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World Cup party over but summer of soccer set to rock U.S.

By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) - The World Cup party may be over but the summer of soccer is just heating up in the United States as fans prepare for a European invasion by the sport's glamour clubs looking to expand their brand.

From New York to Los Angeles, some of the game's brightest stars and most valuable teams will spend the next three weeks packing America's biggest stadiums with the highlight coming on Aug. 2 when a record crowd of 110,000 - the largest ever to watch a soccer game in the United States - is expected to fill Michigan Stadium to see Real Madrid take on Manchester United.

European clubs big and small will cross the Atlantic looking for a piece of the American pie with giants like Real Madrid, recently rated the world's most valuable sporting franchise by Forbes at $3.44 billion, Manchester United and Bayern Munich joined by more modest outfits such as Crystal Palace and Fulham.

Teams that once looked upon the U.S. as a soccer wasteland now arrive in waves, keen to broker sponsorship deals and partnerships allowing them to tap into new revenue streams that will provide the financial might to make blockbuster moves like Real's signing on Tuesday of Colombia's World Cup's Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez in a deal worth $107.9 million.

"Some clubs like Manchester United figured this out a long time go," Charlie Stillitano, CEO of Relevent Sports, the company that put together the International Champions Cup that will feature eight of Europe's biggest clubs, told Reuters.

"These teams were very aggressive (about North America) when it was hard to get them to come here, you had to pay them a lot of money and convince them to come here.

"A lot of it was because there wasn't really any commercial element. A lot of these teams felt that travel and pre-season were not conducive to a good season on the field.

"Now it's about how they can activate their sponsors, how they can sell merchandise, the commercial side goes hand-in-hand with the team, the football."

VARIED SUMMER MENU

There will be a game for every soccer taste on this summer's menu in the United States, ranging from Italian rivals AC and Inter Milan to Greek champions Olympiakos.

Premier League fans will not be disappointed either with United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur leading the British invasion.

According to the U.S. Soccer Federation, the U.S. is now the largest market in the world for international matches and this summer's lineup is sure to have the turnstiles swirling with soccer A-listers such as Real's Cristiano Ronaldo, AC Milan's Mario Balotelli and United's Wayne Rooney taking center stage.

The American appetite for top international soccer seems almost insatiable with fans and sponsors lining up to get in on the action.

Guinness will be the title sponsor for the International Champions Cup, an eight-team tournament that will kick off in Toronto on Thursday when Olympiakos take on AC Milan and end on Aug. 4 with the winners of the two groups meeting in Miami.

Car maker Audi has signed on as sponsor for Bayern Munich's visit which is being promoted as the Audi Football Summit and will see the Bundesliga champions challenge the Major League Soccer All-Stars on Aug. 6 in Portland, Oregon.

"It is very important, that is why we try travel to the United States," said Bayern head coach Pep Guardiola, during a conference call on Tuesday to promote the mini-tour.

"There are not only American people, also Latin people who love a lot of football. We know how football has increased in the United States."

SOCCER ROYALTY

Only America's massive grid-iron stadiums and baseball shrines were deemed suitable for European soccer royalty, the homes of the National Football League's Denver Broncos, Washington Redskins, Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears among those being converted into soccer pitches.

Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium, two of America's most storied sporting venues, will also host matches, as will the Rose Bowl and the "Big House" Michigan Stadium.

In just its second year, the heavily promoted Champions Cup expects to see attendance double and television ratings sky rocket with the many of the matches available in 150 countries.

"We had 350,000 last year, same type of tournament, and we will double that this year with at least 700,000 people seeing our games live," said Stillitano.

"We will have 110,000 people in Michigan and that will be the biggest game ever in North America. We sold 95,000 tickets in 24 hours. There is a waiting list and we expect that we can legitimately claim over 110,000."

What was once seen as an unwelcome promotional grind has become, for many clubs, the ideal way to prepare for the upcoming season.

Teams are able to take full advantage of first-class training facilities and venues while playing top-flight competition and generating additional revenue.

"You're talking great facilities for these guys and then on top of that great competition," said Stillitano. "It really prepares these guys for the season.

"The managers have all said to us, 'This is perfect for my preparation for my team'. Before it was, 'We need a training site and 10 showers for 25 people'. These were the serious demands.

"Now the demands have grown into everything, teams bringing 'our sponsors', 'our TV people', 'our merchandising people', 'our licensing people'. It used to be just about the football."

(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)

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