Big 'soccer' clubs take gospel to US

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The Independent Online

The struggle to establish "soccer" in the United States has been a tortuous one, often in need of outside help. After nine seasons of Major League Soccer - in which average attendances have remained static at about 16,000 - missionaries are still being summoned from Europe and South America, the difference being that in these days of multinational sponsorship, international fan bases and replica shirts as fashion items, there is more in it for them than merely spreading the gospel. Hence the arrival this week of nine high-profile clubs to play 11 matches against each other from one side of the country to the other.

The struggle to establish "soccer" in the United States has been a tortuous one, often in need of outside help. After nine seasons of Major League Soccer - in which average attendances have remained static at about 16,000 - missionaries are still being summoned from Europe and South America, the difference being that in these days of multinational sponsorship, international fan bases and replica shirts as fashion items, there is more in it for them than merely spreading the gospel. Hence the arrival this week of nine high-profile clubs to play 11 matches against each other from one side of the country to the other.

The Champions' World tournament is not, in fact, a tournament at all - though it may be one next year - but a series of friendlies timed to suit preparations for the new European club season. British football, in the shape of Celtic, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, will be represented in all but one of the games, beginning with the meeting between the former pair in Seattle tomorrow night. The Scottish champions will be busier than anyone. After taking on Jose Mourinho's first full-strength selection as manager of Chelsea, they travel across the country to meet Liverpool on the East Coast two days later, play United in Philadelphia 48 hours after that and then head to Canada for a final game against Roma, their fourth in eight days. Relaxing it is not.

Mourinho, who is waiting to see whether his newest signing, Tiago Mendes, is summoned into Portugal's Olympic squad, has already implied that these games are not the sort of preparation he would personally have chosen for a squad needing to assimilate new members and new methods. But arrangements were in place long before he was endorsed by the club's chief executive, Peter Kenyon, who saw the financial benefits to United when he was there a year ago.

Friendlies or not, Liverpool will be closely scrutinised for signs of change under Rafael Benitez, after Gérard Houllier was unceremoniously dumped at the end of the season.

United's game with Juventus in New Jersey a year ago, when local boy Tim Howard made his debut, was watched by 79,000; this year almost half the games have already sold out. Marketing managers on both sides of the pond are rubbing their hands, and so is Charlie Stillitano, the chief executive of Champions' World. "What we've tried to do is give them top-notch training and top-notch games, then on the marketing side we're trying to extend their brands, working with Nike for Manchester, Umbro for Chelsea and Reebok for Liverpool and so on." Chelsea, Liverpool and Celtic will run camps for children aged 10 to 14, who will - naturally - be wearing their kit.

In the high temperatures of the summer, there will be some exhausting chasing around for players' pre-season conditioning. Exhaustive chasing of the dollar is an equally important part of it too. Chelsea may visit Oxford United, and Liverpool turn out at Wrexham, but these days leading clubs know very well where the real money is. Let's get ready to rumble.

* Sir Alex Ferguson said he may buy another left-back following Gabriel Heinze's Olympic call-up by Argentina. The £6.9m recruit's debut will be delayed at least until September, and the United manager said: "Here's a lad who may be denied an opportunity to get a career at Manchester United. When I start the season I may have another left-back because of this and he may never get a game. He may find it difficult to get in the team."

CHAMPIONS' WORLD SCHEDULE: 24 Jul: Chelsea v Celtic (Seattle); 25 Jul: Manchester Utd v Bayern Munich (Chicago); 26 Jul: Liverpool v Celtic (Hartford); 28 Jul: Manchester Utd v Celtic (Philadelphia); 29 Jul: Chelsea v Roma (Pittsburgh); 30 Jul: Liverpool v Porto (Toronto); 31 Jul: Celtic v Roma (Toronto), Manchester Utd v Milan (New Jersey); 1 Aug: Porto v Galatasaray (New Jersey); 2 Aug: Chelsea v Milan (Philadelphia); 3 Aug: Liverpool v Roma (New Jersey).

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