Following last season’s high profile international friendlies against Manchester United and Chivas, the Chicago Fire yesterday announced they will be hosting another exciting international friendly this year against EPL side Aston Villa at Toyota Park on July 21st.
The summer is always an exciting time with international friendlies and this summer will certainly be no different with the likes of Darren Bent, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Shay Given arriving in Chicago. I’m sure supporters wish the Fire could play Manchester United every year, but Aston Villa is still a very well-known club and will certainly attract a sizeable crowd at Toyota Park, as well as a great spectacle. One of the most exciting story lines will be the return of goalkeeper Brad Guzan and defender Eric Lichaj, both of which were former players for the Chicago Fire Premier.
Alex McLeish’s side will also face the Philadelphia Union and Portland Timbers during its summer tour of North America. Aston Villa played against two other Major League Soccer teams in 2007, defeating Toronto FC 4-2 and the Columbus Crew 3-1.
I caught up with Matt Turvey from the popular Aston Villa Life blog to discuss July’s friendly and the first ever meeting between our two clubs.
First off, what was your initial reaction to hearing that Aston Villa would be touring North America this summer and playing against three different Major League Soccer sides for the first time?
In today’s global sporting world, it’s no surprise that the club want to tap into different markets. Of course Aston Villa’s primary focus will always be those who attend the majority of our games, i.e. locals and season ticket holders, but a tour of North America makes a lot of sense. There are obviously large numbers of association football/soccer fans in America, and cultivating more support for the team is both positive in perception and financial terms. So, for me, the choice was a no brainer.
How does it compare with last year’s summer tour when Villa participated in the Asia Cup and, albeit it still being a few months away, what are your expectations for the tour?
The Asia tour tied in pretty well with our corporate sponsorship venture with Malaysian gambling organisation Genting, so ensuring that fans in the Far East could see the team was a sensible and pragmatic decision. Obviously that kind of tour has both similarities and differences when one compares it to America.
Firstly, the weather is likely to be more bearable over in the States as players found the hot and humid conditions in the Asia Cup to be very challenging, especially given the need for constant athleticism in football.
Secondly. there’s a lot of potential to sate the obvious desire for American soccer fans in seeing both Aston Villa and English teams in general. To that end, it’s a win-win.
With regard to my personal expectation for the tour, I imagine it will be focused more on the view of trying to cultivate positive public communication than it will be about a footballing challenge. That isn’t to decry the standard of football in the States, merely that most pre-season fixtures generally operate at a slightly lower level than that of the Premier League. I imagine it will be exciting for both the fans and the players involved.
Aston Villa has quite an impressive support base on this side of the pond with no less than 19 Villa Supporters’ Clubs, including the Chicago Lions. What do you think preseason tours means for foreign supporters who don’t get to watch the team at Villa Park week in and week out?
I think it’s great for foreign fans to get to see the club. I still find it amazing to know that people who have no direct connection to Birmingham have such passion and desire for our club. For myself, a man who grew up only several hundreds of yards away from Villa Park, it’s understandable why I am a fan, but I find it very interesting to see why people who haven’t had the same upbringing have chosen Villa.
Tours are obviously part of keeping those fans happy. Obviously the club are unable to geographically tour the world that regularly in terms of showcasing our team to those fans who can’t make it to Birmingham, but I’m glad we engage in making our club an international brand. I think it is imperative in today’s society that we recognise the importance of fans in other geographical areas – for example, our site has readers in over 100 countries!
As a Fire supporter, traveling with the team to different continents for a preseason tour is not something I’ve ever had the privilege of doing but would thoroughly enjoy if given the chance. Do a lot of local supporters travel with the team during preseason tours and is it something a lot of people look forward to?
With the invariable cost of getting to and from matches in other continents, I wouldn’t exactly say it was what the majority do, but a fair number of hardcore supporters will travel to the US much like they did to Asia last year.
For me personally, I enjoy that kind of change as it gives me a chance to see different cities, different people, and different cultures. With America being largely similar in many ways to our own country (language, culture, general tastes) it isn’t a million miles away from home, but it can be very different. Also, getting to see other teams in the flesh is great, plus it gives supporters like myself chance to take in other sports games – I was a big Chicago Bears fan when I was younger for instance.
The MLS is obviously still a league that hasn’t fully developed yet, but what is the general view of American soccer amongst English football fans now that the US National Team and its professional league has earned more recognition over the past several years?
Personally, I think the improvement of the USMNT has been a great thing to watch. Americans playing in the Premier League have become more and more prevalent, and successful, in even only the past 10 years. I can remember in the late 90s players like Kasey Keller being one of few players who actually played at a high level in England, so to see players like Clint Dempsey playing well is a real positive for American soccer.
With regard to the MLS, it’s a difficult one. I watch a lot of soccer given my job as a sports writer, and thus take in games from many countries, including the United States, but I am something of an anomaly in that sense. I think a lot of English fans tend to watch very little of non-domestic games, with their only viewing of European teams being via English teams playing in the European cup competitions.
With all that said though, I think there is a growing belief that the MLS is improving its standards overall. Once seen as something of a retirement home for European players wanting a final pay check, I think the standards are improving. From my perspective, as a football fan who has watched MLS games, there has been quite a transition from the era of the 1994 World Cup to now. Games played our in cavernous arenas because of the lack of popularity are now more akin to what I see in English football, although admittedly not at the Premier League level yet.
With regard to the national team specifically, I think they are developing well. Obviously we know that the United States are known more for sports such as American football, baseball, basketball, and even hockey, so soccer is hardly a first choice for many people. So, to that end, I think the increase in quality considering soccer is practically a fifth or sixth choice in popularity is great. If you can continue to create players of the quality of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Brad Friedel, and even our own Brad Guzan and Eric Lichaj, I think you won’t go far wrong.
Lastly, not all big clubs bring their entire squad or risk their star players during preseason tours (which is understandable), but can we expect to see some of Aston Villa’s bigger names feature in Chicago?
I’m obviously not privy to the exact squad lists at present for the tour, but I would imagine we as a team would bring everyone with us. As you say, it is a risk to bring players because of injuries, but I think part of what marketing the club in a tour about is showing the full team – as an American fan, I would be pretty frustrated if the club only brought youngsters or unknown players.
So, yes, I would imagine the club will bring their best players and, hopefully, some new faces who can be shown to the fans over there. We’ve agreed to the signing of Australian international Brett Holman already so American fans may well even see him play before many English fans do!