The news that La Liga will play regular-season matches in the United States came as a surprise to most fans. But to Charlie Stillitano, it was long in the making.
Stillitano was one of the brains behind last Thursday's historic announcement, which was described as "a first-of-a-kind, 15-year, equal joint venture to promote soccer in the U.S. and Canada."
It means Spain's top clubs, including Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, will play matches thousands of miles from home—with points at stake.
Soccer is growing fast in the States, with a Gallup poll in January leading Forbes to suggest it will soon be America's third-favourite spectator sport. Stillitano is trying to make sure the country grasps this moment.
He is one of America's most powerful figures in the game—he counts Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho as close friends and is the force behind the International Champions Cup, a pre-season tournament that has become a fixture in the U.S.
"I've been thinking for a long time about the possibility of having a regular-season game in the States, and that's just the honest truth," Stillitano tells Bleacher Report. "I was involved in the Italian Super Cup between Juve and Milan played in New Jersey in 2003. They were two of the biggest clubs in the world at that time—I'd say only Manchester United were bigger than them at the time. Since then, we have held many games, but we realised quickly that a league game is the best way to set the flag a lot firmer in the ground.
"The ICC has become a pre-eminent preparation tournament for all the major teams. But because of circumstances like the World Cup, they often don't have their best players. Our advantage with hosting a league game is the anticipation that will come with it. It means the big players will be there.
"We have seen the NFL move games outside of America, so we asked, 'Why can't we do that the other way around?'"
Sources in both Spain and America indicated to B/R the first La Liga match in the States will be played this season, and it is highly likely that Barcelona or Real Madrid will be involved.
This movement is not just about bringing Spanish football across the Atlantic but about, as Stillitano noted, the top clubs bringing their elite talent. And in doing that, he believes La Liga may have found a way to catch up to the Premier League in one of the few areas they lag behind.
"I think the Premier League is always pushing the other leagues, even the Champions League, because money is so important and goes through the entire league and even the Championship," Stillitano says. "It pushes everyone—it's the money involved. When they see these incredible deals the Premier League has been able to do, it has pushed all the other leagues to take a look at themselves and ask, 'How can we build our brand?'"
While Stillitano sees that the Premier League has gained traction in the U.S., he questions how much it has to do with the quality of play.
"The Premier League has the advantage that English is spoken all over world as a first or second language," he says, "but I think with this deal La Liga seized on the fact they have a big market they can hit here. There are a lot of Spanish-speaking areas; it makes sense.
"Look at the winners of the major European trophies, and it is Spain that has been dominant and had the best teams, yet it's the Premier League that has made all the money. ... But in terms of football, the Spanish are far and away better than anybody—and now they have agreed to play a game every year for 15 years in the U.S."
The news has not been welcomed by everyone. Some fans in Spain are fearful over what this could mean for their own future experience of watching La Liga, while the Spanish Footballers' Association released a statement to voice its concern:
"As per usual, La Liga has dispensed with the opinions of the players and has undertaken actions that only benefit them, regardless of the health or risks to the players, and even less the feelings of the following masses of the clubs who are being forced to compete in North America once a season."
David Aganzo, president of the Spanish Footballers' Association, added:
To journalist and La Liga expert Rafael Hernandez, the issue for many who are sceptical is that business interests are outpacing what's best for the game.
"Local supporters think it might lead to a situation where part of top-level football in Spain is sold to the highest bidder rather than what's really best for the fans and players alike," Hernandez says. "Concerns are legitimate, and there's a certain pessimism this cannot be stopped once it begins. On a positive note, bringing a few La Liga matches to a country like the United States, where football is growing slowly but steadily, could make it more popular. A world where the most sports-driven country invests more in football is one every fan wants to live in."
Stillitano insists the plan isn't to dilute football in Europe for a financial windfall but to expand the base of support.
"I am a traditionalist and purist," he says. "Honestly, I am. I have supported AC Milan my whole life—back to the days of Gianni Rivera—but because I don't live 12 blocks away, does that mean I'm not a big enough fan and should never be able to see them?
"Yes, fans in Spain may miss that one game. But the fans in America never get to see a game, and now they can. All this wasn't just on our side, though. La Liga were having the same thoughts about how they could grow their brand.
"When I speak to leagues in Europe, they all see the NBA as the model to follow. It's global, it's sexy. The athletes are very cool. Look at how the NBA is made up—they base it on superstars. The NFL is built more on the badge and the jersey, and people are more loyal."
And from what Stillitano has seen, the U.S. is ready to embrace a bigger European soccer presence.
"America is adopting the culture of European football," he says. "Watch games out here, and you'll see the chants being altered. The flags and tifos are here now in MLS.
"La Liga are looking beyond the here and now. They are looking at the next TV deal and social media growth. They are thinking ahead."
Premier League fans fear they will be next on the hit list, and the possibility of taking English football's Community Shield to America has been explored before. A long tie-in with Wembley brought a quick halt to the plan, but it is something that may one day be revisited.
Right now, the Spanish concept will get full focus ahead of its launch, and the level, or lack, of success will be closely watched.
There is a feeling that soccer fans in the U.S.—where the sport is less tribal—who already support MLS, Premier League or Serie A sides will now adopt a Spanish club, too, if they don't already have one.
"Two things are very important to us," explains Stillitano, whose company, Relevent Sports, began contract talks with La Liga on the plan about a year ago. "One is that the game is respected. The players will be treated every bit as well as they [would] be if they were playing a Champions League match. We'll take care of everyone. The game itself will be respected, too; we don't need a load of fireworks or cheerleaders.
"The other thing is that we will look after the fans who would have had the match as their home game. We need to find a way to take care of those people, to make sure those who are upset with us get something back from this.
"I hope that once everyone sees the success of a first game, they will be won over. But we do still have to address it now."
And as this grand experiment begins, it leads some to wonder if more European matches are on the way to America. Could, perhaps, a day come when the Champions League final is held in the U.S.?
Stillitano thinks so: "I say, why not?"