MLS star power battles for attention in glare of International Champions Cup
On Saturday, Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored for the LA Galaxy in a 3-1 win in Philadelphia. On Sunday, Christian Pulisic scored twice for Borussia Dortmund in a 3-1 win over Liverpool in Charlotte. On Wednesday, Wayne Rooney played for D.C. United in a rain-delayed Atlantic Cup game against the New York Red Bulls. Across the country, the team that Ibrahimovic and Rooney used to play for, Manchester United, was warming up for its game against AC Milan outside Los Angeles. Up the West Coast, the team Alphonso Davies will leave at season's end for Bayern Munich, the Vancouver Whitecaps, played a Voyageurs Cup game against the Montreal Impact. Bayern, itself, was in Philadelphia, since vacated by Ibrahimovic, to play the club where he made his name, Juventus.
So much for the dog days of summer.
World Cup years always make for a particularly breathless offseason, of course, but in the U.S., where soccer never sleeps, summers have become the moment when the global game directly courts one of its biggest audiences in the International Champions Cup, and when marquee names in MLS lose just a little luster by comparison.
The success of the ICC is something MLS cannot legislate for, or control, and it's hard not to feel that it cannibalizes domestic attention in the moments MLS has traditionally pushed for new audiences.
Throughout the past half decade or so, Charlie Stillitano's ICC has morphed, with some significant backing from Stephen Ross' Relevent Sports, into the annual summer gathering of top teams from around the world. Perhaps most worrying for MLS, through repetition it has gained enough traction to become a fixture in the imagination of American soccer fans. If early incarnations leaned a little too heavily on the idea that this was a "real" competition, the ICC has settled into its skin as a kind of "spring training" ritual for elite soccer clubs and their most recently acquired players.
Ousmane Dembele, Sadio Mane and Marco Asensio are just three of the players who made their debuts in the ICC, and for a U.S. audience long since grown to maturity in its knowledge of the global game, the tournament represents something of a privileged look at coming attractions on the big stage. They're friendlies, sure, but the ICC has become a reliable data point for seeing which top teams are best transitioning out of the summer wheeling and dealing and into the new European season.
Meanwhile, dotted among these giants of the game, MLS teams start their midseason turn for home, take an All-Star break against what in recent years has come to look like whichever ICC giant can cram them into their schedule, and perhaps host one of those lower-profile friendly games as a revenue spinner to defray stadium costs. And it's hard to escape the feeling that they badly lose the battle for popular attention.
We're not talking about the effervescent presences of recent expansion teams -- after all, if you're talking summer games, it's only fair to acknowledge Atlanta United breaking the MLS attendance record yet again last week. But in MLS, teams that have been around at least as long as the ICC -- everyone from Montreal back, that is -- holding onto territorial ground, let alone growing it, is no longer simply a case of signing an aging marquee name and then attracting the curious to see him.
And if it was never really quite that simple, even in the golden age of David Beckham, it was pretty close. Montreal, for example, lived up to its reputation as an "event town", with big crowds when Beckham was passing through, but it's doubtful it will be switching to the Olympic Stadium for Ibrahimovic or Rooney. The saturation of the global sport through TV and, yes, the ICC has changed the calculus for MLS teams in terms of what they expect from their big-name players. Marketing draw is part of it, but the likes of Rooney and Ibrahimovic need to repeatedly perform to be worth their money.
Because when the ICC circus leaves town and Europe retreats to forgetting about the rest of the world for the next year, MLS teams have to compete week in, week out for points and attention. Ibrahimovic can claim all he wants that he'd have been president by now if he had come to America a decade ago, but in reality, his novelty would have long since been lost in the clamor of another U.S. soccer summer.