What do the four Champions League semifinalists have in common for the American soccer fan? They’ve all been here recently.
By J Hutcherson
WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 22, 2008) USSoccerPlayers — On May 31st, 1972, Arsenal played the Miami Toros in Miami. It was the only time they played a North American Soccer League club. Since then, the favorite team of a surprising number of American soccer writers returned once, to play Independiente in Miami in 1989.* The high point of the NASL, the TransAtlatic Cup, ChampionsWorld, and Soccer United Marketing, a very real link with Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids, and no Arsenal.
Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Celtic, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Rangers, Juventus, Milan, and a veritable cavalcade of notable and not-so-notable clubs willing to make the trip to the United States. No Arsenal.
This summer, Major League Soccer’s All-Star team will play a Premier League opponent that is basically the encapsulation of all that is mid-table obscurity. Any European league that can come up with a connection to some segment of the population is willing to travel. Not Arsenal.
Aside from France’s Ligue 1 deciding it is the next answer to a question American fans aren’t likely to ask, it’s Arsenal that remains the only truly elite club seemingly uninterested in the American tour. Even Inter Milan, the other major European club to never really try the US market, at least teases the prospect of spending part of a preseason Stateside. Is it something we said?
Consider that, of all our European friends, it’s Arsenal that makes the most compelling case for American sports influence. Since the rise of the Premier League, the English pro game has latched onto just about every American sports as business excess. Make a list and start checking items off. Arsenal wins, because they remain the only major English team to say goodbye to an historically significant stadium for the relative wonder of modern stadium construction.
Even more so than Manchester United, they’re the New York Yankees of the English Premier League. Bright lights, big city, and a willingness to co-opt their own history to justify the push for more. While everybody else talked, Arsenal did.
Yet they remain the unwilling suitor for American allegiance.
Colorado Rapids investor/operator Stan Kroenke continues to invest if not operate in Arsenal. He’s up to 12.2%. That should at least get a visit to Dick’s Sporting Goods Stadium and the club that once considered becoming Rocky Mountain Arsenal.
With the touring season now more about Dubai and Hong Kong than North America, it’s an odd time for any of the massive clubs to try to shift interest and shirts here. With SUM seemingly giving up on the structured series concept popularized by ChampionsWorld, the touring schedule has returned to the limited engagement model.
This summer, Barcelona is expected, and as of yesterday Borussia Moechengladbach, a club that might actually be back in the Bundesliga when they visit. Add in the Polish clubs coming to Chicago, and it’s closer to the older model of one or two name clubs and all the rest.
‘And all the rest’ can and has meant anybody from topflight clubs not known for a significant American fan base to the soccer equivalent of the nostalgia act that you might remember from some long ago championship. It’s one thing for a relatively mundane club a league down from former glory to play out an uninspired draw or odd goal loss on a Wednesday night in front of 4,000. Quite another to get the same action with a giant of Europe.
Combine that with the National Teams touring the US against a variety of opponents, Soccer United Marketing’s promotion of Mexican clubs that play meaningful games here on a regular basis, and the extended competitions for MLS teams, and the schedule is tight enough that only the biggest draws will meet NFL stadium sized expectations.
It’s easy enough to generalize. Each year a club makes a return trip to the United States, that ability to draw decreases. Familiarity equates less of a pressing need for ticket sales, especially when the clubs that hadn’t been to the US for an actual game in decades start showing up like it’s summer camop.
Soccer-specific venues help create an appearance/reality distinction for clubs that could sell out far past that limited capacity while still not filling the available NFL venue. At the same time, what defines success was a lot easier when the giants of Europe were playing multiple games in big buildings.
We saw during those summers that some match-ups in some cities wouldn’t draw. Compelling explanations aside, the actual attendances have to count for something. Even the international audience willing to take a ride to North Jersey weren’t doing it at NFL numbers at every available opportunity.
Eventually, Arsenal would have relented, maybe even playing Inter Milan in a symbolic last to show game somewhere in America. There’s something to be said for that having yet to happen.
*In the original version, we had Arsenal only appearing in the US in ’72. Courtesy of one of the comments, Arsenal did play Independiente in Miami in 1989. Thanks Tim. Here’s a clip with a wide swath of empty seats.