BALTIMORE — Given the industrial waterfront setting, sea of red-clad supporters and exuberant singing surrounding M&T Bank Stadium on Saturday afternoon, it sure felt like a slice of Liverpool had found its way to Charm City.
The occasion was a friendly between historic Liverpool FC and north London staple Tottenham Hotspur, two of many high-profile European opponents to grace the area in recent years. Another was French power Paris Saint-Germain, which D.C. United welcomed some 30 miles down the road at RFK Stadium several hours later.
As these clubs’ prevalence continues to grow across the globe, so do the number of matches they spend abroad on preseason tours — regularly including stops in the Baltimore-Washington region.
“It amazes me to see so many supporters worldwide,” Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers said. “Every game for us on this tour has been like a home game, and that’s due to the supporters and the kindness of the sport.”
Despite temperatures in the mid-90s that sapped much of the energy out of Liverpool and Tottenham’s scoreless draw, 42,723 still turned out for the exhibition as both teams continued preparations for the start of the English Premier League season Aug. 18.
“It’s growing immensely,” said Tottenham goalkeeper Brad Friedel, an American who has played in England since 1997. “Whenever I come back on vacations with my family, even checking through airports, people recognize you now where, many moons ago, no one knew who a soccer player was in the United States.”
While a disappointing 13,176 attended the friendly at RFK Stadium, the anticipation for that game was lessened by fans’ preference for the Liverpool-Tottenham matchup and the fact that the less-prominent French club was a late replacement for Italian champion Juventus FC.
There clearly is a thirst for the sport locally. Last July, 81,807 filled FedEx Field for a Champions League final rematch between Manchester United and FC Barcelona. In the summer of 2009, crowds of more than 70,000 showed up for both D.C. United’s friendly against Real Madrid at the Washington Redskins’ home and a contest at M&T Bank Stadium between Chelsea FC and AC Milan.
“Those in the soccer world have started to take notice,” said Roy Sommerhof, the Baltimore Ravens’ vice president of stadium operations. “There seems to be a greater interest in playing in this general area because of that success. If you have the right match with the right clubs and you do a good job of marketing the match, then I think the people will come.”
As Sommerhof added, “A big part of the appeal is how the brand translates.” In addition to getting matches in as players develop chemistry and fitness, the European sides also embark on tours hoping to expand their reach in the lucrative U.S. market.
To Tottenham, the club’s recent switch to Under Armour uniforms made playing a game in Baltimore, the company’s home, all the more appealing.
“It’s important for us to show our brand,” Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas said, “and show our power and our evolution as a club and to touch the fans that we have worldwide in a different way.”
From the on-the-field perspective, teams that choose to face MLS squads such as United — who played to a 1-1 tie with PSG — embrace the opportunity to be tested against players in midseason form. (MLS plays from March through November, while most European leagues run from August through May.)
“D.C. United played a tough game,” PSG manager Carlo Ancelotti said. “I think it was a good game for us for our preparation to find a team that’s strong, fit, in good condition with a good ability.”
The MLS players, meanwhile, enjoy the chance to be tested against Europe’s elite and see where they stand, even though it means risking injury and fatigue midseason. For coaches, liberal substitution rules allow them to rotate in players for whom minutes have been scant.
“Historically, players are pretty revved up for these games,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “It’s a great opportunity for these guys and I think they prepare mentally for these games, and I thought overall throughout the group it was a really good exercise for us.”
Added D.C. midfielder Perry Kitchen: “It’s a great experience for all of us. We were just very excited to match ourselves against world-class talent.”