Picking An English Premier League Team: An Introductory Guide.

So the World Cup is over, leaving a tide of US interest in soccer that has largely petered out and died.  What's the solution to this problem?  The MLS.

Kidding.

My suggestion would be to follow an English Premier League club.  Aside from being faster-paced, more physical and infinitely more entertaining than the Spanish and Italian leagues, EPL matches are easier to find on TV and the primary language is obviously English.  The season starts on 08/14, so you have some time to find a team.

What is the English Premier League?

The Premier League is the current iteration of England's top soccer league.  It's comprised of 20 clubs and does not feature any sort of playoffs.  Rather, every club plays a 38 game balanced schedule (a home and away fixture versus every other club) and the league winner is the club with the most amount of points at the end of the season.  The scoring system is simple:  3 points for a win, 1 point for a tie, 0 points for a loss and the first tie-breaker is goal differential.  The top 4 clubs qualify for next year's UEFA Champions League, which is essentially a competition that runs concurrently with the league that pits Europe's best clubs against each other.  The 5-7 clubs qualify for the Europa league, which is similar but worse.  Here's the kicker though...the worst 3 clubs are relegated.  Relegated as in, you and your club get sent to the next lowest league (ironically named the Championship) for a season.  Imagine the Orioles getting sent down to AAA as punishment for their terrible record, and having to work their way back to the majors.

Relegation sucks.

How do I go about picking a team then?

Quite honestly, I don't know.  I'm a Manchester United supporter (BOOOOOOOOOO I know) because I spent my first year and a half in England in Manchester.  In a similar vein, I'm a Rangers/Cowboys/Mavs fan because I now live in Dallas.  Consequently, I don't really know how to arbitrarily pick a team to cheer for.  The most important distinction between European soccer and American sports is that not every team has a chance to win the league every year.  This isn't negativity...it's just a fact that even the most ardent supporters have accepted.  In fact, it will likely be the same group of 4-5 teams that challenge for the league year after year after year.  If you don't choose one of the teams in that group, you can pretty much abandon all hope of your team winning the title.

I'll break down the clubs into different categories, but this is in no way a detailed write-up.  Please, if you truly want to do this, do some research.  Find out the club's history, learn about who their players are and, most importantly, find out who to hate.  Every club has a blood rival, and if you commit to following one club, you're also obligated to hate a few others.

The Big 4

Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool.

It may not be The Big 4 for long, but this group of teams has been, traditionally, the superpowers of English soccer with United, Chelsea and Arsenal winning 13 of the 14 Premier League titles.  Liverpool, while having never won the Premier League, is still tied with United for the most successful domestic club in the history of English football.  They won all 18 of their league titles in the Football League, the previous iteration of the Premier League. 

Most people avoid all of these teams.  There's not much cachet in picking these clubs since no one likes a front runner and quite honestly, picking one of these clubs is like picking the Yankees, Cowboys or Lakers.  It just seems disingenuous.  If you do pick one of these teams, you can at least take solace in the fact that they will likely contend for the league every year.

Manchester City

City get a classification of their own.  Imagine a team with more spending power than the Yankees and the history of the Mets.  Their wealth is newfound, having been taken over by an Abu Dhabi based investment group in 2008.  They're perpetually overshadowed by their city rivals' (Manchester United), but now have the ability to outspend them by some distance.  City narrowly missed out on the Champions League last year, but they have a large number of skilled players and could potentially be one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the league. 

Problem is, at this point, there's no distinction in choosing City.  Given their ridiculous wealth, it's impossible to argue that they're an underdog, they don't have a rich history and their projected starting lineup will all have been bought within the last two years.  I'm pretty sure the only people who would choose City are those guys who wear three polo shirts at once with alternating popped collars.

The Second Tier

Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, Aston Villa

These teams won't compete for the league, but they will challenge for that all important 4th place finish.  These teams have been the trendy picks for newcomers for good reason:  They allow you to avoid the ignominy of choosing one of the clubs above while also picking a club that wins on a consistent basis.

Spurs are the team that I would recommend the most out of these three.  They snuck into a 4th place finish last year, allowing them to compete in the Champions League this upcoming season.  As a result, they now have enough credibility (and money) to stave off clubs trying to poach their players.  Spurs play a direct and pacy brand of soccer which will appeal to newcomers.  They've managed to retain a largely homegrown core while supplementing their team with shrewd purchases.  Also, their manager looks like a human version of Droopy Dog. 

Everton features Tim Howard, who most will remember as the #1 goalkeeper for the US national team.  They also had Landon Donovan for a while last season, although it appears that Donovan will not return for next season.  They're predominantly a group of max-effort hard-working types with one creative genius (Mikel Arteta) thrown in the middle.  They will always struggle to keep their most talented players (see: Wayne Rooney), but this is definitely a side that would be easy to cheer for.  Unfortunately, this is what they will wear when they play away from home.  If you happen to be a fan of neon pink...this is your club.

Aston Villa's tricky because they're deceptively boring.  They have two of the quickest players in the league (Ashley Young and Gabby Agbonlahor) and it's hugely entertaining to watch them terrorize opposing defenses at times, but their modus operandi devolves to long balls in the air to their big men.  I've always thought that newcomers to English soccer would inevitably get tired of this style of play.  Nevertheless, they do have an American on their team (Brad Friedel) and their fans are wonderfully rabid.

Middling Teams

Fulham, Blackburn Rovers, Birmingham, Sunderland

These teams are really the definition of mediocre.  They'll stay around a .500 mark without much deviation and none of the teams are particularly entertaining to watch.  This is where the yawning abyss between the different tiers of the Premier League really starts to show.  If you don't mind watching teams lose on a semi-frequent basis, and if you don't mind going into every season with low to moderate expectations, then these teams would be acceptable.

Everyone Else

Bolton Wanderers, Stoke City, Wolves, Wigan, West Ham, Blackpool, Newcastle United, West Brom

Please don't pick these teams unless you're a glutton for punishment.  All of these teams are capable of being relegated next season and unless you don't mind watching your side lose (in likely uninspiring fashion) on a regular basis, you would be best served avoiding these teams.  There are two likely scenarios:  You can either be disgusted by the losing and/or the boring style of play, or you can become attached to the team only to experience the heartbreak of relegation.  It's just not worth it.

I've picked my club, what do I do now?

- Get and watch Fox Soccer Channel.  This is the easiest *legal* way to catch your team.  There are, of course, more "innovative" ways to watch your team but we won't cover those here.

- Learn some songs.  Even if you don't plan on singing yourself, it's a good way to figure out what the hell the crowd is doing when you're watching a match.  This is a good place to start.

- Find a forum and lurk.  If you're able to parse out the nonsense, it'll help you fully comprehend what you're watching.

- Find a pub (or something similar) that shows games weekly.  It won't be anything like going to an actual game but soccer is meant to be watched with a crowd.

 

Good Luck!

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