Schwan’s USA CUP is a spectacle beyond a soccer tournament

Sports Reporter
Sam is the sports reporter for ABC Newspapers, covering high school, junior college and community sports in the area. He joined the staff in October 2016.
Fireworks erupt over the burning caldron, marking a climactic end to the 2016 Schwan’s USA CUP opening ceremony. The opening ceremony this year is at 7:30 p.m. on July 18 at the National Sports Center in Blaine. More than 1,100 soccer teams from all over the world are taking part in the tournament. (File Photo)

With 1,168 teams from 17 states, five Canadian provinces and 15 countries participating, the Schwan’s USA CUP held at Blaine’s National Sports Center is a week-long spectacle that takes all year to organize.

About a dozen full-time staff members at the NSC are working year-round to put on the youth soccer tournament.

Now entering its 33rd year, the USA CUP weekend tournament is July 14-16 and the weeklong tournament is July 18-22

It has grown to be a premiere sporting event in Minnesota. Teams have already booked their hotels for next year’s tournament. Some teams are even in contact with tournament directors about competing 2-3 years from now.

“It’s a multi-faceted thing,” Barclay Kruse, the NSC chief communications officer, said. “Teams plan for years to come to this tournament. We’re already marketing and talking to teams that won’t even be here until two to three years from now because it’s such a complicated process to come here, especially for international teams. They have to raise a lot of money, logistically it’s hard and they have to get all the families committed to doing this.”

The U19 Girls Team Gonzo team of Mexico carries in the torch last year. Mexican teams have played in the international youth soccer tournament for 30 years. (File Photo)

Registration, lodging, facility logistics and finding volunteers and referees are just a few of the tasks officials begin to plan before the current year’s tournament even begins.

The tournament staffs about 1,000 volunteers during the competition featuring boys and girls divisions from U7 to U19.

Some volunteers have worked every tournament since the origin in 1985. Others take 10 days of vacation time just to help out. Duties range from field services, the “front line of the tournament” who are in radio contact with headquarters to make sure games are starting on time and the refs are checked in, to media, registration and medical volunteers.

Tasks such as making sure referees, who also come from all over the world, have proper transportation are small details tournament officials sort out to make sure things run smoothly.

The USA CUP refs have formed a team and bond on their own, with many reuniting once a year in Blaine.

“A lot of the refs have been coming for years,” tournament director Jen Een said. “We have a group from England that there are liaisons over there that work to recruit refs and they bring a huge contingent of refs. A lot of it is word of mouth, too. The referee community, especially in Europe, they travel a lot and go to different tournaments.”

Blaine teams cheer as they march into the stadium in last year’s opening ceremony. (File Photo)

The massive tournament in Blaine attracts refs from the top levels of international soccer to local officials. The help from all over is needed, as the USA CUP is played on 51 fields and 2,607 total games will be played.

It is the only tournament of this size in the world where all the games are on one campus, which enhances the experience for all involved. Besides the games, the tournament offers various activities, such as special ticket prices for Valleyfair, a Minnesota United FC open public training session followed by an autograph session, a dance and many more.

“There’s so many experiences, not just playing soccer, but going to the dances together and meeting friends,” Een said. “People will meet friends the first day of the tournament and then follow each other and watch each other’s games throughout the week. It’s a lot of cultural exchange in addition to the soccer.”

The Opening Ceremonies are held July 18 with an Olympic-style parade of teams, an appearance by the U.S. Navy’s Leap Frog skydiving team and fireworks.

Members of the North Metro teams enter the track during the 2016 opening ceremony parade of nations. (File Photo)

It’s all a part of spectacle that goes beyond just a soccer tournament.

“They come for a week and will remember it for the rest of their lives,” Kruse said. “That’s our marketing slogan we use, but the reason we keep using it is because it’s very authentic. Tony Sanneh and Manny Lagos – Manny is the sporting director at Minnesota United FC and Tony played for the national team and in the MLS and has a local foundation – they both played in the first USA CUP in 1985. If you ask either one of them of their memories of that first USA CUP, they’ll talk more about that than the games they played for the national team. It’s amazing.”

Throughout the tournament’s history, more than 20,000 teams have played 56,000 games. Millions of visitors have traveled to Blaine, making the USA CUP the largest annual economic impact sports event in Minnesota. This year, the estimated economic impact is $33 million.

“This is the biggest week of the year in Blaine,” Kruse said. “The impact is way, way beyond what happens on the field. You go into any restaurant that week and it’s packed with soccer teams. People are speaking different languages. The economic impact is huge. There’s a lot of traffic, but the impact on the community is huge. What other time of the year would you have visitors from all over the world visiting the city of Blaine?”

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