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Real major league soccer is coming to U.S.

Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge, right, celebrates after scoring the opening goal during a Europa League match against Sevilla on May 18 in Basel, Switzerland.
Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge, right, celebrates after scoring the opening goal during a Europa League match against Sevilla on May 18 in Basel, Switzerland. AP

It’s only a string of exhibitions in search of a tournament, but starting this weekend, major-league soccer – as opposed to Major League Soccer – takes to some of the biggest pitches in the United States.

They call it the International Champions Cup, and this will be the fourth year the best teams in the world have conducted the event. They use it to prepare for the league seasons that will soon begin in Europe, and that is just fine with fans of teams like Liverpool FC living on the West Coast.

The Reds claim a worldwide following of 580 million, which gets them on the short list of the most popular sports clubs in the world. Club ambassador Gary McAlister – a Scot who is a legend of English football – runs into fans just about everywhere.

At airports, stepping off buses, checking into hotels, strolling Fisherman’s Wharf – it’s the same everywhere.

“You see the eyes light up,” said the 51-year-old McAlister, named in a 2013 fan survey as the 31st greatest player in Liverpool club history that dates back 124 years. “Wherever you go, anywhere in the world, Liverpool has a following. A couple years ago, we were basically on the East Coast (for the tournament). We have hundreds of thousands of fans there. Nothing changes when we come here.”

Liverpool plays English Premier League rival Chelsea FC on Wednesday at the Rose Bowl. On Saturday next week, it’s up to Levi’s Stadium against AC Milan. On Aug. 1, Liverpool takes on AS Roma in St. Louis.

Then it’s back to the United Kingdom for an Aug. 5 cup exhibition against Barcelona, in London, where Liverpool will find out how Lionel Messi is enjoying retirement from international competition. Messi, you’ll recall, used to play for the Argentine national team. He quit after missing a penalty kick in a Copa America championship loss to Chile. Messi still finds time to turn out for Barcelona. The club does pay him $81.5 million, after all.

This is the third year of the mid-summer ICC extravaganza matching the world’s best across four continents.

Leicester City, the surprise champion of the EPL, opens its string of friendlies Saturday in Glasgow against Celtic FC. Next weekend, the Foxes take to the international fairground of Carson for a match against Paris-Saint Germain.

Defending UEFA Champions League champ Real Madrid plays PSG on Wednesday in the Ohio State horseshoe, before moving up to what the late and lovable Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes called “that school up north.” The match against Chelsea will be played on Saturday next week at the Big House at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. This is believed to be the first time that a football team of any sort has played games in the rival Big Ten cathedrals just five days apart.

Bayern Munich and FC Internazionale also are in the states for some football. Along with Pasadena, Santa Clara and Carson, the USA/Europe matches will be played in East Rutherford, N.J., Minneapolis, London’s Wembley Stadium, Limerick and Dublin in Ireland, and – surprisingly – in Charlotte, N.C. Apparently, ICC officials are not aware of the restrictive bathroom policies in the Tar Heel State that led the NBA to relocate its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte.

Melbourne Victory FC will have the home-continent advantages in matches slated for Australia, although Juventus FC, Tottenham and Atletico Madrid figure to make up for things Down Under with superior atletico ability. In China, the Manchesters – United and City – will take their municipal feud halfway around the globe. Borussia Dortmund fills out the lineup of clubs playing in the far eastern time zone.

No MLS teams are entered in the fracas, nor are any from the USL. Keep in mind that our third-tier Republic FC earned a win and a tie two months ago against Liverpool FC’s under-21s. Given the estimated age of the universe, which is 14 billion years, our boys really weren’t that much older than the future Reds.

Ambassador McAlister, who could kill teams on set pieces, scored 129 goals during his 21-year professional career. He had five more in the nine years he played for the Scottish national team. He made more appearances with Leeds United than he did with any other club and helped it to a first-division championship in 1992. But in his short time as a player with the Reds, he wove himself into the fabric of Liverpool lore when he figured in four goals and scored one in the 2001 UEFA Cup championship match.

Always an EPL contender, Liverpool appears to have strengthened itself in recent days with a number of key signings, including one Friday – attacking midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum. McAlister said the boys looked sharp in four recent exhibitions against lesser opposition back home, and that they can only get better with their slate of friendlies in the ICC action that gives America a first-hand glimpse of what big-time soccer is all about.

“When you’re up against the likes of the teams we’re playing, like Chelsea, AC Milan and Roma, the names are enough to make it serious,” McAlister said. “They build it up as a preseason friendly, but it’s far from that. We’re getting close to the start of the season. It comes ever so quick.”

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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