ICC game brings top soccer talent, support to Heinz Field
After last year’s success, the International Champions Cup was back this summer as several top European teams competed in a preseason-friendly tournament to warm up for the season ahead. This time around, there was a game in Pittsburgh, a city known for its NFL, NHL and MLB teams, but not for its following of soccer. The crowd of nearly 35,000 at the Heinz Field, home to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Panthers, was how- ever electric as heavyweights AC Milan and Manchester City took on each other.
Manchester City was without several top stars who had competed in the World Cup, such as Vincent Kompany, Sergio Agüero, David Silva, Pablo Zabaleta, and Fernandinho, but still had impressive talent on display with the likes of Jesús Navas and Stevan Jovetic headlining the starting eleven for them. Milan is not the force they were years ago when club legends Andrea Pirlo and Paolo Maldini graced their team, but still had the top midfielders Keisuke Honda and Sulley Muntari playing for them with star striker Mario Balotelli starting on the bench. The game went to form as Milan was eviscerated by City’s pact front line, with Navas shredding the Milan back line time and again. It finished 5–1 to City, with Jovetic grabbing a brace and Navas, Scott Sinclair and Kelechi Iheanacho also getting a goal each while Muntari scored a consolation goal for Milan.
It brought to light the massive rise in power of City while also putting some perspective on the major rebuilding phase that Milan is going through. City has a squad that is deep in every position with the acquisition of defensive midfielder Fernando, who also played in the game, and versatile full back Bacary Sagna add- ing some much needed squad depth in those positions and goalkeeper Willy Caballero giving Joe Hart some competition. They risk making the same mistakes as their last title winning season however, and by not directly upgrading their immediate first team, they risk stagnating while their peers improve. Milan currently is go- ing through a small financial crisis as owner Silvio Berlusconi does not have the power he once did and there is a continuous struggle at the boardroom level between longtime director Adriano Galliani and new face Barbara Berlusconi. They are struggling to produce quality football, with former managers Max Allegri and Clarence Seedorf failing to integrate new signings and old heads effectively. Milan currently has a large collection of mediocre talent rather than a few world class players who can push them toward the Champions League spot. Their fans will be hoping new manager Pippo Inzaghi, another legend to play for the club, will turn their fortunes around and Milan will finally have an identity. On the evidence of this game and the preseason in general though, that looks unlikely.
I happened to watch this game, and what surprised me most was the passion of the Pittsburgh support. The stadium was not full, but had a large crowd who were vociferous in their support for both teams.
I had the opportunity to speak to a few locals about their following of soccer and found that there are several people in the city who are well exposed to sport and, in fact, follow it to a large extent.
The support for the game and the fantastic turnout may mean that Pittsburgh could witness a lot more soccer over the years. With the MLS growing larger and stronger, and after a strong showing at the World Cup, where fans of the U.S. were consistently among the best, soccer in the U.S. is definitely on the rise. With expansion teams in New York, Orlando and Miami entering the league, could Pittsburgh have Pennsylvania’s first strong soccer following?