Palpable anticipation surged through the expectant gathering inside Sun Life Stadium prior to the Guinness International Champions Cup final between Chelsea and Real Madrid on Wednesday night. Credit the engaged crowd, the fireworks, the light show, the perfect pairing for this final or the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo if you must, but this purported exhibition carried the buzz of a significant event.
In a summer landscape teeming with options dotted across the country, this compelling scene stood out. It fulfilled just about every reasonable expectation (even the game provided entertaining fare, especially in the first half) and served as the perfect cap to the first year of a tournament seeking to establish its own place in the crowded marketplace.
More than anything else, these sorts of endeavors crave relevance. And the sight of 67,000 or so fans braving the usual south Florida traffic snarls, piling into a stadium on a weeknight and watching a spectacle unfold in front of their eyes ensured this endeavor carried the sort of cachet required to obtain it.
The success of this night and the tournament as a whole should come as little surprise given the current soccer landscape on these shores. If the correct pieces - in this case, a meeting between two of the top teams in Europe in the last match of an eight-team tournament - are arranged in the right fashion, then consumers pay rapt attention to the glittering stars on display.
"I think in the United States, it has been demonstrated for 20 years now that we have fans of European football," LA Galaxy manager Bruce Arena said after his side suffered a 3-1 defeat to AC Milan in the third-place match earlier in the evening. "No question about it. They want to see these great teams and these great players. And they come out in great numbers. I think they're going to have 65,000 people here. I think it's a tournament that could have a great future in this country."
Arena's point - and his associated take on the need to include the Galaxy and other MLS clubs in such affairs - hits the right spot. Soccer fans in the United States possess a well-earned reputation for turning out to support their preferred European-based teams under the right circumstances. Most of the time, it is just a matter of coaxing the proper clubs to make the trip across the pond for the correct reasons.
The prospect of undertaking preseason preparations in America appeals to many European clubs. A quick jaunt across the Atlantic caters to the marketing department without the travel associated with similarly motivated excursions to Asia. The excursion usually includes access to top-level training facilities in any number of different locations and presents the opportunity to play a smattering of opponents to gauge fitness and sharpness levels under a variety of conditions. It even provides some of the financial rewards expected by clubs increasingly willing to use their preseason endeavors as revenue-generating ventures.
Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti touched on most of those positives - he admittedly left out the part about compensation, though the likelihood of shelling out a sum somewhere north of $130 million for Gareth Bale suggests comparably modest enticements aren't much of a need in Madrid right now - as he weighed the benefits of the tournament itself. He highlighted the quality of the game surfaces and the practice venues. He noted the potential to improve his team because of strength of the opposition. And he also pointed toward the importance of nights like this one to the overall experience.
Any decent European side can find the games it prefers to prepare for the upcoming season, but the sort of event supplied on Wednesday night requires a more diligent search. Some teams do not want to undertake that burden. They prefer to toil away in anonymity before embarking upon their league campaign. But the idea of benefiting from the potential accoutrements - appropriately competitive matches in front of eager fans in a foreign market - appeals to plenty of teams, too.
Those clubs will take notice when word about this final circulates among the cognoscenti. The particular circumstances here - Mourinho's first match against his former club in the wake of some sniping back and forth - may not appear again in the near future, but the concept still holds ample promise. And the future for such tournaments in the U.S. could satisfy that potential if nights like this one occur on a regular basis.