One might think that bitter rivals Manchester United and Manchester City see enough of each other in annual Premier League encounters and the occasional cup clash to forgo a foreign meeting, but meet they will a week from Monday. In China.
The famed National Stadium -- opened in 2008 for the Summer Olympics and nicknamed the “Bird’s Nest” -- in Beijing will host a unique version of the Manchester derby as part of this year’s International Champions Cup. The annual event, which matches up many of Europe’s top teams in venues across the globe, is the main showcase for Premier League clubs wanting to generate revenues and promote brand awareness.
There’s an upstart among the elite this summer, though, one that last summer didn’t get off its home island. Leicester City’s shock capture of the Premier League title has earned it visits to StubHub Center, where it will play Paris St. Germain, and Stockholm to meet Barcelona.
Otherwise, if the Foxes came to America, they would be playing midweek exhibitions such as those staged Wednesday at Talen Energy Stadium, in which Crystal Palace played a local XI – the Philadelphia Union – to a 0-0 tie, and the rain-lashed 2-2 deadlock between the Carolina Railhawks and West Ham, or the Thursday night soiree between Charlotte and Swansea City won by the Swans, 4-0.
Last summer, Leicester City’s longest preseason trip was a 66-mile bus ride to South Yorkshire for a match with Rotherham United. Its other tune-up foes were Lincoln City, Mansfield Town, Burton United, and Birmingham City.
Many of their Premier League counterparts are leaving England but staying in Europe to train and play in the Netherlands, Austria, Spain, Sweden, France, and Germany. Only newly promoted Watford and Middlesbrough are following the 2015 Leicester City plan and staying within England for the entire preseason.
Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce, who is apparently the top choice to replace former national-team manager Roy Hodgson, persuaded his club’s owner to forgo long-haul flights to far-flung venues. The Black Cats do not bear the commercial clout by which teams can bank seven-figure, per-game appearance fees, and Allardyce would rather not follow the examples of several counterparts visiting the U.S. this summer.
“It’s very important to us that we don’t travel too far so we’re staying in Europe,” says Allardyce who is taking his squad to France and Austria. “Going around the world -- flying to places like America -- isn’t right for any team to be doing when you’re building up to another massive season in the Premier League. Staying in Europe enables us to get the players as fit as we possibly can.”
Still other English teams are doing just that. Next week Bournemouth plays Minnesota United in Blaine, Minn. An affiliation between Stoke City and Orlando City includes a match between the teams in Orlando July 27, the day before the MLS All-Stars take on Arsenal at Avaya Stadium in San Jose. The Gunners are also playing Chivas at StubHub Center during their quick U.S. tour that is not part of the ICC juggernaut.
Manager Arsene Wenger has insisted several top players get a long rest period following their commitments in the European Championship and Copa America Centenario. That stance may detract from the All-Star Game’s allure but such has been the case since MLS instituted a policy of hosting foreign teams for its midsummer showcase event.
Aaron Ramsey (Wales), Mezut Ozil (Germany), Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny (both France) have been given extensive time off to recover from the Euros, and Alexis Sanchez (Chile) is hobbled by an ankle injury he suffered during the Centenario. The Gunners open the Premier League season against Liverpool Aug. 14 but Wenger is not swayed by that daunting encounter falling just five weeks after France lost the Euro final to Portugal, 1-0.
“You consider the rest time because France had a long, long go and I believe that they need four weeks’ holiday because they need to recover from that,” said Wenger to the club’s magazine, ArsenalPlayer. “It takes you two or three weeks to regenerate … to recover completely, and they need to come back with hunger. That disappointment to lose a final, it takes some time to recover from that.
“I believe the club benefits from experiences at the top level, and the mental experiences as well that they have gone through with such a huge pressure. Of course, in the longer term you benefit from that.”
The lure of dollars and exposure is irresistible to the major clubs. Nine will cross the Atlantic Ocean to play summer exhibitions, and six of them -- the Manchester goliaths, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham, and little Leicester, by default -- are components of the ICC operation that encompasses the U.S, China, Australia and Europe.
Two years ago, a record crowd of 109,318 packed the University of Michigan football stadium to watch Manchester United and Real Madrid continue their preseason preparations. There’s no clearer example of how powerful is the draw of glamorous European teams to U.S. audiences eager for an experience devoid of any competitive importance.