NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wrexham's love affair with American fans begins a new chapter this week, with a series of matches scheduled in the U.S. after they earned a fairytale return to the English Football League.
The Welsh club that languished for 15 years beneath the fourth tier of English football may never have entered the American consciousness if not for celebrity owners and Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney and their popular docu-series "Welcome to Wrexham".
Instead, the club has become a source of intense fascination for an American fanbase often blithely ignorant of the English Football drama that unfolds each year across the Atlantic.
"I grew up hearing that America's team in football was the Dallas Cowboys, and I feel like America's team in soccer is now Wrexham," said Jon Mugar, founder and CEO of The Soccer Tournament (TST), a four-day competition kicking off on Thursday in Cary, North Carolina, that features Wrexham.
Mugar said the club was at the top of the list for the 32 teams organisers wanted in the innovative tournament, which features a seven-on-seven format and a winner-takes-all, $1 million prize.
"People are looking for reasons to be excited and feel good. And Wrexham is certainly a feel good story," said Brian Berklich, chief marketing officer at Sports Endeavors, whose Soccer.com is the retail and content partner for the tournament.
"They have been very open to bringing new fans on board and I think that there's just been a connection there that the people have found."
Teams in TST are comprised of current and former players, as well as some unorthodox participants, including retired two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, who will compete alongside former Spain soccer international Cesc Fabregas on Como 1907.
Wrexham sent first-team goalkeeper Mark Howard to anchor a squad comprised of a few players from their youth team and an array of "club legends" including Andy Morrell and Lee Trundle, who helped the club earn promotion from League Two in 2003.
"We've had a lot of visitors come over to watch our games, which is something that we never really expected but they'd be outside our training base and they're coming to just see what we're up to," Howard told Reuters.
He will be joined by his team mates for the rest of the American mini-tour, playing Chelsea in front of a sold-out crowd on July 19 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, before facing LA Galaxy II in Los Angeles July 22 and Manchester United on July 25 at San Diego's Snapdragon Stadium.
The club has already set their sights on back-to-back promotions and will return home to an entire town lifted by the club's success.
"There's been a lot of heartbreak and mystery around the club for a good long time now. And what the owners have done is they galvanized the whole town and they've really brought more of a community feel," said Howard.
"They've really just brought everyone together."
(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Toby Davis)