On Tuesday night, tens of thousands of fans will pay top dollar and stream into FedEx Field to watch a preseason game featuring a fabled organization with a new coach trying to recover from a dour year. Typical of these affairs, several top players will sit out, others will perform only until halftime and no one will lose sleep about the outcome.
The start of the Washington Redskins’ exhibition season?
Visiting the nation’s capital for the first time in three years, the Red Devils, led by Dutch World Cup Coach Louis van Gaal, will face Inter Milan in the International Champions Cup. It’s a marketing initiative masquerading as an eight-team tournament.
United already has played in front of more than 86,000 in Southern California and 54,000 in Denver. This Saturday, the English Premier League club will help make history: Attendance for its ICC match against reigning Euro king Real Madrid is expected to set a U.S. record of more than 100,000 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Organizers in Washington say sales are approaching 50,000 — despite ticket prices ranging from $47.35 for obstructed view and standing to $275 for a lower-level sideline seat; $40 parking fees; a rush-hour commute to Landover; a United squad coming off a seventh-place finish in the Premier League; and an Inter side without any mainstream appeal.
United’s top attraction, Dutch forward Robin van Persie, is on post-World Cup vacation. Forward Wayne Rooney is here, his holiday having started and ended early after England’s swift elimination in Brazil.
With van Gaal prowling the international marketplace — Real Madrid’s Angel Di Maria, Fiorentina’s Juan Cuadrado and Juventus’s Arturo Vidal have entered the rumor mill — the squad remains incomplete with the league opener against Swansea City at Old Trafford just 18 days away.
As expected, most of those included on the tour are playing no more than 45 minutes per match. In both the 7-0 demolition of the Los Angeles Galaxy last week (a friendly unaffiliated to the tournament) and the 3-2 victory over Roma on Saturday, van Gaal made nine changes at halftime.
Mexican forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, United’s most popular player in the Americas, helped boost ticket sales in both markets but did not play against the Galaxy and entered in the 70th minute vs. Roma. Radio spots in Washington are promoting Rodrigo Palacio, Inter Milan’s Argentine World Cup forward, but he is not here.
Inter, which finished fifth in Italy’s Serie A last season, is building toward the Aug. 30 league opener at Torino.
If van Gaal had his say, the Red Devils would never have agreed to play in this cross-country tournament, which also features Inter Milan, Roma, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Liverpool, AC Milan and Greek side Olympiacos. He was hired after the club committed to the tour, which placed heavy emphasis on marketing, sponsorship events and player appearances.
"We have to prepare [for] the season, and when you have commercial activities and dreadful distances, having to fly a lot and the jet lag, it is not very positive for a good preparation," he said during a news conference in Los Angeles last week. “The tour was already arranged, so I have to adapt and I shall adapt.”
He will have a say whether United returns next summer to play in New York, Chicago and Dallas, according to the Guardian.
Despite the issues, ticket sales demonstrate the power of United’s brand — Man U, Real Madrid and Barcelona are the most popular sports teams in the world — and the diversity of the U.S. soccer market.
While U.S. fans of basketball and football follow the pro or college game (or both), the soccer audience is fractured. Some watch the major European leagues and the UEFA Champions League only; others are committed to MLS. The World Cup attracts both serious and casual fans.
Men’s U.S. national team supporters flooded World Cup stadiums in Brazil and typically care about MLS. Mexican-Americans follow the Mexican league and national team closely. Central American expatriates have strong bonds with their hometown clubs.
The U.S. women’s national team pulls in big TV numbers for the Olympics and World Cup and the college game has a small following.
Major European clubs have been visiting the United States for many summers, tapping into business opportunities. The Manchester United-Barcelona friendly in July 2011 at FedEx Field attracted 81,807, a record for a soccer match in the Washington area.
This summer has been no different. Aside from the ICC tournament, Arsenal played the New York Red Bulls over the weekend, while Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace, Swansea City, Fulham, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Chivas Guadalajara are on tour.
The end of summer, however, will not mark the end of international matches: Copa Centroamericana, the Central American championship for national teams, will be staged in the United States for the first time, with RFK Stadium hosting a Sept. 3 tripleheader.
A large turnout is expected. And unlike the summer friendlies, it’s about soccer, not selling replica jerseys.