By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (July 16, 2012) US Soccer Players -- Amid the flurry of friendlies that will be played across North America this summer, none of them ultimately count for anything beyond bragging rights. It's preseason for the European clubs, meaning players will be a rusty after being off for the better part of June. Coaches will be testing lineups and formations, and what we see on the field won't necessarily resemble the final product come the start of the European seasons. But we knew that already.
There is one game, however, that will be played in North America that does matter and doesn’t involve Major League Soccer teams. That lone match will be played July 28th at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey. Two French clubs, Ligue 1 champion Montpellier and French Cup winner Lyon play for the Trophee Des Champions, which is also known as the French Super Cup.
It's no secret that Ligue 1 is attempting to attract American fans by scheduling this game. The French league is not high on the list of much-see TV even for American soccer fans. The English Premier League, Italy’s Serie A, Spain’s Liga, and Germany’s Bundesliga all get more attention from fans on this side of the Atlantic.
Despite that, the game should fill the 25,000-seat stadium. Tickets cost as little as $20 and there are plenty of soccer fans living in the region who are curious enough to watch a game live that actually means something. The French season typically starts ahead of Europe's other leagues, and the prospect of a trophy should mean a game that's closer to what happens when there are points on the line.
“The New York public will have the privilege of witnessing a match that counts,” said Ligue 1 President Frederic Thiriez. “Just 10 days before the start of the Ligue 1 campaign, this is not just a final dress rehearsal, but for the chance for the winner to get their hands on one of four major French titles.”
Thiriez said the US market is something of great interest for the French league, which once boasted Americans like Carlos Bocanegra (St. Etienne) and Charlie Davies (FC Sochaux). In all, 13 Americans have played in Ligue 1 and 2. There are currently no Americans playing in France.
“The results of the US National Team, the development of the MLS, the number of licensed players, all the numbers show that the United States has set out to conquer the world’s number 1 sport,” said Thiriez.
Starting in 2009, the French federation decided to use the Super Cup as a chance to market itself abroad. Its first foray abroad came in 2009 when the match was played in Montreal, an obvious fit considering that's the third-largest French-speaking city in the world. In that game, Bordeaux defeated Guingamp 2-0 before 34,068 fans at the Olympic Stadium.
In 2010, the Cup hit the road once again when the game was contested in Tunis, Tunisia, a former French colony, and it was a wild success. A crowd of 65,000 watched Marseille down Paris St. Germain in a shootout. Last year, the match was played in Tanger, Morocco, where Marseille again won it, defeating Lille before a crowd of 34,000.
Super Cups aren't limited to France. No matter which European league it is attached to, is a natural to be played abroad and part of a growing phenomenon to market domestic leagues abroad. The game is played in the summer, when most Europeans are on vacation and tuned out from the game aside from the gossip of transfer rumors. It's for that reason that other nations have also held its Super Cup game on foreign soil.
The Italians set the trend back in 1993. Only 25,000 showed up at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC, to see AC Milan down Torino 1-0. In 2002, the Italian federation held the game in Tripoli, Libya, and a year later at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. That game – played at the same time as the wildly-popular 2003 Manchester United US tour – attracted 54,128 fans who witnessed Juventus beat AC Milan on penalties. In 2009 and 2011, the game was played in Beijing, part of a larger push to market the game in Asia. The 2012 edition will again be played in Beijing after sponsors guaranteed the Italian FA $25 million to hold the game in China.
The Premiership, by far the most popular European league in this country, has never played an official match on US soil. The Community Shield, England’s version of the Super Cup, has been played at 12 different sites – all in Great Britain – but never abroad. The game is typically played at Wembley Stadium. This year’s edition, set for August 12th, pits EPL champions Manchester City versus FA Cup winners Chelsea at Villa Park in Birmingham because of the Summer Olympics.
In February, the English FA ruled out playing the game abroad when faced with a conflict due to the London Games. Given the vast following for the English game, there would certainly be a financial incentive to pursue playing the Community Shield outside England. Instead, the FA said in a terse statement, "The Community Shield will take place at the traditional time at a prestigious stadium in England.”
For New York, hosting the French Super Cup gives the world’s capital another chance to showcase itself to the soccer world. New York has had a busy summer of soccer. Last month, MetLife Stadium was the site for the Argentina-Brazil friendly, won by Argentina 4-3. The crowd of 81,994 watched Lionel Messi score a hat trick on that steamy June 9th afternoon.
The night before the French Super Cup, Michael Bradley's new club AS Roma will play El Salvador in a preseason friendly at Red Bull Arena. Not to be outdone, two baseball stadiums will host games. Yankee Stadium will feature two friendlies (Chelsea-Paris St. Germain on July 22nd and AC Milan-Real Madrid on August 8th as part of the World Football Challenge), while Citi Field will host one game (Ecuador-Chile on August 15th) that organizers hope draws interest from the city’s large South American immigrant population.
Even baseball stadiums in this country know that soccer is a growing sport and what better way to fill seats on non-game days than with some of the world’s best clubs. If the past is any measure, fans will respond in droves. Indeed, the US remains the land of opportunity – and foreign leagues, teams and sponsors know it.
More from Clemente Lisi: