There are many ways to keep soccer abreast during World Cup interims. MLS partisans will sell you on the virtues of MLS Live. But, since professional sports are televised entertainment products, your path of least resistance may be investing in an English Premier League club. Here is a brief breakdown of your choices. Be mindful, you can only choose once.
Teams That Can Win the League
The Premier League is structured like College Football. The competition is level, technically. Though, with financial disparity, there are five clubs who are genuine threats to challenge for the title.
Arsenal: The Gunners play attractive football (on occasion), groom young players through their academy, are financially solvent and are quite smug about it. They have finished in the top four every year since 1997 under Arsene Wenger, but they last finished higher than third in 2005. Last year’s FA Cup triumph snapped a nine-year trophy drought. A new Puma deal has them flush with cash and adding star players. You, and every member of the American sports media who follows soccer, could be rooting them on to victory.
Chelsea: They were a flashy, foreign-star fueled and not always successful club in the late 1990s. Since oligarch Roman Abramovich bought them, they have become a heavy-spending super club. They have shot for style and panache but received the defensive, dour and physical brand of soccer espoused by Jose Mourinho. It’s a club for those who like winning, and being loathed for it. It will come with a certain degree of cognitive dissonance, especially where John Terry is concerned.
Liverpool: Accomplished. Since the early 1960’s, Liverpool have won 13 league titles, 15 domestic cups, 5 Champions Leagues and 3 UEFA Cups. Strong emotional ties from the wrenching Hillsborough aftermath and being a point of pride for decades during a serious economic downturn. For chills, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” tops about anything English soccer offers. John Henry and Co. have not quite mastered this whole soccer thing, but they are earnest and spend. Luis Suarez will no longer make you cringe, but the Warrior jerseys will. Creeping up on a quarter century without winning the league.
Manchester City: They were the Mets to United’s Yankees. Things became so bleak in the late 1990s, City fell to the English third division. The club rebounded and was bought by the Abu Dhabi royal family. After sinking more than £1 billion into the squad (often doubling wages), they win things: an FA Cup and two of the last three EPL titles. City has a genuine atmosphere and pride from its long suffering fan support. You won’t be part of that. The club you’re joining teams up with the Yankees and Cowboys on international branding efforts. Manchester City are for the front runner, who can no longer wear his or her Heat gear in public.
Manchester United: Dominance. Since the EPL era began in 1992, the Red Devils have won 13 league tiles, 7 domestic cups and two Champions League wins. Some of soccer’s greatest players and stars, including Cantona, Beckham and C. Ronaldo. You missed that. Sir Alex Ferguson retired. The club plummeted to 7th place last season under David Moyes. They are in the midst of a comprehensive rebuild, with much of the commercial revenue siphoned out of the club by the Glazers. You would still be a jerk for choosing United, mind you. But a jerk who is buying low. Hope you enjoy being a Chevy billboard.
Fourth Place Teases
These clubs aren’t winning the title. But, in the right year, they can make a run at a Champions League place. Or, more likely, crumble at the finish and not quite make it.
Everton: Like Americans? Everton are the club home of genuine American hero Tim Howard. The Toffees are Liverpool’s other club. Under David Moyes and now Roberto Martinez, they have put forth a quality, competitive product for most of the last decade. The trouble is they are hamstrung without a new stadium or a sugar daddy. That money just is not coming. You’ll date Romelu Lukaku for a year on loan. But he’s making a permanent move to someone else. If you like blue, if high ceilings or low floors startle you and if your primary wish is to not be seen as a douchebag, Everton is the club for you.
Tottenham Hotspur: Spurs spend to contend with North London rivals Arsenal and never…quite….have enough…to get there. They overpay for every young thing in the transfer window. They raise hopes irrationally. They finish somewhere between 5th and 14th. They fire their manager. They sell their best player to Real Madrid or to Manchester United. They begin the process over again. Spurs are for the discerning gal or gent who enjoys a mild but firm brand of sado-masochism.
Mid-Table…For the Most Part
These teams won’t do much, but, barring catastrophe, they are good bet to at least be in the Premier League year to year.
Aston Villa: Randy Lerner owned the Cleveland Browns. Rooting for Aston Villa feels a lot like rooting for the Cleveland Browns. It’s just not going to happen. Villa are big enough where they need to try. They scout and sign young players. The bring in experienced veterans. They hire managers expected to do things. All that trying just makes the rampant mediocrity that much more painful.
Newcastle: Newcastle were once a club with shirtless fans and moderate ambitions. They still have the shirtless fans. Newcastle runs a rather sophisticated operation: signing undervalued French players and selling them on for profit, regardless of how it affects the team. They had a great first half of last season. They sold Yohann Cabaye to PSG for $32 million and limped the rest of the way, losing 14 of their final 20 matches. How ambitious are they? Alan Pardew is still managing after that finish.
Stoke City: The Potters are the quintessential English team, hence the “rainy night in Stoke” cliché. They are a strong, physical team that likes to put in hard tackles. They will spend a fair bit of money bring in cast off skill players from larger clubs, who like (or grow to appreciate) putting in hard tackles. If Americans dictate your rooting interest, Stoke City is the current club home of Geoff Cameron, Brek Shea and Brek Shea’s hair.
West Ham: England’s 1966 World Cup-winning team was West Ham centric. Their vaunted academy produces stars, for other clubs. The past few decades the Hammers have been known more for fan behavior than anything that has happened on the field. See: Elijah Wood in Green Street Hooligans. West Ham fans like attractive soccer, but are trapped in an unhappy marriage of convenience with Sam Allardyce. They hate him, but his cynical football keeps them up. He hates them, but can’t get a better job.
Embrace The Relegation Battle
Be smart about this. Scroll up.
Crystal Palace: Tony Pulis rescued them. Palace were among the best EPL teams over the second half of last season. Historically, they bounce between the lower divisions. One of their great club achievements was getting Real Madrid to play them in a 1962 friendly. The do have cheerleaders, though.
Hull City (Tigers): Hull have spent three seasons in the top flight, all in the last decade. Their owner Assem Allam, wants to change the club’s name to “Hull Tigers.” Fans revolted. The Premier League delayed a decision. The English FA said no. Allam is currently appealing the decision. Do not refer to them as “Hull Tigers.”
Southampton: Put together long spells of first-division soccer in the past. Have had a nice couple of seasons. A lot of uncertainty with manager Mauricio Pochettino jetting off to Tottenham. They are a club that finds players such as Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Luke Shaw…and sells them as teenagers.
Sunderland: Sunderland have put together seven-straight seasons in the EPL. But, have hit the 40-point mark of safety just three times. Sometimes they beat rival Newcastle though and get tattoos to celebrate.
Swansea City: The Swans were the first Welsh club to reach the EPL. Traditionally, they reside in lower divisions. Brendan Rodgers, the man who brought them up, left Liverpool. Michael Laudrup was sacked last season. Their current manager is a longtime captain with no experience. The charmed life may expire soon.
West Bromwich Albion: They generally bounce between leagues. They were a big deal in the 1950s, which led to a number of classic rock stars, including Eric Clapton, being fans.
Burnley: They were a solid 1st division club in the 1950s and 1960s and won the top division crown in 1960. They wear the exact same colors as Aston Villa.
Leicester City: They are the foxes. They were blue. Surviving for a few seasons in the top leagues is as “good” as it gets.
QPR: They are a London club. Their devout fans were probably children in the 1980s, when they finished in the top 5 a few times. Don’t get seduced by Harry Redknapp’s inviting jowls.