America! The World Cup is over — are you going through soccer withdrawal? Fortunately for you, there are multitudes of European and domestic soccer leagues for you to watch, and you’ll likely recognize a number of the players you saw in the World Cup.
Club football is a rabbit hole, and like any other team-based club sport you don’t want to be a neutral. You’re already a Cubs/Bears/Colts/Pacers/whatever fan. Where’s the fun in not picking sides? Choose a team, embrace the chaos. I’m here to help you do it. Let’s start across the pond.
English Premier League (EPL)
Also known by its sponsored name, the Barclays Premier League (BPL), the English Premier League is one of, if not the, most popular football league in the world. The 20 EPL teams play a true double-round-robin schedule — each club plays each other club home and away — and accumulate three points for a win, one point for a draw. Matches begin Aug. 16 and continue into May. The league champion is the club with the most number of points at the end of the season: there are no playoffs. In addition to the league matches, there are two domestic cup tournaments each season to play for.
Dustin George-Miller is a life-long soccer fan, a sports blogger and a Goshen College staffer. You can read more from him in his community blog
for The Elkhart Truth, The Corner Flag
One of the unique characteristics of European football (and especially in England) is the concept of promotion and relegation. Soccer in England is like a giant pyramid, with smaller leagues feeding into larger ones and it goes from the EPL all the way down to the local pub team down the street. At the end of each season, the bottom three EPL teams are relegated to the Sky Bet Championship (division 2), and the top three teams from the Championship ascend to the EPL. It ensures a fresh mix of new teams every year and I find it fascinating. (How many of you wish you could drop the Washington Redskins or Cleveland Browns down a division so you didn’t have to watch them?)
How to watch
All EPL matches are televised on the Turner/NBC family of networks and streamed live and “free” (cable subscription required) on NBC Sports Live Extra. You can actually see more EPL matches on TV in the USA than you can MLS soccer. You can watch more EPL matches on TV than they can in England. It’s a beautiful thing.
Choosing Your Club
That’s all and good, you say, but how does the nascent American soccer fan decide on which club to follow? Many would suggest that while you don’t choose the club (the club chooses you), if you’re like me you’ll do your research by learning about the individual teams, and maybe watch a few matches before making your final decision. Choose wisely! As they say in England, you can change your spouse, you can change your socks, but you can never, EVER change your club.
Does mediocrity frighten and/or confuse you? Do you just like to win? Are you a Yankees, Lakers or Cowboys fan? (Or all three?) The EPL boasts a number of teams that are nearly always in contention for league titles and Champions League positions. If you like teams that aren’t high maintenance and pile up wins like Taylor Swift at the Grammys, and if you are immune to other people’s scorn, you’ll want to consider one of these teams.
Manchester United Football Club (F.C.)
Nickname: The Red Devils • Colors: red & white
2014 finish: 7th
The undisputed kings of English football over the past 25 years, Manchester United are the undisputed 800-lb gorilla in the room. No team in English football has the gravitas of United: the most successful club in English football, it has won 13 Premier League titles in the past 22 years, along with 7 domestic cups and 2 UEFA Champions League titles. They’re rebuilding at the moment, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re a ridiculously big and stupidly talented club. Pick United and you’re still a glory hunter, but at least you’ll be able to say that you ‘supported them when they were mid-table.’
American sports analogue: New York Yankees
Nickname: The Gunners (“Gooners”) • Colors: red & white
2014 finish: 4th
Arsenal, one of two Premier League clubs in north London along with their rivals Tottenham Hotspur, have thrived over the past 20 years under the leadership of long-time manager Arsene Wenger. The Gunners play attractive, offense-friendly football and for years concentrated on developing young players through their academy. Last season they broke a nine-year trophy drought by winning the FA Cup (a prestigious English football-wide tournament), but they haven’t really challenged for a league title in years. They are a well-run club that don’t spend beyond their means, have a large, new(ish) stadium, have an ACTUAL CANNON on their logo, and are in contention for European football qualification every year. They also have a large American following thanks to the book “Fever Pitch” by Nick Hornby, which makes them attractive to former hipsters who have recently come to their senses.
American sports analogue: Los Angeles Clippers
Nickname: The Blues • Colors: blue & white
2014 finish: 3rd
If there’s an Emperor Palpatine-like evil galactic empire in the Premier League, it’s probably Chelsea. Once a struggling London club with modest aspirations, the club was bought by megalomaniacal Russian oil tycoon Roman Abramovich in 2003 who proceeded to sink millions of British pounds of his own money into the club, taking it from relatively small-potatoes to English powerhouse almost overnight. The rest of the league loathes them for it. They’re coached by Portuguese manager Jose Mourinho, whose ego is matched only by his managerial ability. If you like winning, are content being a pariah, and are a colossal jerk, Chelsea might just be your team.
American sports analogue: Dallas Mavericks
Nickname: The Reds• Colors: red (duh)
2014 finish: 2nd
The easy comparison, if Manchester United are the Yankees, is to make Liverpool the Red Sox but I’m going with a different analogue. Owned by the Red Sox’ American GM John W. Henry, Liverpool are a historical league powerhouse that is emerging from a few underwhelming seasons and are again on the ascendance. A massive club with a huge fan base, Liverpool nearly won the league last season on the back of (now departed) superstar and cannibal Luis Suarez. Liverpool has a fierce rivalry with Everton, a history of personal tragedy (the Hillsborough disaster… Google it), and a sparkling pedigree. There’s also tradition oozing out of every pore of this club. Liverpool fans are legion, fiercely loyal, passionate, and shockingly self-deluded: the Reds are rarely good enough to compete for titles every season, but their fans always THINK they are… or should be.
American sports analogue: University of Notre Dame football
Manchester City F.C.
Nickname: The Citizens / Sky Blues • Colors: sky blue & white
2014 finish: Champions
Manchester City are in a lot of ways similar to Chelsea — once a struggling club that fell to the English third division in the mid 1990s, they were purchased several years ago by a consortium of rich Middle Eastern oil barons with more money than God and who have now spent over a billion dollars on the club. As a result, City has now become presumptive league leaders every season. The funny thing is that the football world doesn’t tend to hate City as much for it, mostly because long-suffering City fans tend to be more level-headed about their club than Chelsea fans. City has the funds to purchase anyone they want to, and can pay wages higher than anyone else, making them attractive to all sorts of players. Remarkably, City are a team noticeably devoid of villains (at least for now) which makes them more palatable to the new fan who likes winning. You’re still a jerk if you pick City, but you’re the kind of jerk who buys the whole bar the first round of drinks.
American sports analogue: Los Angeles Dodgers
Champions League Bubble Teams
In England, the top four finishers automatically qualify for the UEFA Champions League, a Europe-wide club competition that his highly prestigious and brings in a ton of money. The teams in this category aren’t going to be winning many (if any) titles, but they’ll be hanging around the top, trying to grab that fourth place slot and get into the UCL promised land. Elation and frustration await in equal measure for fans of these clubs.
Nickname: The Toffees • Colors: blue and white
2014 finish: 5th
You already know one of Everton’s players: American goalkeeper/hero Tim Howard has been between the sticks for the Toffees since 2006. Everton are one of the perennial contenders: often good, rarely great, but usually knocking on the door. Their stadium is literally across the way from rivals Liverpool, and the “Merseyside Derbies” are usually bitter, hard-fought affairs. The problem with Everton is that they are, in footballing terms, flat broke, meaning they have to make smart, under-the-radar “moneyball” buys to stay competitive, a high-risk high-reward proposal. Now that Fulham are relegated, this is the new team for urban hipsters everywhere. Are you a USA men’s national team fan with an ironic mustache or a closet full of skinny jeans? You could do a lot worse than Everton. Bonus hipster credit: Everton’s shirt sponsor is Chang, a difficult to find Thai beer. You’ve probably never heard of it.
American sports analogue: Cincinnati Bengals
Tottenham Hotspur F.C.
Nickname: Spurs • Colors: navy blue & white
2014 finish: 6th
Want a team that has passionate fan support, gobs of history, and a track record of crushing underachievement and disappointment? Spurs, who derive their name from the Shakespearean character Harry Hotspur, are Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the hill — a large club with a small stadium that has in recent years found itself right on the cusp of European qualification but, except for one year in 2010, has not been able to get over the top. The last time it won the league was 1961. Every year Spurs fans think “This is the year” only to watch their club inevitably crumble under the intense pressure of a typical EPL season, or suffer under the tactical naïveté of their manager, or sell their best player to Real Madrid, or eat a batch of dodgy lasagna. Lather, rinse, repeat. If you are an optimist by nature who secretly likes to have your heart ripped out of your chest every season, or are fond of beating your head against brick walls and yelling “THANK YOU, MAY I HAVE ANOTHER,” this is your club. This, not coincidentally, is also my club.
American sports analogue: Chicago Cubs
The Pack / Mid-Table
For the American sports fan new to soccer, these are the teams that are the bulk of the EPL — not great, not terrible, but just good enough to hang around the middle. Some of them will overachieve and contend for Europe, and some will flirt with relegation. You’ll probably want to pick a few and research them, maybe watch a few games to see if one of them feels like a natural fit. Fans of the Chicago Bears should feel right at home choosing any one of these clubs.
Aston Villa F.C.
Nickname: The Villains • Colors: claret & blue
2014 finish: 15th
You know what the Cleveland Browns and Aston Villa have in common? Randy Lerner owns both of them, and they both kind of suck. The Villains are big enough that they should be better, but poor enough that that anything above, say, ninth place is usually an aberration. This is a team that could do very well, but is equally capable of being relegated.
Crystal Palace F.C.
Nickname: The Eagles • Colors: red and blue (stripes!)
2014 finish: 11th
Crystal Palace (the name sounds like a mega-church but is really a 19th century London architectural marvel) started off terribly, but manager Tony Pulis completely turned them around in the second half of the season, leading them to a respectable 11th place. It’s not clear yet whether they’ve been able to bottle that lightning.
Hull City F.C.
Nickname: The Tigers • Colors: orange and black
2014 finish: 16th
Here’s what you need to know about Hull: they’re a blue-collar English city. Their Egyptian owner tried to change the club name to “Hull City Tigers,” prompting a near riot by Hull supporters because tradition or something. The English FA blocked the move, and the owner is now suing the FA. No really, that’s all you need to know. Also, they’re not very good.
Nickname: Toon • Colors: black and white (stripes!)
2014 finish: 10th
Alreet lads an’ lasses, Newcastle are a northern club known primarily for their fans, who are world-famous for their prodigious drinking ability, incomprehensible Geordie accent, insane owner, and willingness to punch out a horse. They call their club “The Toon” (town in Geordie). If the Oakland Raiders were a soccer team, they'd be Newcastle United. As a football club, they’re comedy gold.
Stoke City F.C.
Nickname: The Potters • Colors: red & white (stripes!)
2014 finish: 9th
I have friend who is a professional potter and while I eventually lured him to Tottenham, he felt obligated to give Stoke a trial run for obvious reasons. Stoke have been known for playing dour, defensive, leg-breaking football, and while that changed a little last season, most still consider them the Greece of the EPL. Caveat emptor. Home to Americans Geoff Cameron and Brek Shea.
Nickname: The Black Cats • Colors: red, white & black (stripes!)
2014 finish: 14th
Sunderland avoiding the drop last season under Gus Poyet should serve as one of the best escape jobs since Shawshank, as they spent most of the season dead last. The Black Cats’ rivalry with Newcastle (the Tyne-Wear Derby) is one of the most heated rivalries in English football, and always great for entertainment. Unhappy home to American Jozy Altidore.
Swansea City A.F.C.
Nickname The Swans • Colors: white & black
2014 finish: 12th
I actually quite like Swansea, and not just because they’re a Welsh team in an English league. They came up under a string of managers that have since moved on to other clubs (Roberto Martinez to Everton, Brendan Rodgers to Liverpool, Michael Laudrup to… unemployment). Swansea plays attractive, stylish football and most neutrals have a soft spot for them.
West Ham United
Nickname: The Hammers • Colors: claret & blue
2014 finish: 13th
If there’s a “big” team that seems constantly threatened with relegation, it’s West Ham. The epitome of a blue-collar London football club, they employ a workman-like attitude on the pitch and will go as far as horse-faced striker Andy Carroll and irascible manager “Big Sam” Allardyce will take them. That’s probably about 12th place, but whatever.
The Basement, or Time to Worry
Are you a masochist? Do you just like rooting for the little guy? These are teams that will flirt with the drop every year, which can make for some desperate, compelling football but probably won’t do any good for your blood pressure. Don’t set your hopes too high and be prepared to say a prayer to St. Jude, because here there be dragons.
Nickname: The Clarets • Colors: claret & blue
2014 finish: Promoted from Championship
Burnley’s sole claim to fame this season will be that they’ll be the third team to wear claret and blue on their jerseys along with Aston Villa and West Ham. They are almost certainly being relegated this season. That’s… all I got, folks.
Leicester City F.C.
Nickname: The Foxes • Colors: blue & white
2014 finish: Promoted from Championship
Leicester (pronounced “Lester”) looked good in the Championship last season, but the gap between the Championship and the EPL is such that it doesn’t mean much. They’ll struggle to stay up.
Queens Park Rangers
Nickname: Rangers • Colors: blue and white (hoops!)
2014 finish: Promoted from Championship
QPR is known more for their manager, Harry Redknapp — a jowly, Droopy-Dog-looking affable bloke who took Tottenham to the Champions League and nearly became England manager before being sacked. Two years ago they were up. Then they went down. Now they’re up again. That should tell you what to expect.
Nickname: The Saints • Colors: red and white (stripes!)
2014 finish: 8th
Southampton were a very good team last year, but that was before they lost their manager to Spurs and sold their five best players for a war-chest of about £90m. Now their sole goal is to keep their vulture-ravaged, desiccated corpse of a club together long enough to stay up so they can spend next season. The Saints are known mostly for their academy, which produces players like Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Luke Shaw, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, all of whom they sold before they became really good.
West Bromwich Albion
Nickname: The Baggies • Colors: blue & white (stripes!)
2014 finish: 17th
West Brom is a classic “yo-yo club” and although they have been in the EPL for a few seasons now they just barely avoided the drop. Last season the Baggies (points for most inexplicable nickname) had difficulty scoring and have made some strange off-season acquisitions. With the EPL constantly improving, you simply can’t stay static and expect to stay up.