Preseason test for four established powers
The World Football Challenge is a four-team, six-game tournament that will be played in a half-dozen cities around the United States from July 19-26. Participating are Chelsea, Italian giants AC Milan and Inter and Club America.
Whatever you might think of preseason tournaments in terms of how accurate a precursor they are for the European club seasons ahead, there is little doubt that when some of the world's best teams face each other, sparks will fly.
Five storylines to watch
1. Jose Mourinho versus Carlo Ancelotti
Inter's Mourinho has clashed with many an opposing coach and so, in that respect, Ancelotti is not unique. However, the animosity that began last season when the pair were in charge of Milan's respective teams (Ancelotti with AC Milan) has since been ratcheted up a notch, given that Ancelotti is now in charge at Mourinho's old club, Chelsea.
Mourinho claimed managing in Italy is more difficult than in England, a sly dig at Ancelotti made just days before the Italian was introduced at Stamford Bridge. That appointment had been predicted by (guess who?) Mourinho before Ancelottti resigned as AC Milan boss.
For his part, Ancelotti has made it clear that his priority at Chelsea is to win the Champions League, something Mourinho was unable to do during his three seasons in London. There is little love lost between two of the game's best coaches, meaning whatever happens on the field in Pasadena on Tuesday might be a sideshow compared to events on its touchline.
2. Coaches under pressure
Both Mourinho and Ancelotti were hired by ambitious owners whose priority is to see their club crowned kings of Europe. The other coaches participating in the tournament are also not without pressure.
Succeeding a man who won two Champions League titles as well as the Scudetto in 2004 is no easy task for Leonardo, whose baptism in management has been made all the more difficult by the sale by Milan to Real Madrid of its talisman, Kaka. The retirement of Paolo Maldini meant the exit of another stalwart of the Rossoneri.
Meanwhile, Jesus Ramirez is charged with the task of returning Club América to its former glories. Since reaching the final of the 2007 Clausura, the Azteca-based side has suffered a lengthy slump, to the extent that finishing eighth in this year's competition can actually be seen as a step in the right direction, though it remains unacceptable for a club which has won 10 Mexican championships.
3. Swapping locker rooms?
The three European participants in the tournament are hardly strangers to one another, on the field or off it, where there appears to have been much pre-tournament communication.
Club America vs. Inter
Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto, Calif.
7 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
Chelsea vs. Club America
Much of it might be media hyperbole but, at various times in recent weeks, rumors have stated that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is Chelsea-bound, while current Blues Deco and Ricardo Carvalho are headed to Inter. Chelsea are apparently also chasing Milan's Alexandre Pato.
Chelsea appears to be the main (would-be) mover, with Roman Abramovich's checkbook open to bring in a high-profile name who will help fire his team to the European Holy Grail. The English club's hopes of signing either Ibrahimovic or Pato might still be of the long-shot variety, but with each player on record as saying he is flattered by the interest shown in him, there might be more developments during the tournament.
After all, while we should not necessarily expect any of these players to change uniforms at halftime, having their club's powers-that-be in the same building while their teams play could lead to more of the transfer rumblings that have dominated the offseason to date.
4. Who will win?
It might be a preseason tournament but the round-robin nature of the event means that, at its conclusion, a champion will be crowned.
Chelsea and Inter appear to be best equipped to prevail, given the depth each club features in its squad. Ancelotti has been quiet in the transfer market to date but, with only Joe Cole and Paulo Ferreira sidelined, the new Blues manager will travel to the U.S. with a formidable arsenal of talent, which is more than capable of enabling him to make a successful start to his time in charge.
Inter's main priority in the offseason has been to streamline a squad Mourinho said was too big. Thus a number of veterans and youngsters have gone through the exit door. Diego Milito and Thiago Motta have arrived and will add quality to the Nerazzurri's attack and midfield, respectively.
Milan and Club America are similarly placed in that they each have a little further to go to return to the top in their respective countries and continents. While Chelsea and Inter are close to having squads they are content with, these two clubs continue to look for players to boost their rosters. Thus what you see next week might not be reflective of the lineups with which they begin their next competitive fixtures.
With results not a priority, upsets are a possibility. However, based on its squad strength, my tip to win the inaugural World Football Challenge is Chelsea.
5. Who will watch?
With all six matches set to be staged in stadiums larger than necessary for the average soccer game in this country, the gamble is that the teams and players on show will have sufficient pulling power to draw in the fans.
It looks to be working so far. The July 24 clash between Milan and Chelsea in Baltimore is a 70,000 sellout, and the relatively affordable price of tickets -- $35 will get you into any of the games -- should ensure decent crowds.
Five players to watch
1. Oguchi Onyewu, AC Milan
His signing might not assuage those Milan fans who protested at the club's summer transfer dealings recently but, from a U.S. soccer point of view, the arrival of Onyewu in Italy on a free transfer represents one of the more exciting transfers made by an American in recent memory.
Milan's defense was not bad statistically last season -- conceding only 35 goals in 38 Serie A matches -- but there were clear signs of room for improvement. With Maldini gone and question marks remaining over the fitness of Alessandro Nesta, Kakha Kaladze and Daniele Bonera, all of whom suffered injury-hit campaigns in 2008-09, Onyewu and fellow defensive new boy Thiago Silva have an opportunity to make a spot their own in Leonardo's backline.
"Remember me?" That has been the message emanating from Ronaldinho in recent days, in which the two-time World Player of the Year has said he can rediscover his best form, meaning Milan fans will not need to despair following the departure of Kaka.
Can he walk the walk, though? A stop-start debut season at the San Siro featured only 18 starts for the Brazilian, who struggled to find consistent form. Accusations that he was not motivated followed him around, too, and reports that he arrived for preseason overweight have done little to suggest he is on the verge of getting back to his best.
3. John Terry
He might have become "Mr. Chelsea" in a stellar career since making his Blues debut in 1998, but it appears that not even Terry has been able to look the other way entirely in the face of Manchester City's bottomless pit of cash, as the Manchester club attempt to lure him away from London.
Showdown talks with Roman Abramovich have been mentioned, with Terry apparently seeking an answer to the question of just how much he is worth to the only club he has ever played for. With City apparently ready to make a third bid for its skipper, Chelsea's annual trip to the U.S. could be its most uncomfortable to date.
4. Mario Balotelli
Talk about a "must-see" player. The striker, who turns, 19 in August, has shown fantastic ability while rarely straying far from controversy. Eight goals in 15 Serie A starts last season showed what he is capable of but fail to tell the whole story of a remarkable campaign which began when Balotelli, who was born to Ghanaian immigrants before being adopted, was granted Italian citizenship.
A falling-out with Mourinho at the turn of the year led to Balotelli being dropped for six weeks. Against Juventus in April, Balotelli was subjected to racial abuse, which drew widespread condemnation. Two months later, while in action for Italy's U-21s against Sweden in the European Championship, he was sent off for retaliating 13 minutes after putting his country ahead.
5. Salvador Cabanas
He has been linked with a move to Europe, but for now Cabanas has a more pressing matter on his mind: how to adequately fill the shirt of a Club America legend. The 28-year-old Paraguayan has been given permission by Cuauhtemoc Blanco to don the No. 10 shirt the current Chicago Fire star wore with such distinction during his 15 years with las Aguilas.
With over 100 career goals, Cabanas has an impressive pedigree himself in the Primera División and was second-top scorer in the recent Clausura with 13 goals. The rest of America's squad managed only 12 strikes between them.
Andrew Hush is a soccer researcher for ESPN International. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.