This week, 32 teams from around the globe converge on Brazil for the start of the World Cup. But for many of these sides, their last stop before arriving in Brazil was not in their home countries but in the United States.
While the pretournament focus on the World Cup host has been on unfinished infrastructure, civil unrest and transport chaos, almost half of those teams will appear in Brazil after playing multiple warm-up games in the United States, with apparent turnkey efficiency.
For the organizers of these games, many of whom were part of the failed U.S. bid to host the 2022 World Cup, which went to Qatar, there’s a certain rueful vindication to be had in demonstrating their capacity and efficiency on a large scale. And with the political scandal around the Qatar bid refusing to die down, there was an understated emphasis that’s summed up in a quietly confident statement:
“I think we could host a tournament in our country at very short notice,” said Court Jeske, senior director of Soccer United Marketing International (SUM), the marketing arm of US Soccer and Major League Soccer (MLS).
World Cup legacy
Statements like Jeske’s are based on a transformed soccer infrastructure in the United States since it hosted the World Cup in 1994 (for which the nonfootball nation still boasts the highest crowd numbers of any World Cup) and the Women’s World Cup in 2003. In large part this has been almost a byproduct of the development of MLS, with its emphasis on dedicated stadiums and training facilities, several of which have been in play in the past two weeks. But it’s also due to the marketing attempts of SUM and private promoters such as Charlie Stillitano’s Relevent Sports.
Stillitano was a veteran of the World Cup 1994 organizing committee in New York and later a general manager at the city’s first MLS team. Now he and his company produce an ambitious summer exhibition game series, the International Champions Cup, that brings together European powerhouses such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and AC Milan in high-profile, highly attended games across the United States. (This year’s program starts a couple of weeks after the World Cup finishes.) Relevent has played its part in the current round of World Cup warm-up games, overlapping programming with SUM and producing big-ticket events such as Tuesday night’s New York game between Ireland and Cristiano Ronaldo’s World Cup–bound Portugal team.
In some ways the appeal for the World Cup teams is obvious, as is the appeal for the U.S. soccer establishment to profit off their arrival in the country.
“We at MLS have an infrastructure now that has training facilities, stadiums, a very turnkey training environment,” Jeske said. “Plus the fact that the teams can get acclimated to the time zones in Brazil, and also they liked the fact that they can train with some degree of anonymity throughout our facilities here in the U.S. So we had the perfect recipe of what we had to offer and what the international teams were looking for.”
Given the exponential growth of the game in the country and an imminent World Cup played in a time zone just ahead of those in the U.S. and geared toward prime-time viewing there, that sweet spot of developed infrastructure and a ready audience to swell gate receipts combined with relative day-to-day anonymity for all but the superstars of the game may not last long. But on this occasion at least, the likes of world champions Spain, the perennially scrutinized England and the U.S.’s soccer rival Mexico have all felt comfortable conducting their final warm-up games in the United States.
Friends off the field
To those versed in the sporting rivalry between the U.S. and Mexico, it may seem odd that for both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, the Mexican team has conducted its warm-ups in the States. But because of the American facilities, the excesses of coverage in its own soccer-obsessed country and the bonus of marketing to the lucrative Mexican-American diaspora, the Mexican federation, FMF, has considered the U.S. an obvious choice.
Beyond that, FMF is a long-term partner with SUM, along with the regional governing body CONCACAF and Chivas Guadalajara (which will be playing exhibition games in the U.S. this year, including a game against Bayern Munich at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey in late July). In this case, money speaks louder than sporting rivalries.
Like much of what happens in the peculiar mix of proactive and reactive actions in U.S. soccer culture, some of these partnerships are down to planning, some to realpolitik. SUM emerged out of a particularly painful episode in MLS’s history, when the league was forced to contract and lose both its teams in Florida in 2002. At that point MLS Commissioner Don Garber and a handful of charter owners of the league consolidated ownership of the remaining clubs, committed to developing soccer-specific stadiums beyond the single one in Columbus, Ohio, built in 1999, and also founded SUM.
One of SUM’s first actions was to monetize the World Cup broadcast rights at a level much more in line with the way other federations around the world treated this prized property. (Previous rights had gone for very low fees to broadcasters that subsequently seemed uncertain about or indifferent to how to treat them.) World Cup rights have continued to be a lucrative property for SUM, and the close allying of U.S. men’s soccer rights with MLS rights recently helped the league secure a better eight-year TV deal than it might have expected as a standalone entity.
A changed landscape
But as more teams arrived in MLS and as more owners committed to stadium and training facilities, another kind of exploitable landscape emerged — one that can integrate with the off-season American soccer infrastructure for big events (the Portugal game is at New York’s MetLife Stadium, and Spain played a doubleheader against El Salvador alongside an MLS game at Maryland’s FedEx Field on Saturday) and can also work for smaller federations to play and train at MLS facilities.
Jeske described the example of a game last week in which Côte d’Ivoire played El Salvador in Dallas.
“Very nice stadium, Toyota Stadium, that the Ivory Coast had used as their training base for a week — fields on site, a staff of 60 people there with FC Dallas to help support them, hotels, infrastructure in one spot,” he said. “So we have a turnkey setup here in the U.S. if we want to tap into that, and that’s how we were able to manage 10 federations essentially all here at the same time for two weeks.”
Even Florida appears healthy, as it pertains to soccer. Relevent is based there, two MLS teams may soon be competing in Orlando and Miami, and on Saturday evening, the U.S. played its farewell game before leaving for Brazil at Jacksonville’s Everbank Field in front of more than 52,000 fans.
The real competition on the field begins within days, but as the last flights leave the U.S. for an uncertain landing in Brazil and as a beleaguered FIFA defends its decision on Qatar amid mounting pressure, the U.S. soccer establishment may feel it has scored at least a point on another competitive front.