New winner-take-all soccer tournament gathers World Cup legends, former pros and amateurs

CARY, North Carolina — Imagine if March Madness was staged like a four-day music festival, then sprinkle in equal parts youth soccer tournament, the World Cup and the World Series of Poker. The result might look something like The Soccer Tournament, which over the past three days has enthralled attendees, won over skeptics and laid the groundwork for what has the potential to grow into an important annual event on the American soccer calendar.

The inaugural 7 vs. 7 tournament will crown its first champion Sunday, and with that a winner-take-all $1 million prize.

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Though the tournament attracted some of the most accomplished, albeit retired, players in American history and teams representing pro clubs from seven countries, neither of the remaining teams from the original 32-team field fit those molds. Instead, two relatively anonymous teams — Newtown Pride FC and SLC FC — will play for what would have been inconceivable stakes before TST was born.

“To be honest, I just hope my mate [Matt Svanda] gets his money back,” said Newtown coach Onua Obasi, a pro indoor soccer player with the Baltimore Blast. “He fronted everything [$20k entry fee, travel/lodging for all the players]. Some teams have sponsors, we didn’t have any of that. We have the credit card and have been trying to penny pinch everywhere. I hope he gets his money back and also the satisfaction of winning it and not looking back with regret.”

Newtown Pride is based in the Sandy Hook part of Newtown, Connecticut, and usually plays as an amateur 11 vs. 11 team. They have a history of success — including a national title in the 2019 U.S. Amateur Cup that was supposed to grant the team a berth in the U.S. Open Cup — and about six of the regular team’s core members on the TST roster. The rest are players that Obasi identified from the Major Arena Soccer League, along with Kelvin Nunes, who plays in the Fut7 league in Brazil.

Meanwhile, SLC is a Canadian-based team whose roster is made up predominantly of players with low-level pro and college experience. They outlasted teams representing clubs with real resources: Borussia Dortmund, West Ham, Wolverhampton, Wrexham, Necaxa, Charlotte FC, and Hapoel Tel Aviv. They outperformed others with World Cup veterans and experience playing in the best leagues in the world. Blade and Grass, for example, started six players with multiple international caps, including Americans Geoff Cameron and Brek Shea.

The team put together by the United States‘ joint all-time leading goal scorer, Clint Dempsey, didn’t get out of the group, despite a Game 1 hat trick from Major League Soccer’s all-time leading goal scorer, Chris Wondolowski (who completed the hat trick as the team’s goalie). It was the type of event that might have been easy to dismiss out of hand for some, but for those who gave it a chance, few were left disappointed with what they saw.

Roughly 35,000 tickets were sold over seven separate sessions, exceeding the interest tournament organizers anticipated when they chose to hold the event in Cary. A large chunk of those sales were driven by the presence of Wrexham, whose popularity in the United States has skyrocketed in the past two-plus years since actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney purchased the Welsh club and began chronicling the journey in the FX documentary series “Welcome to Wrexham.”

As part of the TST ticket-buying process, the tournament asked fans which team they would be supporting, and 65 percent chose Wrexham. Before each of Wrexham’s four games — all of which were played in the main stadium — the bleacher seats started filling up well before the game began. They were the only team at the tournament that had that kind of draw.

What’s clear is that not only has Wrexham has cultivated a passionate American fan base from thin air, the club is all in on growing it further. The club’s participation in Cary is the first step in a summer that will see Wrexham spend a few weeks in the United States on a preseason tour with friendlies against Chelsea (July 19), LA Galaxy II (July 22) and Manchester United (July 25). Entering TST was a chance to stay relevant in an otherwise quiet time on the club’s calendar.

“I think what it does is it shows a continuation of content,” Wrexham advisor Shaun Harvey told ESPN. “There’s no down period. We’ve not played for four weeks in terms of the football, which is what people are genuinely interested in. The story of Wrexham is good, but the story of Wrexham is around the football club. So the football club coming over here to play just gives it another dimension in advance of the main US tour coming up in about six weeks.”

Though “Welcome to Wrexham” didn’t have a camera crew in attendance at TST, there is an expectation that footage will be provided to possibly include in the series.

The first two days felt a lot like the first two of March Madness with as many as four games being played at once, finishing at staggered times. For those at WakeMed Soccer Park — the home of USL’s North Carolina FC and NWSL’s North Carolina Courage — it was easy to walk from field to field to watch their players or teams of choice. For everyone else, the games were streamed on either Peacock or YouTube. Sunday’s championship game will be televised on CNBC (3 p.m. ET).

“With a new event that you’re building from scratch, you have to make a ton of assumptions,” said founder Jon Mugar. “We have new rules — it’s like a new sport — the whole festival and fan experience. That was all a new thing for us. So, our model was the U.S. Open for tennis from a fan perspective, and we think we achieved that. We’ve gotten great feedback from players and all the participants and fans.”

Part of that success stemmed from the rules and format. The tournament was structured similarly the World Cup: 32 teams in eight groups of four with three group matches per team, then a 16-team, single-elimination knockout phase.

Putting on this type of tournament with traditional rules — 11 vs. 11, 90-minute games, etc. — wouldn’t have made sense for a multitude of reasons, so when TBT Enterprises first considered applying its basketball concept to soccer, it was always going to be a small-sided game. That made it possible to condense the tournament into a short period of time and experiment with different rules to create something unique from all the other soccer that can be consumed (just this weekend, there is/was the FA Cup final, the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final, the U.S. in the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup, MLS, USL, NWSL and other leagues around the world).

Field dimensions were 65 yards in length (a similar distance as the width of a regular field), 45 yards in width, and the goal frames were 18.5-by-6.5-feet. However, the most unique feature were the endings: every game finished on a goal with what TST called Target Score Time. The concept closely resembles the Elam Ending, which TBT introduced and later was adopted for the NBA All Star game.

At the end of the second 20-minute half, a target score was set: simply one more goal than whatever the leading team had. Whichever team reached that score first would win and to prevent that from dragging out too long, a player from each team would have to leave the field every five minutes until there was 2 vs. 2.

“To think that every single game is a three-point buzzer beater or a Hail Mary to win it is pretty rad,” said former USMNT player Jimmy Conrad, who served as a player/coach for the team he entered with USMNT legend Demarcus Beasley. “I think it really gives you a different look at what the game can be.”

It wasn’t all sunshine and rose, though. Day 1 of the tournament was marred by the allegation of a racist remark by a player on a team from Dallas that resulted in West Ham United‘s team walking off the pitch. The incident reached a quick resolution, however, as the team was removed from the tournament after quick investigation to verify the allegation.

“I need to go on record and say that the topic of conversation that was laid bare [Thursday] is bigger than football,” former pro Anton Ferdinand said. “And the way that TST dealt with it, so swiftly — the no-nonsense action. A lot of people around the world, organizations around the world can take them. The support that they’ve given us as a team and as a squad, not just to us but for the staff right here with us has been second to none. We have to remember that this ain’t just a football issue. It’s a societal issue that needs addressing and if more people were dressing the way TST addressed it, the world would be a better place.”

From a competitive standpoint, West Ham got a quick reality check in its first game when it found out a team of retired players without much, if any, training wouldn’t be enough to pose a real threat. Of the pro teams in the tournament, the most successful was Como 1907, the Italian Serie B club that brought a handful of players from its first team, was coached by Spanish midfield legend Cesc Fabregas and featured a one-game cameo from NBA Hall of Famer Steve Nash.

As of Wednesday, Fabregas told ESPN he was planning to play, but tournament organizers said he picked up a slight injury later that day and stuck only to coaching.

“As a club, we want to expand and to be recognized as a good brand, a good football club,” Fabregas said. “We’re trying to grow and obviously this was a great opportunity for the club to come to the United States for the first time.” Como didn’t just send players. Nearly 30 fans were sent, too, and they helped foster a strong exciting atmosphere for each of Como’s matches, starting with a narrow defeat to Wrexham in Game 1.

Even without Fabregas on the field, Como wasn’t light on talent. While most of the team was academy players, the team relied heavily on 25-year-old Patrick Cutrone, who broke through with AC Milan at 18, has been capped by the Italian national team and played in the English Premier League (Wolverhampton) and LaLiga (Valencia) before returning to his hometown club ahead of the 2022-23 season.

TST wasn’t just a training session for Cutrone, either. He played the bulk of each match seemingly with the intensity of a real club match and didn’t shy away from trash talking with his mostly amateur opposition. Part of the beauty of the event is the absurdity of it all. Como made it to the quarterfinals before being eliminated by Zala FFF, who erased a 3-0 deficit at the start of Target Score Time and scored the winning goal with just three players left on the field.

Israeli side Hapeol Tel Aviv also showed well, reaching the quarterfinals, but Wrexham was the only other team in the field representing a fully professional club that got through the group stage, while Wolverhampton, Necaxa, Charlotte and North Carolina FC, like West Ham, bowed out early.

Even worse was Borussia Dortmund. The German giants brought a few former players but filled most of their roster with players that gave their team no chance to be remotely competitive and went 0-3 with a goal differential of minus-17. For Dortmund, this was purely a marketing event and a big deal was made out of their inclusion of Noah Beck, the one-time Real Salt Lake academy player who played a year of college soccer before ending his soccer career after becoming famous on social media (he has over 30 million followers on TikTok). Beck was red-carded in Dortmund’s second game after shoving a Newtown Pride player (though it was rescinded and he played in BVB’s final game).

The only team with a worse goal differential in the tournament was the U.S. Women, the team put together by U.S. women’s national team veteran Heather O’Reilly and coached by Mia Hamm. Except while Dortmund’s participation was roundly mocked by those in attendance, the U.S. Women were among the crowd favorites and the team’s players took the harsh results in stride.

Before the event started, just about every aspect of it was an unknown variable. The rules were set, but no one knew how they would be exploited. Target Score Time was explained, but no one could say for certain how the tactics would change as players left the field.

One aspect that surprised event organizers was the relative lack of scoring — especially as the tournament wore on. In test games in the months leading up to the tournament, goals were scored on average of every four minutes, but in the knockout stages no team scored more than four goals in a match. There was still considerably more attacking than you would see in a regulation soccer match, especially considering the truncated game lengths.

One lesson multiple teams learned was that they didn’t have enough players. For example, by the time Zala FFF — a team put together by longtime MLS players AJ Delagarza — reached the semifinal against SLC, the team was completely gassed. They decided their only hope to advance was to slow the game to a crawl and had their goalie hold the ball at his feet for as long as possible with an eye on winning in Target Score Time. The game ended 0-0 and fans booed Zala’s tactic, which ran contrary to the tournament’s action-packed premise.

These sort of issues were to be expected and now it’s up to the tournament and future contestants to figure out how to adapt and improve. The consensus among the ex-pros who played was that there is massive potential for TST to grow into an event that teams take more seriously. Not that effort or intensity was lacking, but from how teams construct their rosters or prepare before the tournament.

“It really does come down to team building,” said Conrad, whose team reached the quarterfinals. “We probably could’ve used another four guys, so we probably should’ve taken an advantage with a full roster, which is the lesson learned because we were all falling apart.”

“I think this particular tournament will continue to grow. I think you’re going to attract some household names, players, and clubs. So then it’s going to go from maybe playing with your buddies to getting super competitive pretty fast when you’re putting a million dollars on the line.”

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