While many of the elite clubs of Europe are playing “friendlies” around the United States these next few weeks, it will actually be two elite French clubs that will play the first real match for keeps and of value to global soccer fans in, of all places, Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey on Saturday. The pair: Ligue 1 champion Montpellier and French Cup winner Olympique Lyonnais will vie for France’s “Super Cup,” the traditional opening of French soccer and a source of tremendous pride and recognition for the French Federation as it grows its footprint globally.
“This is a big step for us as a league coming to the United States and playing in the New York area for the first time,” said Sébastien Janodet, who leads the marketing for the French League. “We want to expose our football to a growing audience of fans; we want to expose our top clubs and the quality football they play to America. And we want to expand the outreach of French culture to a wider audience here in America. Both clubs are very excited for the opportunity and are aware of what is at stake for all of us.”
Excited for the beginning of the new season? For sure. Taking it seriously? Absolutely. Both clubs practiced for two days at Red Bull Arena to get used to the surroundings and have not partaken in much of the sightseeing and nightlife that clubs like Paris Saint-Germaine, Chelsea and AS Roma have during their New York area stopovers.
At a press conference at the arena on Friday, Montpellier’s Nigerian striker John Utaka was asked about any side trips into New York, and other than a light jog in Central park, he said the only stops were to the Nike Store, “No sightseeing for me.”
The game is being played outside France for the fourth straight year, but for the first time in a non-French-speaking country. The game was played in Montreal in 2009, in Tunisia in 2010 and in Morocco last year. While there was some concern early on that the large amount of “friendlies” in the New York area (AS Roma and El Salvador are playing at Red Bull Friday night and Chelsea and PSG were at Yankee Stadium last Sunday) combined with people on holiday, the start of the London Olympics and the Yankees-Red Sox across the river might dwarf interest and attendance.
However, officials pointed out that a source of French pride and an ever-growing thirst for quality and diverse soccer in the States has led to an advance of over 15,000 for the match. Red Bull supporters are also keen on French talent, with legendary Thierry Henry and newcomer Sebastien Le Toux suiting up now for the home squad (and combining on a goal in a 1-0 home win over Chicago this past Wednesday).
“Overall, it has been a positive experience,” Lyon coach Rémi Girard said about having the game as a marketing tool in the United States. “For us, it is a good idea to play in the New York. It is an opportunity to show off French football.”
The game will be a big television draw around the world as well, with a 9 p.m. start time in France, 3 p.m. in the eastern United States. Overall, it will be carried in over 200 countries with Comcast’s Universal Sports showing it in America (MSG Network will televise it in New York).
While exhibitions of elite clubs have helped draw even more casual interest in the States in July, a game with so much on the line will be another new experience for fans and could be a great entrée for France into the now lucrative and very desirable American sports market. A daring and unique next step for a league steeped in tradition and definitely on the rise.
Jerry Milani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained first-hand.