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Column: Rentschler the soccer ground

By Tim Fontenault
On February 3, 2014

Over the past decade, European soccer teams have made preseason visits to the United States an increasingly popular occurrence.
Soccer is growing in the United States, and these preseason visits from some of Europe's giants, the teams many Americans have latched on to as Major League Soccer continues to grow, have only helped the process.
I have seen a lot of great matchups between European giants in the U.S. in recent years. Friendlies I have been to include AC Milan-Inter Milan, Chelsea-Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool-Roma and Milan-Real Madrid.
But now those friendlies are starting to take on more meaning. If these teams are coming to the United States, their large followings over here want to see them play in games that mean something, even if teams still follow the friendly guidelines of unlimited substitutions.
That is where the International Champions Cup comes into play. The ICC debuted last year with some of the world's biggest clubs - Real Madrid, Milan, Inter, Chelsea, Juventus, Everton, Valencia and Los Angeles Galaxy - squaring off in a tournament played across the country.
After a strong debut, it appears that the ICC will return in 2014, and a report has surfaced revealing that eight elite clubs and 12 cities have been selected for this year's tournament.
The official announcement is expected Tuesday, but according to World Soccer Talk, Milan, Inter, Roma, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Olympiacos will play in this year's tournament.
Among the selected cities are some familiar faces for the summer soccer circuit: Washington, St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia, etc. But there is one on there that is bound to open some eyes: Hartford.
If the report from World Soccer Talk is correct, Rentschler Field will play host to one of the opening round games, and in my completely biased opinion, it is one of the best ones: Milan against Olympiacos.
My bias comes from the fact that I have been a Milan fan for as long as I have been a soccer fan, which is a long time. I have been fortunate to see my beloved seven-time European champions in person in both Boston and New York, but now, all I need to do is make a 15-minute drive from my house to the Rent to see them play.
But this column is not about me being excited for my favorite club to be playing in my backyard. This column is to celebrate Rentschler Field and the future of soccer in Connecticut.
Rentschler Field is obviously home to the UConn football team, but apart from seven home games and the Spring Game, it often sits empty.
The Rent has shown, however, that it is as good, or even better, as a soccer stadium.
The United States men's and women's national teams have paid countless visits to Rentschler Field since the stadium opened in 2003, and the attendance continues to rise with every match.
Lately, the matches have been getting bigger. The men's national team's visit to play the Czech Republic in 2010 was part of a two-game sendoff before the FIFA World Cup, and the next match against Costa Rica in 2013 was part of the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament. The women's most recent visit was a friendly in 2012 against world power Germany, and nearly 20,000 fans came out despite awful weather.

Milan and Olympiacos would be playing the first club friendly at the Rent in 10 years. Liverpool beat Celtic 5-1 in East Hartford in 2004, 10 months before overcoming a 3-0 halftime deficit against Milan to win the UEFA Champions League. Why did I even bring that up?

Why does U.S. Soccer keep coming back? Why does the ICC feel that Rentschler is a fitting place for a big club friendly? History proves that Connecticut is a great place to put a on game. The state loves its soccer and has proven it when given the opportunity.

Looking at other factors provides even more evidence. Youth soccer clubs like Oakwood, Foundation, CSC and Ajax are becoming increasingly popular options for young players in Connecticut.

Oakwood has become so popular that a couple years ago, it had to build a new facility on Route 17 in Portland. Every time I go home, I drive by and look in awe, wishing that I had the chance to play at such a facility.

Supporters groups are also essential to the growth of soccer in any state. In Connecticut, the Hartford chapter of the American Outlaws, the national supporters group for the U.S. national team, continues to grow. Founded in 2010, the Hartford chapter is now one of the largest of the 100-plus official chapters around the country, with over 200 members.

Hartford's chapter, of which I am a proud member, may soon be one of two official chapters in the state, as a group of fans in New Haven are looking to build a large enough following to become an official chapter.

Regardless of geography in the state, members of both of these groups want to see a professional club in Connecticut. That is why a group called Nutmeg Nation came to fruition last week. Their goal is to build enough support and work with some investors to bring a professional club to Connecticut.

It is unlikely that an MLS club would be the immediate result of this work, which is expected to provide some serious results by this summer. But with the news that MLS and David Beckham are set to move forward with a plan to bring a club back to Miami, which would bring the league's future total to 22, growth is expected to be rapid.

The league has set a mark of 24 clubs, which would mean two more clubs after Miami, over the next few years, but with serious interest in Minnesota, Atlanta, San Antonio, Sacramento, Indianapolis, St. Louis and seemingly Connecticut, it is hard to see 24 being the final number.

That is why matches like Milan-Olympiacos are so important and why they speak volumes about soccer in Connecticut. A match like that gives momentum to the cause. And obviously, Rentschler has proven that it can be looked at as a quality soccer stadium.

Look at the expansion projects in MLS right now. New York City FC and Orlando City SC, both set to begin play in 2015, need stadiums built. Part of the holdup with the Beckham-Miami dream is finding a location to start building a stadium. Some of the aforementioned candidates for an MLS club need to build stadiums as well.

Connecticut has Rentschler Field.

It may be unconventional compared to the new stadiums around MLS like Sporting Park and BBVA Compass Stadium, but it does a great job with soccer matches.

Let's show it off and get the soccer powers that be to keep coming back.

Follow Tim on Twitter @Tim_Fontenault

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