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2017 Florida Cup Preview: FC Challenge Stage

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Know more about the first six teams that will compete in the Sunshine State next month

Bayer 04 Leverkusen v Tottenham Hotspur FC - UEFA Champions League Photo by Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Getty Images

International soccer will return to the Sunshine State next month, as the third edition of the Florida Cup welcomes 12 teams to the state from Jan. 8-21. For the first time, the tournament will be divided into two formats, spreading the matches across four stadiums – Orlando’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and Bright House Networks Stadium (UCF), Lockhart Stadium in Ft. Lauderdale, and St. Petersburg’s Al Lang Stadium.

The first part, to be disputed Jan. 8-15, is called the FC Challenge, a tournament in which clubs represent their countries in a format similar to the Davis Cup in tennis. In this stage, each team will play two matches and fight for points for its country. The nation with the most points wins. For some reason, teams from Argentina and the USA were paired together to face challengers from Brazil and Germany.

With Brazilian Atlético Mineiro and Bahia, Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen and Wolfsburg, Argentinean Estudiantes, and American Tampa Bay Rowdies set to take the field in less than a month, The Mane Land presents a preview of what to expect from each of them.

Brazil

Atlético Mineiro

Botafogo v Atletico Mineiro - Brasileirao Series A 2016 Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Known for its black and white uniforms, Atlético Mineiro is the oldest active soccer club from the state of Minas Gerais and also the record holder for state championships, with 43 under their belts. Founded in 1908, the club has also won one National Championship (1971) and one Copa Libertadores (2013).

3 Things to Know:
  • Atlético Mineiro has a rooster as its mascot and is popularly known in Brazil and South America as ‘Galo’ (the Portuguese word for rooster) because of it.
  • ‘Atlético’ is a very usual name for clubs in Brazil — coincidentally Orlando City partners one itself. To identify each of them, the name is usually followed by an adjective that refers to its geographic location. In this case, ‘Mineiro’ means ‘from Minas Gerais.’
  • Atlético Mineiro possesses a scary front line with former Brazilian internationals Fred, the top goal scorer of the National Championship in 2016, and Robinho, who played for Milan and Real Madrid, and Argentinean striker Lucas Pratto.

Bahia

Bahia v Cruzeiro - Brasileirao Series A 2014 Photo by Felipe Oliveira/Getty Images

Founded in 1931, Esporte Clube Bahia is one of the most traditional Brazilian teams. The club has won the National Championship twice (1959 and 1988), and was recently promoted after spending two years in the second tier. Bahia was invited to replace Flamengo, which gave up on Florida Cup because of schedule issues.

3 Things to Know:
  • Bahia is no stranger to Florida, as the team played Orlando City in a friendly match in February, just before the MLS season started. Florida does not bring good memories to the club, though, as the Lions won, 6-1.
  • Bahia has a customized version of Superman as its mascot. The Tricolor Superman clothes colors are the same as the original — blue, red and white.
  • Bahia’s striker Hernane is nicknamed “The Driller” because that was his job before he started playing professional soccer.

Germany

Bayer Leverkusen

Bayer Leverkusen v Indepediente Santa Fe - Florida Cup Photo by Rob Foldy/Bongarts/Getty Images

Bayer Leverkusen is one of the oldest and most traditional teams of Germany. The club was founded in 1904 by employees of German pharmaceutical company Bayer, which is its owner. Their biggest achievements are the 1992-93 German Cup, the 1987-88 UEFA Cup and finishing second at the 2001-2002 UEFA Champions League.

3 Things to Know:
  • Bayer Leverkusen is one of the two teams to compete in each of the three editions of Florida Cup, finishing second both in 2015 and 2016. The other is Brazilian side Corinthians.
  • U.S. Men’s National Team and Colorado Rapids midfielder Jermaine Jones played for Bayer Leverkusen during the 2004-2005 season, spending most of his stint there as part of their second team.
  • Mexican star forward Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández was courted by Orlando City during the 2015 summer, but decided to sign with Bayer Leverkusen instead.

Wolfsburg

VfL Wolfsburg v Bayer 04 Leverkusen - Bundesliga Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images

The 2008-2009 Bundesliga champions are an up-and-coming squad in the country after winning the 2014-2015 German Cup and the 2015 Supercup. Wolfsburg has competed since 1945, when it grew out of a multi-sports club for Volkswagen workers, and is owned and managed by a subsidiary of the German automaker giant.

3 Things to Know:
  • Wolfsburg’s veteran left back Marcel Schafer recently considered a move to Major League Soccer, presumably to play for Atlanta, where his mother lives, but apparently backed down on the transfer after the election of Donald Trump.
  • American fullback/midfielder Fabian Johnson played for Wolfsburg between 2009 and 2011, but was not very successful with the German side, seeing the field only 18 times and scoring once during his tenure with the team.
  • Wolfsburg No. 10 star midfielder Julian Draxler was part of the German National Team roster that won the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Argentina/USA

Estudiantes

Photo by Estudiantes de La Plata

Estudiantes is one of the most accomplished teams of South America, having won the Copa Libertadores four times (1968, 1969, 1970 and 2009) — only behind fellow Argentineans Independiente (7) and Boca Juniors (6), and Uruguayan club Peñarol (5). The club also won the FIFA Club World Cup in 1968, overcoming English powerhouse Manchester United, and the National Championship in six seasons.

3 Things to Know:
  • Estudiantes is one of the two Argentinean teams to compete in the 2017 Florida Cup, alongside rivals River Plate. This is the first year the nation is represented in the tournament.
  • Current Estudiantes president is legendary Argentinean playmaker Juan Sebastian Verón, who led the club on the field when they last won the Copa Libertadores, in 2009. Recently, the 41-year-old former player claimed he would return to the field for some matches if the fans bought 65% of tickets available of the club’s new stadium.
  • Enjoying his third stint with Estudiantes, veteran goalkeeper Mariano Andújar is one of the best in the country and was part of the Argentinean roster in both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.

Tampa Bay Rowdies

Soccer: Tampa Bay Rowdies at New York Cosmos Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rowdies are the lone representatives of the United States in the third edition of the Florida Cup. The St. Petersburg club, which was founded in 1974, ceased operations in 1994 and was reactivated in 2008, and has won the North American Soccer League (NASL) twice: in 1975 and 2012. The Rowdies will compete in the United Soccer League (USL) in 2017.

3 Things to Know:
  • American forward Roy Wegerle, who played for the USMNT both in the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, started his career with the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 1984.
  • Longtime England international midfielder Joe Cole is the star of the Rowdies roster. He joined the club in 2016 and played 24 matches, scoring nine goals and notching seven assists.
  • The Tampa Bay Rowdies recently launched #MLS2StPete, a public campaign to join Major League Soccer as an expansion franchise in the future.

That will do it for your Florida Cup FC Challenge primer. We’ll preview the second stage of the event — the FC Playoff — soon.