arena for the 2015 International Champions Cup (ICC) matches earlier this week, I was once again reminded of how amazing of an opportunity this tournament is for the overseas fan. No disrespect to the Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes and New York Red Bulls, who play host to several European clubs during the tournament, but most fans in those regions are coming to see their favorite foreign stars.
Four of the six European clubs in the North American ICC are league winners, and each finished in the top four of their respective leagues. The clubs and their stars are brand names not only domestically, but worldwide. And that’s essentially the goal of the ICC: to bring the spectacle, intrigue and quality competition offered by clubs from the top European leagues to fans on other continents. Currently hosting tournaments in the United States and Australia, and with kickoff in the Chinese tournament just days away, the ICC provides a unique showcase of foreign talent.
For the European clubs involved, these preseason fixtures are a way to ease back into the rigors of the coming season and, for some players, a moment to prove themselves to their managers. I fear that stateside fans forget to take this into account when they see a marquis players put in a 45 minute shift, or, oftentimes, don’t play at all.
Speaking to the press following a 4-2 loss to New York Red Bulls in their opening match, José Mourinho said, “Preseason is fake, for good or for bad. If you’re very bad, it’s fake, and if you’re too good, it’s fake.”
He also went on to say that the match against Paris Saint-Germain on Saturday July 25 is for preparation only, and that playing against them means nothing to him. Master of mind games or not, I’ve got to admit that José has a point. On one hand, managers of European clubs are tinkering with formations, testing out certain players and generally assessing their squads to see what needs improvement. On the other, the transfer window is open for over another month and, especially if you listen to the rumors, some of these players won’t be with their current teams come the season opener.
For a club like Chelsea, with an massive global outreach, these tournaments are a great way to satisfy current fans and to earn new ones. It’s no secret that the US market is one which European clubs covet. Beyond securing lucrative deals for sponsorship and broadcasting rights, many teams are looking to establish a long-lasting presence stateside.
Chelsea’s Here to Play, Here to Stay program is one such initiative. Since 2013, the Chelsea Football Club Foundation has been collaborating with FC Harlem developing community initiatives for young people in New York City. The Here to Play Here to Stay programs are geared toward offering opportunities to young people around the world, providing enriching activities and focusing on the development of social and leadership skills.
This past Tuesday, Chelsea and Adidas hosted the 2v2 Take New York tournament at the brand new FC Harlem training ground, providing a unique experience for youth players. The tournament also served as the venue for the Chelsea away kit unveiling and an announcement of plans to construct an indoor facility for youth soccer players in Harlem.
The event itself was a great success. As an appetizer for the arrival of several Chelsea players, the 2v2 tournament took place on an all-blue turf pitch Adidas had designed for the event. The Premier League and Capital One Cup trophies were proudly on display, and event staff were ushering fans in to take photos with the silverware.
The youth players involved were judged by famous English freestyle soccer duo, the F2 Freestylers and well-known American street soccer pair Jayinho and Flo. Competing in five-minute 2v2 matches, the players were tasked with showing off their best tricks and fakes in order to earn points from the judges. The best scores advanced to the next rounds and there was no shortage of quality. What most impressed me was the level of skill of the youth players. Some were better than others, but all were confident, talented and eager to seize the opportunity to impress.
The final was judged by Gary Cahill, Diego Costa, César Azpilicueta and Oscar. And, following the match, the finalists were presented with Adidas gear by the Chelsea stars. For the youth players involved, it was the experience of a lifetime. For Chelsea, it was a re-establishment of an important foothold in the local market and a opportunity to continue growing their global brand.
Just before it ended, World Soccer Talk’s Bo McMillan and I hurried out of the Chelsea event and immediately crossed the river, headed for Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey to cover the PSG vs Fiorentina match.
Harrison is quite ideal for a stadium, considering its proximity to major highways and the NJ Path light rail transit system. But time was of the essence, and we had little of it. In the Uber, we stared bleakly at the tail end of rush hour traffic, charging our phones and hoping that we’d have time to speak with a few fans, take some photos and still catch the majority of the pre-match warmups. The scheduling of the Chelsea event had changed that day, and getting to both was a stretch. Relevent Sports, who are in charge of the ICC, are likely not to blame, as the Chelsea players had a delayed landing and then a mid-rush hour drive across New York City. As anyone from the area can attest, that’s not too easily done.
Thankfully, the driver understood that our need was dire and he managed to get us there safely and in excellent time. Upon arriving, I was taken aback by how impressive a venue Red Bull Arena is. It’s really quite a fantastic space for soccer. Its capacity of 25,189 is perfectly compatible with the Red Bull fan base, while also providing an intimate atmosphere for friendly matches like this one. Entering the Arena, I was able to ask several groups of fans for their match predictions and the resounding response was that PSG would win. No surprises there, as PSG is a far more recognizable club for fans in the New York/New Jersey area with more brand-name stars. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the name on most of the tongues as I entered the arena and the “Ici C’est Paris” chants rang out from before the match until the final whistle.
While Ibra was the focus for most of the fans in the arena, local boy Giuseppe Rossi had his own dedicated section of support. A Jersey boy myself, I recall playing against Rossi when he lived in Clifton. Our youth team was quite good, if I do say so myself, but Giuseppe would run circles around us, scoring at least two goals a game. While reminiscing, I realized that Rossi must be idolized by youth players in his old neighborhood, and maybe in all of New Jersey. Few players can appreciate more what the ICC represents for young fans and it seems he knows it. After scoring a well-taken penalty, Rossi pointed up to a section full of of Viola fans bedecked in purple, many of whom were kids. For one, or even all of them, that moment could be life-changing.
Despite impressive showings from Mario Gomez and Joaquin, who scored an absolute peach of a goal, PSG stole the show. Matuidi, the man of the match in my opinion, was an absolute machine, scoring a goal and assisting another. Jean-Kevin Augustin put in an admirable shift, scoring two goals. An Ibrahimovic goal provided the cherry on top to the delight of the majority of the fans in the arena.
Still, like Mourinho, PSG manager Laurent Blanc was quick to downplay the significance of the match, pointing out that the fitness of the players was more important than the victory: “In my opinion, the most important thing is that the players all ended the game without any injuries. Overall, if you look at it, that was a great night.”
PSG happen to be training at my high school alma mater, The Pingry School, in Martinsville, New Jersey, so I asked Blanc what he thought of the facilities and his thoughts on the progress of soccer in America. Surprisingly, he complained about the grass being too long, and insisted that the heat from the field, coupled with the hotel air conditioning had given Marco Verratti a sore throat. I chuckled. He did not.
On the topic of American soccer, Blanc seemed rather well-versed. Highlighting the progress of MLS clubs and the expansions of all North American leagues in the past few years, he insisted that soccer in this region was a budding force, ready to expand. For those of us who grew up in the early days of MLS, this is an undeniable truth. The allure of soccer is growing, especially in the youth of America, and tournaments like the ICC are essential for its growth.
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