The World Cup ended three weeks ago in Brazil, but American hunger for world-class soccer continues as a crowd of more than 50,000 is expected at Sun Life Stadium on Monday night to watch English Premier League giants Liverpool and Manchester United play in the final of the Guinness International Champions Cup.
Although it is just a preseason tournament, the eight-team event has drawn huge crowds across the nation, including a U.S.-record 109,318 fans at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday for Manchester United’s 3-1 win over Real Madrid. The previous mark was 101,799, set at the Rose Bowl for the 1984 Olympic final.
“It was pretty extraordinary being there with that crowd,” said Matt Higgins, CEO of RSE Ventures, the sports and entertainment branch of Dolphins owner Stephen Ross’ company. “You could feel it was one of the tipping points for the sport in this country. If there was any question whether soccer has arrived in the United States, that put an end to it. It sold out in 36 hours, and it wasn’t just the size of the crowd, but the level of enthusiasm.”
Manchester United’s new manager, Louis van Gaal, said he was “amazed” at the record crowd for Sunday’s match.
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Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, admitted he didn’t expect to see 69,364 fans show up at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte for Saturday’s 2-0 win over AC Milan.
“Wherever I have been in the world, there have always been Liverpool supporters,” he said. “I’ve got to say, I was surprised that so many fans got [to Charlotte]. When we were driving up to the stadium it was like a FA Cup final or Champions League final.”
Top European clubs travel overseas in the summer to play preseason friendlies in an effort to spread their brand — and sell merchandise — around the world. The 2-year-old ICC offers teams the added incentive of a trophy and a trip to Miami, a favorite vacation spot for international players.
“The past few weeks, I kept hearing team officials and players saying, ‘We want to make it to Miami,’ ” Higgins said. “They were taking these games seriously.”
The tournament has been particularly uplifting for Manchester United and its fans, who endured the club’s worst season in more than two decades last year. The Red Devils finished in seventh place and out of European league qualification with 19 wins, 12 losses and seven ties — the lowest finish since 1990.
Things got so bad the storied club fired first-year coach David Moyes, who had replaced legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. Dutchman van Gaal was hired in mid-May and has won all three preseason games thus far, injecting the team with confidence. Fans in the United States have enjoyed watching English star Wayne Rooney and Mexican star Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez.
Ashley Young has been the breakout player of the tour for the Red Devils. He scored two goals against Real Madrid and has four goals in the tournament.
Liverpool finished second in the Premier League last season, behind Manchester City, and is seeking to build on that success. The team features seven players from England’s World Cup team — Jordan Henderson, Steven Gerrard, Glen Johnson, Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert.
Henderson said at a Sunday news conference that the ICC has been a good diversion from the disappointment in Brazil, and players look forward to the final on Monday.
“Because it’s Manchester United, the fans and everybody else will make it a big game,” Henderson said. “At the same time, I think in all of our games in preseason our tempo has been right, and we’ve approached the game well. This one is no different — we’ll approach it in the same way. Everybody is looking forward to it. It’s always important to win games, even in preseason, when you’re getting your fitness levels as high as you can.
“Everybody is trying to stay injury-free, but at the same time you want to be winning games. [Monday] is another big game for us, a big test, and of course we want to win.”
Added Rodgers: “The games out here have all been competitive and Liverpool-Manchester United will be no different. All professional players at this level want to compete and it’s a big rivalry. It won’t have any bearing on how the season pans out. But we have come all this way and I’m sure we all want to finish it off with a really good game.’’