It would probably be a stretch to say that the International Champions Cup — or the Guinness Cup, if you will — is a harbinger for the season to come in European soccer. So sure, Real Madrid won the first edition of the stateside summer soccer tournament last year, and then went on to finally win their tenth European crown in the UEFA Champions League, after a dozen years of waiting. But there’s probably no scientific causality to be drawn there.
There is, however, little denying that European clubs have found their pre-season tours to the United States helpful — and for more than marketing and branding reasons. They speak highly and fondly of the college facilities they practice at. And here, they find fine venues to measure themselves against some of their toughest rivals, but away from the glare of Europe’s hottest cauldrons.
The 2014 International Champions Cup, then, running from July 24 through August 4, may not predict who will win out in Europe in the upcoming season exactly, but it will surely help lay the foundations for winning campaigns.
This year’s tournament, kicking off in Toronto on Thursday when AC Milan and Olympiakos do battle at BMO Field (live, FOX Sports 1, 7:30 p.m. ET), will be played in a rarefied atmosphere of clubs. Aside from the aforementioned two, Real Madrid return and Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, AS Roma and Inter Milan will all take part.
And in the process of building some momentum and credibility for the upcoming season there is much else for these clubs to accomplish in these games. AC Milan, for starters, is in the midst of re-thinking itself as a club. Silvio Berlusconi is no longer willing or able to inject endless cash into the club. In its new reality, it has had to slash payroll, stop making expensive transfers — or any transfers that cost more than a small fee — and figure out how to compete anyway. Last season, manager Massimiliano Allegri couldn’t figure it out and was fired in January. Clarence Seedorf took his place, tried, and was fired over the summer. Now Filippo Inzaghi, another just-retired player, gets a crack at the job.
In that sense, their fate and task isn’t so different from that of their arch-rivals Inter. They, too, are recalibrating their business model. And they managed to retain their premier talent this summer — notably midfielder Fredy Guarin and striker Mauro Icardi— meaning that with the right kind of preparation, they could compete for Serie A again.
Roma, meanwhile, plan to do something very un-Italian: Build a stadium. Of Italy’s many major clubs, only Juventus own their own facility. And this control of their revenue streams has helped them to dominate the last few years, as their purchasing power in the player market far exceeds that of their peers. Roma, now under American ownership, hopes to emulate this and to get away from the traditional Italian setup of renting a (usually badly dilapidated) stadium from the local government.
Olympiakos, winners of 16 of the last 18 Greek league titles, are once again adding a pair of high-profile acquisitions into the mix in defender Eric Abidal and midfielder Pajtim Kasami. But for all their domestic dominance, they have yet to figure out how to gain real and consistent traction in European competition, their ultimate ambition.
Real Madrid may have finally re-conquered the continent, but they coughed up the domestic league to cross-town rivals Atletico in a year when Barcelona were uncharacteristically weak. To rectify this shortcoming, they have already shored up their midfield with the arrival of Bayern Munich’s World Cup winner Toni Kroos. And more reinforcements are expected — namely goalkeeper Keylor Navas and playmaker James Rodriguez — but, as always, those new pieces have to be made to fit in.
Of the English clubs, Manchester United will go through their first pensive paces under the management of Louis van Gaal in an attempt to ensure that last season’s disastrous campaign was a fluke, not the beginning of the end. They are spending and retooling and have much work to do.
Manchester City, champions for the second time in three years last May, will want to ensure and consolidate their lead over the rest of the English pack. This is to say, they need to reproduce their consistency and unmatched efficiency in creating chances.
Finally, Liverpool’s renaissance under Brendan Rodgers continues after the team was a surprise contender for the Premier League last year. He has added a few more pieces to the puzzle but lost his star forward in Luis Suarez, who was as prolific as he was controversial.
During the next 12 days, leading up to the International Champions Cup final in Miami, we won’t get any firm answers over what is to go down over the coming 10 months. But watch very closely, and you could pick up some really good hints.