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Mar 5, 2007

U.S. remains the top destination for youth tournaments

It seems a simple enough concept: Bring together the youth teams of the best-known clubs in the world to play in a tournament.

It's virtually guaranteed teams would clamor to get into such an event. There are statements from people -- coaches, managers, players and executives from various clubs -- to prove it.

However, while tournaments for various national youth teams abound, few exist for club teams at the international level. And when it comes to putting together such events, the United States reigns supreme -- if not alone.

Why? Well, because, in all honesty, no other country really seems to be organizing these kinds of tournaments.

First, there are logistical issues. As much as some people like to complain about soccer getting no love in the United States, this country has facilities that can rival those of the best clubs in the world.

"The difference, if I try to compare the U.S. top-caliber tournaments with European [ones], is the level of the facilities is amazing," said Ivan Bravo, international development manager for Real Madrid.

Bravo has taken his club's youth team to what are likely the top two international youth club tournaments: the Dallas Cup and the Disney Soccer Showcase. (Full disclosure: ESPN is owned by Disney.)

"It's not that easy to find facilities like this in Europe," Bravo said. "Only maybe the top clubs -- Madrid, Milan, Manchester United -- have them."

Understandably, those clubs are more interested in running their $1 billion organizations with an emphasis on their first teams than setting up junior tournaments.

The Dallas Cup which enters its 28th year (and takes place April 1-8 in Frisco, Texas, at Pizza Hut Park), has set the standard and continues to raise the bar. Disney prides itself on being college scouting's mecca, but its international bracket is the showcase's marquee division. Sponsorship agreements with adidas have helped ensure a high level of competition at both events as the super soccer sponsor flies in selected teams.

"We are definitely an international tournament," said Dallas Cup executive director Gordon Jago. "Our objective is to bring in as many top teams from all around the world to the Dallas Cup."

This year, the tournament's "Super Group" includes teams affiliated with Real Madrid, Chelsea and Mexico's Primera Division Tigres along with nine other squads from Mexico, England, Germany, Brazil, Ireland and the United States.

Various other international club teams will take part in the 180-team event. Some of the game's biggest names -- both domestic and foreign -- have participated in the Dallas Cup over the years, from David Beckham to Raul to Landon Donovan.

Having just completed its seventh year, Disney's version is younger. It's also currently smaller, featuring three international teams (most recently Real Madrid, Tigres and Newcastle) in its eight-team elite division.

Despite their differences, the underlying concept is the same for both events.

"It gives [European teams] the opportunity to play against South American teams, Central American teams and North American teams, which they would not normally get in Europe," Jago explained. "There's not many Central American and Brazilian teams that travel at a youth level to play in Europe. So it gives these young up-and-coming professionals a chance to experience playing a different style of opposition."

That opportunity is becoming more valuable as the professional clubs continue to diversify their rosters with players from around the planet.

"In football, not just in England, but every nation, there's players from all over the world," Newcastle coach Vince Hutton said. "You can come up against anything at any time. This [kind of event] gives them the experience and a know-how of what you're going to come up against and how to deal with it."

As Newcastle midfielder Rob Cavener put it, players get to see the "more physical style of game" played by the English teams, the "very technical game" that the Mexicans and South Americans play and "that the Americans are really fit and … can really give us a run for our money."

"The standard of football out here is really good," Cavener added. "It's going to benefit us in the long run."

Proof that a simple concept can have a lasting impact.

Maria Burns covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.