Getting a firsthand glimpse of Livestrong Sporting Park during a light training session Monday was enough to convince the players for French Ligue 1 champion Montpellier Herault SC that the MLS is a fast-rising professional league.
“I’m impressed with stadium and how everything is top of the line,” forward Anthony Mounier said through translator Christophe Nicot and his son, Daniel. “Obviously, MLS has been rising over the years and there’s no reason the MLS can’t be a top league in the world in a few years.”
Mounier and Montpellier Herault teammates are in town for an international friendly at 7:30 p.m. tonight against Sporting Kansas City at Livestrong Sporting Park.
“I think it will be a beautiful atmosphere and we are happy to be here, but we’d be happy to be here anyway, because we just love playing football,” said forward John Utaka, one of Montpellier Herault’s few English-speaking players. “I haven’t seen a stadium like this outside Europe. It’s a beautiful stadium and the game will be sweet tomorrow.”
Montpellier Herault, which is located on France’s Mediterranean coast, finished atop the Ligue 1 table last season for the first time since its founding in 1974.
It’s a remarkable achievement for a club that had finished 10th or worse in 11 of 19 previous seasons in France’s top division and hadn’t ever finished higher than third.
Now, Montpellier Herault, which faces Coupe de France winners Olympique Lyonnais on Saturday at Red Bull Arena in New York in the Trophee des Champions, is the third team to play an international friendly at Livestrong Sporting Park, joining Newcastle United and Chivas Guadalajara.
Last season’s leading scorer Olivier Giroud, who led Ligue 1 with 21 goals, has moved on to Arsenal, jumping to the English Premier League after signing a multi-year deal last month.
Still, Montpellier Herault still boasts Younes Belhanda, 22, a French-Morrocan who scored 12 goals with four assists in 28 matches last season, as the club’s top creative threat in the midfield.
At forward, Souleymane Camara, who finished with nine goals and five assists last season, is the club’s top returning striker along with Utaka, who scored seven goals with two assists.
“We are not under pressure, because there are a lot of bigger teams in Ligue 1 – Paris, Marseille and Lyon – who have much larger budgets and, therefore, are under much more pressure,” said captain and defender Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, who also plays for the French national team.
Replacing Giroud, Montpellier Herault expects big things from forward Emanuel Herrera, who scored 38 goals in the last two seasons playing in Chile. The promising 25-year-old from Argentina – who signed a three-year, $3.5 million deal July 6 – will be asked to pick up the slack from Giroud’s departure.
Montpellier Herault also added Mounier, a former left winger for Lyon and Nice, during the offseason.
It will be the first game at Livestrong Sporting Park for a professional team from France and the first time any of Montpellier Herault’s players have faced an MLS side.
“With the arrival of talented players like Thierry Henry and (David) Beckham, obviously there has been more talk about the MLS,” Belhanda said. “But aside from that we don’t hear much about soccer in the U.S. Mainly, we hear about baseball and American football.
“But the national team has done very well, qualifying for the last several World Cups. In the near future, hopefully MLS will raise up to the European level.”
Stoke City FC from the English Premier League is slated to play a friendly at Livestrong on Aug. 1.
World Cup qualifying tickets now on sale
Tickets for the U.S. men’s national team’s final World Cup qualifier, which is set for Oct. 16 at Livestrong Sporting Park, go on sale at 10 a.m. today.
Tickets will be available at the Livestrong box office, through U.S. Soccer by calling 1-800-745-3000 or at any Ticketmaster center in Kansas City, including all Hen House markets.