Tuesday, August 19, 2014

English (League Soccer) for Americans: Jordan and Paolo Tackle the EPL as the "Football" Season Gets Rolling

Contrary to the notice of numerous North Americans, soccer isn't only played once every four years, during the World Cup.

In fact, club soccer leagues comprised of privately-held teams have existed in England since 1888, over 40 years before the first World Cup (the most prestigious tournament within the realm of "International Soccer" played among countries, as opposed to "Club Soccer," primarily played among teams within a given country).

Almost every country you can think of around the world has its own league--or several, at different tiers of quality--of professional "football" teams. As common among U.S. baseball, basketball and hockey teams, club soccer teams aren't limited to players from their home country, and per a club's ability to attract players based on money, location, team prestige and other factors, rosters often include a mix of players from many nationalities.

Fans' fervor for their local or favorite soccer club(s) can be far more intense than even their passion for their country when playing in International tournaments. As a fan of hockey's Chicago Blackhawks I can relate to this, for I care more about their competing for the Stanley Cup than I do about U.S. Hockey in the Winter Olympics, especially as the latter--like the World Cup--happens only every 4 years.

Because of the continuity of club soccer teammates playing full seasons with each other--and perhaps also in competitions with teams from other countries--the quality of play for elite club teams can often be better than one may see in the World Cup.

In the United States, Major League Soccer (MLS) is the premier professional league, but the lower-level North American Soccer League (NASL) and United States Leagues also field teams in sizable cities.

World soccer league rankings by Dave Clark of SB Nation/Sounder at Heart
See story and data tables here.
Yet in terms of popularity within their home country, prestige around the world, ability to attract top tier players and the money involved--in terms of team value, player contracts & transfer fees, sponsorships, merchandising, etc.--the top club soccer leagues in England, Germany, Italy, Spain and elsewhere far outrank MLS, in that order per in-depth data compiled by one soccer blogger. (The International Federation of Football History and Statistics concurs on the top four leagues, but orders them Spain, England, Germany, Italy.)

The English Premier League, in which 20 teams compete each season, is the top league for soccer--or locally, football--in the United Kingdom, and among the most elite worldwide. With due deference to the top Spanish, Italian and German leagues, and other other leagues I know less about, the EPL is the world league of which I'm most aware. (Many of its games are now televised on major U.S. outlets.)

The table (i.e. standings) for Barclays Premier League (the EPL, Barclays Bank
is the sponsor) after one game of the 2014-15 season. From premierleague.com
But I am not nearly the avid fan or follower that my friends Jordan and Paolo are, so with the 2014-15 EPL season having begun this past weekend, I thought I would engage them in some analysis, as I did for the World Cup. (You can find those three articles on Seth Saith--1, 2, 3--but I've also set up a Futbol Fanatical blog to compile any soccer pieces, including this one).

As you'll see, I posed some questions that they responded to; Jordan provided his answers before the first EPL games were played last Saturday, and Paolo mostly provided a bit of color off of Jordan's responses on Sunday .

Thanks to both of them for their detailed insights.

As I explained to them in asking the questions, I am hoping this piece may be of interest avid fans of English soccer but perhaps just as much enlighten relative newbies to the EPL.

1. Is the English Premier League still the world's premier soccer league? If so, why?

Jordan: If you are asking if it is the best soccer league in the world you'd have to define what you mean by "best." Some people would say the Bundesliga (Germany) is best and some would say La Liga (Spain) is the best. Those two along with England would likely be the main three leagues that anyone would cite as the "premier" league for varying reasons. I think the Premier League is the most exciting.

Paolo: The EPL is probably the most watched and followed league in the world - helped in no great part in recent years by satellite TV deals that beam it across the globe, including the U.S. In terms of depth of competition I think that currently it is the top world league - and the game is played faster than in any other league. Both La Liga and the Bundesliga are the world's other top leagues (with Serie A in Italy a distant third) but all lack the overall global exposure of the EPL. 

A match between Manchester United and Real Madrid at Michigan Stadium
on August 2 drew 109,318 fans, the most ever for a soccer game in the U.S.
2. U.S. interest in soccer seems to be peaking, given ratings for the World Cup and attendance for games among European powers, such as the record-setting Manchester United-Real Madrid match at Michigan Stadium. But with the MLS and club soccer teams around the world that people in America may follow based on cultural or previous residential allegiance, why should the EPL demand the attention of "football" fans looking to build on their interest?

Jordan: I think the league is very exciting and interesting. For me I think part of the reason I follow the Premier League closer than other leagues is the fact that there is so much coverage of it and it is all in English and therefore easy to follow.

Paolo: Well frankly, for the U.S. neophyte, the attraction should be natural. The game is in our language, and despite some linguistic and cultural eccentricities, the spirit of the game is readily accessible to the U.S. fan. Americans are great sport fans, and as witnessed by this year's World Cup, they are beginning to understand the beauty and poetry of the world's game. 

3. Please clarify how and when EPL games will be televised in the U.S. I saw an ad saying all the games (in English) would be on NBC or NBCSN, but I saw the ad on ESPN-TV. Is ESPN or Fox still involved?

Jordan: All Premier League games are on some form of NBC. Usually that will mean NBCSN. Some games might be on NBC. Every game is available to watch live streaming and most are available to watch online throughout the week after the games have aired. No games will be on Fox or ESPN. Most games are on Saturday and Sunday mornings (United States central time) with occasional weeks having games on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday afternoon.

Paolo: Jordan explains the US broadcast perfectly. The games are all available in different configurations, but I was disappointed yesterday that only one game was available on free TV.

4. As we've discussed, although I'm not nearly the fan of the game itself that you are, I like the global majesty of the EPL and--sans the hooliganism--the football culture that pervades the U.K. (and most everywhere else). The one game I've been to in London, a Chelsea match with Paolo, was a lot of fun. 

But a couple aspects seem to be at odds with my American-ingrained sports fandom: 

a. The EPL itself seems to only have a "regular season" with the champion being the first-place team, not a tournament winner as in the American sports. The Brits--and you--seem perfectly fine with this. Help us philistines preferring a "knockout stage" better embrace this longstanding tradition. 

b. During any season, there seems to be a lot going on beyond each team trying to win the most EPL games. In any week, teams can not only be playing games against other EPL teams, but also clubs from lower English divisions (is this the FA Cup?) and from across Europe (if qualified for the Champions League or Europa League). During the same week, their players may play international matches for their country (i.e. England, Spain, Germany, etc.), which may be World Cup or Euro Cup qualifiers, but possibly just friendlies. Yet club teammates from opposing countries are expected to play hard against each other, even if injuries can be devastating to their club's prospects. Plus, a team's EPL rank determines Champions league qualification and also the possibility of Relegation.

Jordan: I have come to prefer no postseason. It is logical. The team that wins the most games is the winner. It's pretty simple. Playoffs are much too small a sample and random things are bound to happen that can cause the best team to not win. Following soccer has changed my thinking to the point that I can't get as excited as I used to about the World Series because to me the best team is the one with the best record at the end of the season. And don't even get me started on hockey where a team can sneak into the playoffs in 8th place or something then go on to win the championship. What's the point of playing the regular season? (Another advantage that soccer has is that everyone plays the exact same schedule.)
A photo from the one EPL game I've (Seth) attended, with Paolo.
Chelsea v. Wolverhampton at Stamford Bridge in late 2011

Paolo: The regular season championship - fairly standard across world football leagues - allows the entire season to be meaningful either by winning the league, qualifying for UEFA or Europa Cup slots, or avoiding relegation. U.S. style playoffs de-emphasize the best team record being declared the victor. There seems to be something not quite fair about that.

Jordan: But if you want tournaments, in England there are four of them that run concurrent with the season. The two English tournaments are the League Cup and the FA Cup and they are knock-out tournaments that every club from all levels throughout the country are entered in. (The Premier League clubs don't enter these tournaments until later rounds)

Then for the best teams there are the Europe-wide tournaments (maybe somewhat confusingly referred to as "leagues"), the Champions League and the Europa League (in order of prestige; teams play in one or the other). This "tournament running concurrent with the regular season" thing has often seemed to be the most difficult thing for non-fans to grasp.

All Champions League (and some domestic Cup matches) are played mid-week (meaning Tuesday or Wednesday). Europa League games are played on Thursdays. International qualifiers and friendlies recently changed the days on which they play. Now they are usually on Thursday/Friday and Monday/Tuesday.
The Champions League is actually a tournament of club teams
that qualify based on their season finish in the EPL and leagues
in several other European countries. Learn more here.
The number of teams from each country's top league that qualify for the Europa League and the Champions League is not set in stone. It depends on a lot of complicated calculations (UEFA's coefficients) designed to determine the relative strength of each league. The stronger the league the more spots they get in Europe. Right now England gets four Champions' League spots. The top three finishers in the Premier League automatically qualify right into the group stage. Whoever comes in fourth has to play a two-legged qualifier to get into the group stage. Arsenal came fourth last year so they will be playing mid-week games against Besiktas, a Turkish club, in the first two weeks of the season. 

Qualifying for Europe (especially the Europa League because the games are on Thursdays and many of the opponents can be in far Eastern or Northern Europe) can be detrimental to a team's home league campaign. One of the reasons Liverpool did so well last year was that they did not have to play in Europe so they had more time to practice and were also able to stay fresh. Many people expect Everton and Hull to struggle this season because they are in the Europa league. In recent years both Swansea and Newcastle were badly affected by their European exertions.

5. OK, let's look at the 2014-2015 EPL season itself. Action begins with a slate of games on Saturday, August 16. How many games do each of the 20 teams play in a season and when does it end?

Jordan: Each team plays every other team once at home and once away, so 38 games. The last day of the season is May 24th. 

6. Who do you expect to wind up on top, and why?

Jordan: I expect Chelsea to win because they spent a gabillion pounds, have one of the two best squads, and may be hungrier than Manchester City.

Paolo: Chelsea should win the league, challenged by Liverpool, Arsenal, Man City and Tottenham. Man U will suffer another terrible season. Overall Chelsea has the best squad, both balanced offensively and defensively. 

7. Who will the next 3 finishers (and thus, Champions League qualifiers) be?

Jordan: Manchester City, Arsenal, and....uh... tough one. I'll go with Manchester United partly because they don't have to play in Europe this season because they stunk to high heaven last season.

Paolo: Arsenal, Liverpool, and Man City (with Tottenham nipping at their heels). 

8. Who else has a good shot?

Jordan: Liverpool and Tottenham. Some people think Everton, and I am rooting for them, but I think they'll end up 7th. (I must note that Ross Barkley just injured his knee and could be out 6-8 weeks. That will seriously harm Everton.) 

9. Which trio of teams are likely to finish at the bottom and be relegated?

Jordan: Burnley, West Brom, and.... again, tough call. A bunch of teams could be down there. Likely candidates for me are Hull City, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, and Leicester City.

Paolo: Crystal Palace, Hull City and West Bromley. 

See Wikipedia for more information.
10. Who might surprise, one way or the other?

Jordan: I was going to go with Crystal Palace but their manager just got canned so now I think they'll be battling relegation. I don't have any predictions for surprises. If Tottenham finish fourth (or above) that would be a big surprise. Their new coach is well respected and it will be really interesting to see if he can get a club used to disappointment to the next level. I expect a lot of congestion in the bottom half of the table.

I don't know if Stoke will exactly surprise but they are in the process of changing their style from a big, bruising, physical team to a much more skilled and attractive to watch team.  

11. If not previously chronicled, please discuss Manchester United and how they look this year. They're coming off a very subpar season, finishing 7th in the EPL, and replaced their Manager (head coach). What's going on?

Jordan: They look decent so far. Their new manager, Louis Van Gaal, is a real piece of work and should be very entertaining. He has a lot of experience as well, having previously managed Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Ajax.

He has already made tons of changes, including to going to a 3-5-2 formation (3 defenders, 5 midfielders (two of which are wingbacks), and 2 forwards) which looks like it is putting Rooney and Mata in their ideal positions. They still need to strengthen the defense. They are lacking in quality and experience there.

Paolo: Simply, they need more defense, and didn't really strengthen. 

12. Name some great players to follow, including any notable Americans. I think Tim Howard is still the starting goalie for Everton, right?

Alexis Sanchez
Jordan: The flashiest new player to the league is Alexis Sanchez on Arsenal. He starred for Chile in the World Cup and has been on Barcelona the last few years. He's very good. My only problem with him is that he often does this with his shorts and I have no idea why, but I do know that I don't care for it. (see nearby photo)

I'm not even sure where to start with players to follow. I guess if you're talking about players exciting to watch and/or who will score goals here are a few: Sergio Aguero (Manchester City), Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, Phillipe Coutinho (Liverpool), Eric Lamela, Christian Eriksen (Tottenham), Diego Costa, Eden Hazard, Oscar, Willian (Chelsea), Ross Barkley, Romelu Lukaku (Everton), Marko Arnautovic, Bojan Krkic (Stoke City), Wilifried Bony, Gylfi Siggurdson (Swansea City), Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Loic Remy, Junior Hoilett (QPR), Siem DeJong, Remy Cabella (Newcastle)

There aren't many Americans, I don't think. Jozy Altidore is on Sunderland but it's safe to say his career is not on the upswing. Goalkeeper Tim Howard on Everton was great last season (and in the World Cup). Goalkeeper Brad Guzan was Aston Villa's player of the year last season. He was really good but it should tell you something when a team's player of the year is a keeper. Geoff Cameron is a defender/midfielder on Stoke and was good last year but it's not clear if he has lost his starting spot to new signing Phil Bardsley. 

Yaya Toure
13. Best guesses for the EPL's Player of the Season and Golden Boot (top scorer). (Last season, Luis Suarez won both while playing for Liverpool, but he's now with Barcelona in Spain's La Liga.)

Jordan: If Yaya Toure can come close to what he did last season he will be player of the year. Otherwise probably someone from one of the big clubs. Maybe Wayne Rooney or Vincent Kompany.

Golden Boot: Edin Dzeko (Manchester City), Aguero (but he probably can't stay healthy), Olivier Giroud (Arsenal), Sturridge

Paolo: Player of the year? Alexis Sanchez or Kompany.
14. Tell me about some interesting or potentially intriguing storylines involving teams, players, managers, owners, etc.
Jordan: The top seven teams look pretty well set, and the top three are pretty much agreed on as well. Some order of Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal followed by Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham, and Everton. The battle for fourth place will be intense. 8th is a place where Newcastle often ends up but they have made a number of changes and some people think they are weaker than last year. I think Newcastle and Stoke are most likely for 8th/9th. After that is almost a complete free for all. Any one of the other teams could just about finish anywhere.

Jose Mourinho, Chelsea manager
Man U's new manager Van Gaal is going to say all kinds of interesting things and between him and Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho (who can also be referred to as "The Devil") they are going to cause all kinds of mischief. Though the two supposedly get along well Mourinho has already started trying to cause trouble by making derogatory comments about Manchester United's signing of Luke Shaw. Van Gaal didn't rise to the bait.

I shouldn't let Mourinho get to me but I am often unsuccessful in my attempts to ignore him. My standard description of him is that he is a disingenuous jackass who brings the game into disrepute basically every time he opens his mouth. As I'm writing this I just read some more garbage that he said today which I won't even dignify with a response. He's a bad person.

Southampton was fantastic last season but they have been stripped of their manager (Mauricio Pochettino, who is now at Tottenham) and many of their best players, most of whom went to Liverpool. Southampton is known for having a great youth academy but it is likely they are going to struggle this season.

Hull City (or Hull Tigers, depending who you ask) were promoted last year and amazingly qualified for the Europa League by virtue of making it to the FA Cup final. I expect that the extra competition will stretch their squad and if they don't get relegated I wouldn't be surprised if they barely survive. Last season the owner, Assem Allam, didn't get support for additions he wanted to make around the stadium so he said he wanted to change the name of the club from "Hull City" to "Hull Tigers" to generate more revenue (don't ask me how a name change would do that). (They have long been known by the nickname of "Hull City Tigers" but taking out the "City" and formally changing the name was a huge deal and many of their supporters freaked out. That sort of thing is just not done over there. Last year the owner of Cardiff City changed the team's home shirt color from blue to red and people went nutso over that) Allam, who is a businessman who has lived in Hull since the 60's (as opposed to being a absentee/distant foreign owner) did all manner of deceitful things in order to effect the name change. I think as it stands now they are technically "Hull Tigers" but don't know how permanent it is. People are still fuming.

Old Trafford, home of Manchester United
Aston Villa has traditionally been one of the biggest clubs in England but have fallen on hard times and barely stayed up last year. The manager, Celtic legend Paul Lambert, did well in his previous job at Norwich but has been struggling at Villa. He has brought in the notorious red-ass Roy Keane (who is also currently the assistant coach of the Ireland national team) as an assistant to try to fix things. We'll see what happens. It seems like a volatile situation.

Manchester City has extended the contracts of Aguero, Silva, and Kompany but has just announced they are not extending Yaya Toure's contract. This could prove troublesome as Toure has some history of being a little, shall we say, sensitive. Right after last season ended he expressed his displeasure about the club's substandard happy birthday wishes and threatened to leave.

The manager of Crystal Palace quit two days before the season started because he wanted more control. What looked like a team with a chance at finishing around 10th place is now likely looking at a much worse finish.

15. How might a new-to-the-EPL fan choose a team to root for, and how should they follow them?

Jordan: I have no idea how to pick a club. I still don't even have one club I root for. It is all relative and can depend on all kinds of things, from the manager to the players. The only constant is that I always root against Chelsea no matter what.

Following a club is easy nowadays. I used to not be able to see any games and followed via a once a month magazine from England. Twelve years ago my local ABC affiliate did not show the World Cup final; instead they showed the farm report. Eleven years ago I had to drive over 100 miles (and pay $20) to see the UEFA Cup (now called Europa League) final. Now soccer is all over the TV and internet. 

Paolo: Unlike Jordan I'd say root for Chelsea. Seriously, unless you are Manchester-centric, pick a London club to root for. You'll find more overall coverage for these clubs. 

16. I like following match results and standings on the FotMob app that Jordan introduced me to. There's also a FotMob.com website and ESPN has great coverage on ESPNFC.us. Another good site (and related app) is Goal.com. Anything else you recommend?

Men in Blazers, formerly of ESPN, now on NBC and NBCSN
Jordan: I don't use many apps but I do listen to multiple podcasts throughout the week. My favorites, Men In Blazers, just got signed away from ESPN by NBC. I think they will be having a show on NBCSN.

For up to the minute news I often listen to Talksport Radio via the TuneIn app.  

17. If a newly devoted American soccer fan travels to England and wants to see a match, where should they?

Jordan: No idea. Never been there. But I guess if you went to London you'd have several choices. Selhurst Park (where Crystal Palace plays) looks awesome to me. And they sing "Glad All Over" before every match. 

Selhurst Park, south of London, home to Crystal Palace
18. Anything else you would like to add about the new EPL season?

Jordan: Nah. I'm running out of time. The season starts soon and I have to get my fantasy team in order.

The one thing I haven't mentioned yet is that a lot of my predictions could change to some degree depending on what happens in the next few weeks. I don't like the way it works but teams are allowed to continue to buy and sell players until two weeks after the season has begun. The deadline is August 31st. After that date teams have to stick with what they have until January when there is another window for them to acquire players. There are still a lot of rumors that Manchester United is going to add some big-name players. 

19. What other global soccer leagues do you follow closely?

Jordan: Serie A and La Liga.

Paolo: I'd add the Bundesliga to Jordan's list. I also personally follow a bunch of Central and South American leagues (all in countries I lived in). 

20. When should I check back about the Champions League getting hot & heavy or anything else major in the soccer year?

EPL play began on Saturday, August 16. Among the surprising results
were league newcomer Leicester City tying Everton 2-2 (shown above)
and Manchester United losing to Swansea City 2-1.
Jordan: I don't know the dates yet. In a few weeks they will know all the teams that made it into the final 32 and will have a draw to split them into 8 groups of 4 teams. The group stage will probably start in September or October and it is run sort of like the World Cup. Each team plays each of the other 3 teams in their group but in this tournament they play two games against each team, one home and one away. The top two teams from each group advance. Once they get down to the last 16 teams they have a draw and it is a knockout tournament from there with each round except for the final being two games where each team plays one at home and one away. 

Thank you very much for taking the time to provide some great insight and opinions. Enjoy the season.

Jordan: That's what I'm here for. You, too.

Paolo: Jordan covers things very well, I'm just adding color. :-)

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