Charlie Stillitano has a bit of a problem on his hands.
It’s a good problem for him to have as the organizer of the annual International Champions Cup spectacles. But it’s a problem nonetheless.
A while back, he considered expanding the ICC’s women’s tournament to 16 teams this year. Then he and his colleagues realized that might be biting off more than they could chew. So they scaled it back to eight. But as it turned out, so many teams wanted to get in the field that he’s going to have to say no to some people.
“I was just at the UEFA Congress and I have to tell you, and I’m not exaggerating: 20 different teams came to me and said they want to be in the women’s ICC,” he said. In addition to all those European clubs, Stillitano also heard from a few Mexican teams, a symbol of how fast that country’s women’s league has grown.
“It’s really tricky right now, but I think we’re just going to have to make some hard decisions and move on,” he concluded. “There’s big teams that we’re saying no to.”
He said all of this in good humor, but he was sincere. There really is that much demand, and the demand grew quickly after last year’s first edition. The NWSL’s North Carolina Courage beat three-time reigning European champion Lyon in the final.
But Stillitano and his company, Relevent Sports, have in fact settled on eight teams for this year: four from the NWSL and four from the rest of the world. There will also be two venues this time instead of one. The teams and venues aren’t set yet.
The tournament will remain in the summer. This could cause a scheduling headache for the NWSL, since the league already has to contend with the women’s World Cup. But the timing could give a boost to the European club game ahead of the continent’s fall-to-spring season.
“It’s the challenge women’s sports has everywhere, and let’s be honest, we live in a chauvinistic society even though ours is better than most,” he said. “I think that the women’s game is really healthy at the participant level and at the national team level, and I think that the next logical step will be that the club teams will pick up. I see it all over the world, from Mexico to England to France."
Some clubs are already spending serious money on women’s teams, especially in the countries Stillitano mentioned. But there’s still a big gap between the planet’s few dozen big clubs and everybody else.
“Italy’s picking up too, now,” Stillitano said. “I think it’s normally in the western countries that we’ll see it to start, but [also] some of the Asian countries like Japan that are forward thinking, and Korea, that are good already [at the national team level]. I think we’ll see real growth. But right now, we need the European clubs, because they have the money.”
The ICC also has built good relations with FIFA. Since the global governing body doesn’t run a women’s Club World Cup, the ICC is the top alternative — arguably the only alternative — right now.
“You need support from people around the world, people within the sport, people from all the governing bodies, to really buy into this,” said Esmeralda Negron, Relevent’s senior director for elite programming and youth development.
If Negron’s name sounds familiar, you’re right. The northern New Jersey native was a star at Princeton in the early 2000s, and in 2004 led the Tigers to the Ivy League’s only appearance in the women’s soccer Final Four. Now, she influences the business side of the game.
“To have FIFA’s support ... and for them to be excited about what we’re doing, I think, is incredible,” she said. “We have a great relationship with the women over there that head up the women’s side of FIFA, and they are certainly a great resource.”
There will also be a youth tournament for girls’ teams, accompanying the youth tournament for boys’ teams that launched last year. It will include four of the top U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams, as chosen by Relevent with input from the Federation; four regional All-Star teams with players from ECNL and other non-Development Academy clubs; and four foreign teams.
It’s fairly big news that Development Academy and ECNL players will compete against each other. The two organizations are fierce rivals in recruiting and developing players, each with their own rules and loud marketing efforts.
But it apparently wasn’t that hard to get them to play in the same sandbox, especially once U.S. Soccer supported the plan.
“Everybody knows about this rivalry between the two, but they’ve been incredible,” Negron said. “They may have their discrepancies behind the scenes, but I think getting an opportunity to compete in a tournament like this, we haven’t had too many issues."