Next step for soccer organizers is to keep interest on U.S. soil

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It's a point that has been debated almost breathlessly since the U.S. men's soccer team's 2-1 loss to Belgium Tuesday in the World Cup knockout round: Were the World Cup's massive television ratings simply a product of fans looking to root on the red, white and blue once every four years, or has soccer actually begun to catch on as a mainstream American sport?

According to Charlie Stillitano, CEO of Relevant Sports, the company putting on this summer's International Champions Cup, it might be the latter.

The ICC will come to Heinz Field July 27 for a match between European powers Manchester City and AC Milan, and Stillitano said organizers have seen a spike in ticket sales in recent weeks as fans have become hooked on the World Cup.

"We're well ahead of where we thought we'd be," he said. "We're really pleased. I think we're going to crush through our expectations in Pittsburgh."

Stillitano estimated that around 30,000 tickets have been sold for the game, already surpassing the attendance of 25,137 that saw Chelsea take on Roma at Heinz Field in 2004.

"I think we have benefited greatly from the U.S. success and the uptick in soccer, and Pittsburgh is no exception," he said.

The most remarkable sales boom, though, has come from Ann Arbor, Mich., where 110,000 tickets have been sold for a match between Real Madrid and Manchester United at Michigan Stadium.

Overall, Stillitano said he expects the tournament to more than double the 300,000 tickets it sold a year ago. There were 12 International Cup games in 2013 and 13 this year.

Fans who do go to the match later this month at Heinz Field will get to see several of the players who took the field in Brazil for their country. Italy's Mario Balotelli, Ivory Coast's Yaya Touré and Bosnia-Herzegovina's Eden Dzeko are just a few of the stars which likely will play for Manchester City or AC Milan.

While most World Cup players like to enjoy a vacation before their domestic seasons start in August, Stillitano said he has received assurances from teams that the stars would be there. Specifically, any player knocked out in the group stage of the World Cup -- which includes the Italians and English -- would "100 percent" be in the USA for the ICC.

In fact, he said organizers shied away from teams such as Chelsea, Juventus and Barcelona that were overloaded with various international players.

"We shied away from those three, if you will, and we got really lucky," he said. "There's not even a question. Mario Balotelli will be on that plane.

"The benefit that we have is that the vast majority of players got eliminated in the first round. Italy, Spain and England's loss is our gain."

While Stillitano is obviously hopeful that soccer's increased popularity will help with ticket sales and exposure for this summer's tournament, he also sees a longer reaching effect with increased television viewership of European league games and, eventually, a rise in the prominence in Major League Soccer.

The timing for European games could help, too. On weekend mornings, they won't face a whole lot of competition, and could provide fans with some pregame viewing before American football starts.

"The time slot for TV will really benefit, I think, the European leagues right now," Stillitano. "Because people will have seen these guys play and then they will hopefully see them when they come and play in our tournament, and then see them on TV every week."

■ What: Manchester City vs. AC Milan in Group B match of International Champions Cup, Heinz Field.

■ When: 4 p.m. July 27.

Sam Werner: and Twitter @SWernerPG.

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