International Champions Cup United States

How the ICC has changed the face of pre-season for elite teams

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It’s easy to forget that Gabriel Jesus is still a teenager. Certainly, as he introduced himself to English football fans with three goals in his first four games for Manchester City at the start of this year; he looked older than his years.

Unfortunately, that promising run was ended by injury, but on Tuesday night, Manchester City’s loss was the International Champions Cup gain, as Gabriel turned up at the launch in New York, showing all the enthusiasm you would expect from a young man making his first trip to the U.S.

“I just got my first visa last year — I’m very excited to come to New York for the first time” grinned Gabriel, who’ll see plenty more of the country this summer, when Manchester City play Real Madrid at the LA Coliseum on July 26th, and Tottenham Hotspur at the Nissan Stadium in Nashville on July 29th. And of course before that, there’s the small matter of potentially playing in his first Manchester derby on July 20th.

Now Gabriel Jesus is an exceptional young player who has already announced his talent to the world, but this summer will likely also represent a chance for other young players to experience big match atmospheres for the first time, as their clubs acclimatize them to the expectations of elite teams.

As Sir Alex Ferguson, an ICC Special Ambassador puts it:

“It’s very good for the younger players to come into this type of competition. In terms of preparation to be a Manchester United player, the more intense challenge you get, it’s going to surface when you come into the big games. When you go in against City in a league game, or Liverpool, that preparation in order to play in those games can be started in terms of how they’re played in the U.S.”

In five short years, the ICC has become such an integral part of elite club’s preparations that it’s already hard to remember the fragmented pre-season landscape that used to exist. Sir Alex, again:

“Many years ago our pre-season would probably happen in a less intense way. We’d go to Scandinavia or someplace like that with a gentle build-up until the (Premier League) match days started a week later. But when we went to the States, the difference is we can’t afford to lose to Barcelona, or Real Madrid or Manchester City…the expectation’s too big. That’s why you always get the full product when Manchester United play in these games.”

Ledley King, a one club man for Tottenham Hotspur, remembers the shift in pre-season focus:

“When I was a lot younger, the players used to come back to pre-season to get fit, and then around halfway through my career the players had to be fit on the first day of pre-season. That’s where it changed. And the level of opposition has obviously gone up and if you’re not fit and you’re not at it you’re going to be embarrassed…”

And while Gabriel Jesus is still wide-eyed about his first visit to the USA, what’s striking speaking with King and other former players and administrators at the launch event, is that for many of these clubs and staff, a pre-season in the US is no longer a novelty but an expected and valued part of the club’s annual itinerary. King talks about Tottenham having come over “maybe five times in the last seven years — you see the growth each time”, while Nemanja Vidic excitedly reels off all his appearances in games in the US since appearing for Manchester United against the MLS All-Stars in 2011, including making his Inter Milan debut against United during ICC play.

From the “Wild West” days of clubs first becoming curious about the US market though, to what the ICC has become, all agree that the level of elite opposition and the focus that brings has been what sets the ICC apart. Damian Willoughby, Senior Vice-President of Partnerships at Manchester City describes it simply as “by far and away the marquee pre-season tournament in the world now,” while former Real Madrid striker, now Director of Institutional Relations and Ambassador, Emilio Butragueño, refers to the importance of “trust”:

“It is essential in any relationship and we’ve known Charlie (Stillitano — Relevent Sports Chairman) and Mr Ross (co-founder of RSE Ventures) for a long time and we’ve been able to build and strengthen a relationship. Our experiences in the past have been fantastic, so that’s why we’re willing to come back and in fact we are entirely convinced it’s going to be a success once again. Taking into consideration the fact that some of the best teams and players in the world are coming this summer, it’s amazing. I mean the fixture list is incredible. I’m sure people are going to enjoy it a lot because Charlie and Mr. Ross have been able to bring probably the best football on this planet here.”