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Soccer's month-long extravaganza of international fun ended Sunday, but the conclusion of the World Cup didn't call time on the game's summer action.

There is no rest for the wickedly good when it comes to soccer, with packed club seasons leading right into the World Cup and the World Cup feeding into a dizzying mass of preseason games.

Fortunately for American fans burned by the absence of the national team from Russia, some of best buildup ahead of the new European club campaign will take place in the USA.

"There won't be a lot of rest for these guys," England coach Gareth Southgate said after his team lost its third-place playoff to Belgium. "That is part of being a top player, and you have to try to manage it."

The American market has become a magnet for many of Europe's finest clubs, and the International Champions Cup, a preseason tournament boasting some of the biggest names in the game, kicks off at Chicago's Soldier Field on Friday.

Eighteen teams will play three games for a total of 27 matches, 17 of which will be played in American stadiums, mainly the kind of giant venues usually reserved for college football or the NFL.

The organizers are at the whim of the coaches in terms of who plays on any given day, but previous evidence suggests the games are seen as a solid opportunity to get their superstars into shape.

It is hard to argue with the quality of the tournament field. The American portion of the ICC will feature Champions League finalists Real Madrid and Liverpool, plus the league champions of England, Spain, Italy and Germany (Manchester City, Barcelona, Juventus and Bayern Munich). Add Manchester United and AC Milan to that list, and you can start to see why the ICC is into its sixth year and counting.

"Top players, we are busy," Cristiano Ronaldo said, describing the workload the modern performer must shoulder.

The extent of Ronaldo's involvement in the ICC will soon become clearer, and there remains the tantalizing possibility that Juventus' new signing could face off against former team Real Madrid on Aug. 4.

Players eliminated in the group stage, Round of 16 or quarterfinals of the World Cup are more likely to feature heavily in the ICC than those who made it to the semifinals.

Regardless, the ICC has proved to be a popular diversion for players, with visiting coaches often extolling the virtues of lavish American training facilities, many basing themselves at major colleges.

There is no need to pretend the ICC is something it isn't. Ultimately, these are preseason games, and there are still cobwebs to be shaken out for players who weren't part of their nation's World Cup squad.

"I'll be raring to go," American Christian Pulisic told USA TODAY recently. "I didn't want to have the summer off."

Pulisic's Borussia Dortmund is around for three games, one of which is that Friday opener against Manchester City in Chicago.

There will be some intriguing culture clashes, too. Two teams synonymous with "red" will play at a place that's usually a sea of blue. Manchester United and Liverpool could break an American soccer attendance record on July 28 when they meet at Michigan's "Big House."

Different clubs have different requirements for what they want from preseason. Some might look to give as much of their squad playing time as possible. Others will focus on getting their key members into optimum shape. For example, Ronaldo is 33, but Juventus will surely be keen to get its new star on display to maximize the impact of one of the most surprising moves of recent times.

The most tired legs will surely come from representatives of France, Croatia, Belgium and England, with each of those nations playing seven World Cup games.

England's Harry Kane is an avowed lover of American culture and its traditional sports, and the chance to play AC Milan at Minneapolis' US Bank Stadium, site of the most recent Super Bowl, might tempt him to try to make an appearance in Tottenham's third game. Kane has spoken often of becoming an NFL kicker at the end of his career. In the meantime, he will have to be content with the World Cup's Golden Boot award and being one of the world's most valued soccer stars.

He'll be in company over the coming weeks, and America's new soccer fans don't need to go cold turkey as soon as the World Cup ends. Soccer isn't ready to let go of its grip on summer just yet.

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July 16, 2018


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