Florida watches world-class soccer at International Champions Cup

South Florida remains to many American soccer fans the most polarizing market for the sport in the United States. A place where MLS is determined to return, but fans across the nation view with skepticism and a certain degree of disdain. A market that has seen lower division clubs come and go, but in 2017 has nine teams competing in national leagues at the division four level or higher. It’s filled with passion for the sport if not for a single locally-based club or team.

Perhaps as last week’s International Champions Cup events demonstrate, the South Florida market is just different than the rest of the country, something that those on the outside who apply a critical lens to this area (which seems more like a bazooka to the ultra-defensive seemingly besieged fans in the area) should work to understand the differences.

The International Champions Cup (ICC) has made Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium its centerpiece in three of its five years of existence. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross’ creation of Relevent Sports in 2012 insured this event would use South Florida as a showpiece.

With renovations to Hard Rock Stadium complete, the ICC returned to Miami after a two year absence due to construction at the ground. Excitement has filled much of south Florida’s soccer community about the two matchups for months — PSG against Juventus and Real Madrid versus Barcelona. However, there remain many locals who don’t like the ICC and would rather support local grassroots soccer. And during the course of the last few months, they were quite vocal as well particularly about the ticket prices associated with the second matchup — the first El Clásico to be held outside Spain since the 1980’s.

Last Wednesday’s matchup between PSG and Juventus was seen as very much the “undercard” of the two ICC matchups in Miami. But in fact it provided some of the best football this European preseason has put on display — a match with crisp passing and strong organization particularly from Juventus, which thrilled the 44,444 in attendance. The crowd, perhaps larger than expected, was also more boisterous than one might have anticipated given that neither Juventus nor PSG rank among the most visible and best supported European sides in the area. But locals will flock to see top-level soccer and for those who are fans of these two clubs, it gave a rare opportunity to see either live and in person. Juventus ran out 3-2 winners in a rare ICC match that oozed quality from start to finish, even when the reserves were fielded in the later portions of the second half.

It’s notable that despite the aggressive promotion in soccer circles of the Gold Cup and the faux nationalism the US Soccer Federation tries to gin up around its games, this match ran simultaneously with the Gold Cup Final, and few if any in attendance were bothered by it. Speculation that the Gold Cup final would crush attendances and interest in this game were simply based on faulty logic. Even more telling was the 93,000 that turned out later the same night in Los Angeles to see Real Madrid take on Manchester City. To these audiences, Americans who crave high level soccer, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, Major League Soccer and the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) don’t always satisfy those cravings.

Last Thursday and Friday were filled with anticipation locally about whether Cristiano Ronaldo would show up in town for Saturday’s match and whether it was possible Neymar would be sold to PSG before Saturday’s El Clásico Miami.

While the market can be knocked, it’s difficult to find another locale in the United States where
35,728 people would pay to attend a Friday training session. That’s what happened when Real Madrid and Barcelona went through their workouts after arriving in town Friday evening at Hard Rock Stadium. Fans gladly paid for parking and entrance to the venue. This number included many fans not fortunate enough to secure tickets for the match and media that was not credentialed for Saturday’s El Clásico.

ESPN’s wall-to-wall coverage of El Clásico Miami added to the ambience around town and at the training sessions on Friday. This felt like the build up to a big event, a UEFA Champions League Final, a Super Bowl or the Masters.

SEE MORE: Schedule of La Liga games on US TV and streaming

No doubt ticket prices were prohibitive for the average fan of these two clubs in the area to attend Saturday’s matchup. But somehow, the game still sold out with fans coming from out of town or out of the country to attend the event. While the match lacked the atmosphere and crowd hostility directed toward Jose Mourinho of Real Madrid’s last Miami visit, a 3-1 victory over Chelsea in the 2013 ICC final before this stadium was renovated, the crowd was still lively and active.

Barcelona gave a passing display in the first ten minutes that any soccer aficionado would appreciate. This sort of play could also prove educational to many in the audience — good soccer has a certain quality, shape and feel to it — and FC Barcelona, as always, showed what passing soccer and quality off-the-ball movement looked like for any aspiring footballers in the audience. The crowd reciprocated for this display in-kind. On these shores, finding breathtaking live soccer of this quality is almost impossible. It was fairly clear in the first half that Barcelona was not treating the match like an ordinary preseason tune up, nor was Neymar distracted from his play by the continued PSG transfer saga. An appreciative crowd gave both clubs a deserved applause at the end of a first 45 with the match level at 2-2.

The second half started well but eventually both sides made substitutions to give younger players and reserves a shot to play. Real Madrid curiously brought Isco on in this stage. And the midfielder, who is always influential, dominated proceedings late on, but was unable to will his team to a result, as Barca ran out 3-2 winners.

Barcelona were crowned ICC Champions for 2017 but the real winner was the soccer fan community in south Florida that saw high level action and got a glimpse of what is truly possible when you bring the best to this market.

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