Waking up at 8.a.m on a weekend isn’t what most would consider normal. But that is the life of a soccer fan in the United States: watching the first half of a Premier League game on NBC Sports through groggy eyes before being woken up by a Mohamed Salah curler or Kevin De Bruyne screamer.
The International Champions Cup pays European clubs to play preseason games in America with the ultimate goal of growing the presence and importance of soccer in the United States. It wants to allow these fans to watch their favorite teams and players strut their stuff in person—and at normal hours of the day.
In the last four years, Michigan Stadium has held three such preseason friendlies: Manchester United – Real Madrid, Chelsea – Real Madrid, and now Liverpool – Manchester United. Each match gathered crowds north of 100,000, more than what is possible at any European stadium.
These fans came to watch Cristiano Ronaldo, Mohamed Salah, Paul Pogba and Eden Hazard, to name a few. They got mere glimpses of these superstars, sitting on the bench and warming up more than actually playing. They saw youngsters like Sheyi Ojo take penalties and coaches like Zinedine Zidane make eleven changes at half-time. But that’s pre-season.
“If I were them (the fans) I wouldn’t come,” said Manchester United coach Jose Mourinho. “I wouldn’t spend my money to see these (weakened) teams.
“For example, I was watching on television, Chelsea against Inter, and the people decided beach was better than this, and they went to the beach instead of going to the game. The stadium was empty.”
Mourinho echoes what many have fans been saying for a while. Last year, the ICC organized El Clasico in Miami: FC Barcelona vs Real Madrid CF. Tickets soared as high as $4,500. And then, Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t play, and Messi, Suarez and Neymar didn’t even last the full 90 minutes. Despite being a 3-2 thriller, it wasn’t a real El Clasico.
The venues don’t help the cause either. Despite being held in storied stadiums across America, more often than not, those stadiums weren’t designed for soccer games. Most games are held at NFL or College Football battlegrounds where the field is smaller than a regulation soccer pitch.
“A difficulty with the pitch is that, it is an American football pitch,” said Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. “So it is not that wide. It’s like you play in a very narrow way that makes football really not easy to play.”
The high price of tickets and the often sold out matches indicate that there are many fans in the United States passionate for soccer and desperate to watch their clubs play. In fact, over the course of the weekend, both United and Liverpool players repeatedly praised the atmosphere at the Big House.
“I think the passion that many Americans have for soccer deserves more,” Mourinho said. “It deserves the best teams. What creates passion is the quality (of soccer), good players, good teams, a good Liverpool – Manchester United. A good Manchester United – Real Madrid.”
But after a grueling World Cup, it is understandable why most teams aren’t able to play their starting lineups in these games. After all, they need them to be in perfect condition for the start of the new season.
According to Klopp, playing pre-season friendlies in America is less for growing the sport of soccer in the U.S, and more for giving to the fans that already exist.
“We alone are responsible for our fans and supporters all over the world.” Klopp said. “It (the Liverpool – Manchester United match) is not a commercial for football, it’s rather a show up for our supporters abroad, and that is what we like to do.”
“Its giving back to the fans that are here,” echoed breakout Liverpool left back Andrew Robertson. “Because there are supporters every weekend who get up early because of the time differences, and they get up and watch us. And for us to give them a small thing back, it’s a good thing to do.”
To their credit, Liverpool held an open training session at the Big House the day before the game. This gave the fans a chance to come watch them play and become more familiar with the players they support. Even some Manchester United fans in jerseys were seen at Liverpool training as their club didn’t offer anything similar.
After training, some fans went to the team hotel where they were greeted by players like Salah and were treated to a sing along with Klopp.
“It was amazing to see him in person,” said recent Michigan graduate Jamie Bahoura, one of the supporters at the hotel. “It shows how much he cares about us (the fans). He took time out of his busy schedule, and he was probably exhausted too after traveling, but he still made an effort to come down to see us and then join in on the singing which means a lot.”
Despite being more concerned with seeing existing Liverpool fans, Klopp did share his thoughts on the idea of expanding football in the United States.
“You cannot force people to love football.” Klopp said. “There are some stars in the MLS of course: Zlatan (Ibrahimovic at LA Galaxy), Schweini (Bastian Schweinsteiger at Chicago Fire), that is good for football here probably.
“This country is big enough (for football). But you lose a few to baseball, you lose a few to American football, and you lose a few, especially the taller ones, to basketball.”
On his end he believes he and Liverpool FC are doing their part.
“We can only offer what we offer,” Klopp said. “This country is big enough (for football). We are here in Michigan, two years ago we were in Palo Alto, we also trained in New York, we trained in Charlotte. So the circumstances (for football growth) are brilliant. Now the kids have to decide they love the game.”
“The game is worth it, it’s worth it for sure, but the Americans must decide that by themselves. This game grew without the U.S. If you want to be a part of it? Very warm welcome.”