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May 29, 2013

U.S. to host top Euro clubs for friendlies

MIAMI -- When the inaugural International Champions Cup arrives this summer, seven of the eight club teams in the field will be working through their preseason schedules.

With a trophy up for grabs, preseason might still mean plenty.

The bracket for the tournament was released Wednesday, highlighted by Real Madrid being matched up to face two-time defending MLS champion Los Angeles Galaxy in one of four first-round matches. The eight clubs in the tournament have combined to win the Champions League 22 times, plus claim 120 of their respective league titles.

Sun Life Stadium, the home of the Miami Dolphins in Miami Gardens, Fla., will host the championship match on Aug. 7.

"To look at the lineup here from a soccer purist standpoint, to look at these teams and realize how many championships are sitting up there with those teams ... I'm especially excited," said former U.S. men's national team goalkeeper Tony Meola, who will serve as one of the ambassadors for the event that begins July 27 when AC Milan plays at Valencia.

The rest of the matches will take place in the United States, with a possibility of a Chelsea-Real Madrid final, and if that materializes it would potentially pit outgoing Real coach Jose Mourinho against his former club.

Mourinho is free to leave Real Madrid at any time starting June 1, and could be back with Chelsea -- with whom he won back-to-back Premier League titles in 2005 and 2006 -- within days. And that could add ample interest to a tournament that organizers believe already is loaded with more than enough drawing power.

"If you look at the lineup of teams, there's a couple teams there that are about to get a new coach, which generally means they're about to get some superstar players," Meola said. "It also means that there's some guys on the roster that are probably looking to play. They're in preseason, probably about three weeks away from their regular season when they get here, so it's an important time for those teams."

The concept is to put soccer's best-known franchises in some of America's best-known stadiums. For a few days this summer, they might be a perfect mix.

What remains unknown is how seriously the clubs will take the tournament and how much their regulars will play.

"Everyone's coming here with a full lineup," said Charlie Stillitano of Relevent Sports, a division of a company co-founded by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and the organizers of the event.

Juventus and Everton will square off on July 31 at San Francisco, in the ballpark that baseball's Giants call home. The other two first-round games are Aug. 1, with Real Madrid and the Galaxy meeting in Glendale, Ariz. -- where the Arizona Cardinals play -- plus Chelsea and Inter Milan playing at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL's Colts.

Juventus, Everton, Real Madrid and the Galaxy are in the Western bracket, and will move on to second-round play Aug. 3 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, with tournament officials saying it would be the first time soccer matches are held in that venue. The Eastern bracket -- AC Milan, Valencia, Chelsea and Inter Milan -- will have their second-round games on Aug. 4 at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., home of the NFL's New York Giants and Jets.

Fifth- and seventh-place matches are in the Dolphins' stadium on Aug. 6, with the championship and third-place games the following night.

"This is a competition," Dolphins' CEO Mike Dee said. "You're going to hear more about it, but these are not only the best teams in the world, but the best players in the world that will be here."

Stillitano said he could not recall any event that brings eight club teams of this caliber to one city for the same event. He said he once had a conversation with Mourinho and now-retired Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson before a friendly competition, and the discussion turned to which manager would be leaving with the trophy.

Problem was, there was no trophy. The matches they were in were just exhibitions, and that's when they told Stillitano that to make an event stand out, there had to be a prize at the end.

That won't be a problem with this event. The trophy has been ordered.

"When you have a trophy and something to play for, it really makes it extra special," Stillitano said.

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