It’s taken a while, but Arsenal are coming back to the USA. The Premier League team will play a friendly against Thierry Henry’s current club, New York Red Bulls on 26 July.
Prior to the game, Arsenal will be running a series of six camps in four North East cities. In doing so Arsenal will be taking their first tentative steps in a burgeoning market that other top English clubs have been aggressively staking out in recent years.
Chelsea in particular have established a prominent presence in the US with consistent summer tours taking in multiple cities. The US-owned Manchester United and Liverpool teams have also become familiar sites — United have provided the opposition for MLS All-Star games in the past, while Liverpool’s summer tour prior to the current season took in the Boston home of owner John Henry.
And of course Manchester City are the majority owners of the new New York City FC who will begin play in 2015.
Even Arsenal’s rivals Tottenham have beaten Arsenal to playing on US soil in the Premier League era — in fact they provided the opposition for Henry’s first game in a New York shirt in 2010 (true to his Arsenal roots, he scored).
Meanwhile, Arsenal last sent a team to play in the US in August 1989, when they beat Independiente of Argentina 2-1 in Miami, in an “unofficial world title” game for the Zenith Data Systems Challenge Trophy. That game came three months after Arsenal had snatched the old Division One title at Anfield, and three months before Paul Caligiuri’s goal against Trinidad and Tobago had sent the USA to their first World Cup in 40 years. Another era, in other words.
Since that time, the USA has hosted a World Cup and established it’s longest running version of a division one domestic league. A deputy commissioner of that league even caught the eye of Arsenal, who took Ivan Gazidis as their chief executive in 2009. Miami, the host of that Independiente game, has seen a team born, then fold, then waited over a decade, before the arrival of David Beckham and the promise of another team.
In that time too, English teams have become a commonplace in the increasingly organized and lucrative summer tour schedule — whether playing warm up games against MLS sides in mid-season form, or playing exhibition games against fellow European giants in tournaments such as the International Champions Cup, which now sprawls across the US each summer.
Yet in all that time Arsenal have never returned to the US, despite anecdotal evidence of kit sightings in most soccer bars around the country suggesting that they are among the most popular teams — in New York they even enjoying dedicated bar presences in two boroughs, with the Blind Pig in Manhattan and Woodwork in Brooklyn regularly packed with fans watching Arsenal games.
Instead, the Gunners have concentrated on Far East tours, or in recent years hosting the Emirates Cup (actually won by the Red Bulls in 2011 — the last time the two sides met). Despite the presence of Gazidis, or indeed the presence of American majority shareholder Stan Kroenke, it has taken until now for Arsenal to make even this modest step into the US.
So why now? Discounting the obvious sentiment of a game against Thierry Henry in the last year of his New York contract (and Arsene Wenger’s occasional willfully anachronistic sense of propriety aside, let’s indeed discount sentiment), the presence of the soccer schools is an interesting development that might suggest a more strategic targeting of the US.
Certainly, the promising viewing figures for NBC’s blanket coverage of the Premier League have had English team executives on alert, while a less-celebrated but still key part of Manchester City’s strategy for the territory has been their own support of grass-root youth soccer initiatives — which has extended to installing fields and presumably gaining an inside track on any promising talent.
Arsenal may also (and most likely) simply be wary of being left behind as other teams consolidate their claims in the USA — though a single game, their only one outside Europe this summer, will represent a modest dent compared to other teams’ ambitions.
One intriguing conspiracy theory about the team’s presence may relate not to the game on the East Coast, but some recent developments on the West Coast. Stan Kroenke, who also owns the NFL franchise St Louis Rams, is currently negotiating a stadium deal with that city, and whether for leverage, or whether genuinely interested in moving the team and re-establishing an LA presence for NFL, he recently purchased 60 acres of land in the city’s Inglewood neighborhood.
A recent rumor had suggested that Kroenke was considering starting an “LA Gunners” franchise after the recent model of New York City FC. For those giving credence to the rumor, Kroenke’s land deal, then the sale of the existing second MLS side in Los Angeles, Chivas USA, back to the league (who are running the team for a year while they seek a buyer), suggested there may be no smoke without fire.
Kroenke already owns an MLS side though — Colorado Rapids. While that may have not been an impediment even a decade ago, when MLS teams were owned by a handful of owners, the league have been quietly diversifying ownership and discouraging owners from owning more than one team (Phil Anschutz’s AEG, which owns LA Galaxy, and 50% of Houston Dynamo, are the only current exceptions). Garber has already discounted Kroenke owning a second team, though if Kroenke were to sell Colorado (and don’t underestimate how deeply embedded he is there — his Kroenke group also owns the NBA Denver Nuggets, NHL Colorado Avalanche, Lacrosse team Colorado Mammoth, and his development group built the Rapids stadium) there may be a path for some version of an Arsenal presence in LA. And this being MLS, never say never.
Such speculation will come with the territory now Arsenal have broken their long absence from US soil. As Henry shows them around, they’ll be encountering a much changed landscape since they were last here.