Manchester United's widely successful tour, which averaged almost 70,000 fans, garnered most of the headlines, but Man U's four games were only a fraction of the international action that recently took place, much of it off the radar screen.
By our count, 47 international matches were played in the U.S. July 1-Aug. 3. They include the Gold Cup (14 games), Recopa Sudamericana (Olimpia-San Lorenzo in Los Angeles) and Italian Super Cup (AC Milan-Juventus at Giants Stadium).
The foreign armada consisted of 24 clubs and 14 national teams. Ten Mexican clubs - half the First Division - prepared for the Torneo Apertura in the United States. They ranged from Club America (which played Man U in Los Angeles and Lazio in San Jose) and Chivas (four games in California, including the MLS All-Star Game) to Necaxa and Atlante barnstorming through the Carolinas and Georgia against USL opposition.
The crowds for most of the Mexican games were disappointing. The Chivas-FAS (El Salvador) game in Fresno was supposed to be a fundraiser to help save Fresno State men's soccer, but the crowd was half the size promoters hoped for. The talk before Necaxa's game in Greensboro, N.C., was of the club's fan base in the Triad area's growing Mexican community, but the crowd was 1,156, instead of an anticipated sellout.
Some argue the U.S. soccer market may be saturated - but what a market it is! No other country could host a regional championship such as the Gold Cup in the middle of its league season or support anything like the scope of the ChampionsWorld Series.
MLS's view is that these international games point to a growing base. But MLS doesn't have a great track record of tapping into these markets - the Man U mania, with the same yuppie soccer fans who come out of the closet every four years for the World Cup, and the Mexican-American community, where interest in MLS has waned.
If the foreign invasion is about developing brand loyalty and selling product, MLS is in for a fight. I see Man U and Barca jerseys and many more Chivas and Cruz Azul jerseys in my neighborhood, but hardly anything MLS. If the market is indeed growing, that has to change.
by Soccer America Managing Editor Paul Kennedy