This is a great time to be an American soccer fan. You’ve got more options at your disposal than a trip to the local Hometown Buffet, but with those choices come questions. Do you use your spare time and passion to root for the local MLS team? Do you opt to waste your weekend morning swallowed up by the glitz of the Premier League? Perhaps you’re wrapped up in the eternal struggle between Real Madrid and Barcelona. In the year 2013 there’s no shortage of soccer games on television, so if you want to spend your time watching highlights of the Peruvian first division you’re more than entitled to do so.
Given all these options, the Premier League/EPL still remains the go-to choice for American fans and thanks to NBC’s wonderful coverage every game is available either on cable or legal streaming. In turn, the majority of American fans watching the EPL care about the fortunes of Jurgen Klinsmann’s National Team. This doesn’t apply to everyone — I know of some Liverpool fans who’d like nothing more than to see the USMNT fall flat on its face next summer in Brazil — but let’s go with the baseline assumption most American soccer fans will root for National Team and its players plying their trade abroad in Europe.
The new Premier League campaign presents a bit of a conundrum on this front. Other than Jozy Altidore, who now plays at Sunderland, there aren’t too many U.S. players featuring week-in, week-out in the Prem. Through four weeks, putting it kindly, watching Sunderland to keep tabs exclusively on Jozy has been a major chore. And yes, Tim Howard starts in goal for Everton and Brad Guzan is entrenched as Aston Villa’s No. 1, but it’s different watching a game and rooting for the keeper.
It means if you want to get your fix of Americans in the Premier League this year you have to turn, unfortunately, to Stoke City–the club where U.S. internationals Geoff Cameron, Brek Shea, Maurice Edu and come January, Juan Agudelo, collect their wages.
This is not your cool uncle’s Fulham club, which drew loads of American supporters by employing the likes of Brian McBride, Carlos Bocanegra and Clint Dempsey earlier this century.
No, this is Stoke. The same Stoke City that seemingly nobody other than their own fans who live within hailing distance of their home stadium seems to like. The same Stoke City where Ryan Shawcross wears the captain’s armband after nearly killing Aaron Ramsey in 2010. The same Stoke City, which for years, made the long throw-ins of Rory Delap their signature play. The same Stoke City that Charlie Adams’ potbelly and two pack a day habit call home.
Stoke has never — literally not one single time — drawn plaudits for their brand of physical, direct, frankly artless soccer since their promotion to the Premier League.
In Stoke’s defense, it’s not the goal of the game is to be aesthetically pleasing. Style points don’t necessarily translate into three points. Under former manager Tony Pulis the Potters were promoted to the Premier League for the 2008-09 season and notched finishes of 12th, 11th, 13th, 14th and 13th. In 2011 it reached the FA Cup final, losing to Manchester City. Pulis and the club parted ways this spring, no doubt thanks in part to a splintered locker room, where players were pulling pranks that included leaving butchered pigs heads in teammates lockers.
For five years, Stoke’s grim approach to the game worked at a functional level. It kept them tapped into the EPL-money train, allowing them — if memory serves — to spend more money on transfers in one window when it brought in the likes of Wilson Palacios than clubs like Manchester United.
This season, after four Premier League games, maybe just maybe, Stoke might be a little bit different although the presence of Mark Hughes leaves much to be desired. Stoke is 2-1-1, including a draw with Manchester City. It’s not as bad as spending 90 minutes of your free time watching West Ham, but Stoke remains a side you don’t actively want to involve your free time with. Of the American triumvirate at the Britianna Stadium, only Cameron sees regular minutes as he starts at right back. Shea’s been injured and out of favor, while Edu’s played just once for the club since moving to Stoke in 2012.
Maybe you can talk yourself into tolerating a team that fields the eternally goofy Peter Crouch. Asmir Begovic is one of the best keepers in the Prem and Jonathan Walters always seems to give an effort. Maybe Stoke isn’t so bad after all. They finally got rid of Delap, that’s a positive.
It’s not like Stoke actively tries to be unlikable on purpose. The club isn’t a bunch of villainous mustache-twirlers like Cristiano Ronaldo. Stoke’s modus operandi isn’t to appeal to the American or worldwide viewer on television. It wants to stay in the cash-rich Premier League by any means necessary.
Still … it’s Stoke City and the thought of rooting for the Potters even with the Americans on board conjures an image about as appealing as one of your parents getting it on.
Around the EPL:
Still special?: A lot has been said of Chelsea’s slow start under Jose Mourinho 2.0. The Blues lost last weekend at Everton and followed it up with a home defeat to Basel in the Champions League. Shrug off the Champions League loss, Chelsea will still get out of their group. For everything written and said about the Special One, he remains a mostly defensive-minded coach. Back when he lead Cheslea to the EPL title in 2004/05 it was a load of 1-0 results in a team where holding midfielder Claude Makélelé was the key man.
Now, Chelsea have a roster that includes: Juan Mata, Oscar, Eden Hazard, André Schürrle, Kevin de Bruyne and Willian. That’s a lot of guys with only one ball to go around. Mourinho apparently doesn’t like Mata, favoring Oscar as the side’s “No. 10.” It’s going to take some time for Mourinho to settle on a lineup that works. Fortunately the Blues welcome Fulham to Stamford Bridge this weekend. The Cottagers should present the prefect tonic to get Chelsea back on track.
Great Dane: For one game, Tottenham’s new signing Christian Eriksen doesn’t look like he’ll be another Nicklas Bendtner. As a quasi-Spurs fan, this is a very positive development. Eriksen was sharp last weekend vs. Norwich City, so expect plenty of banter back-and-forth in North London over who’s better, the Danish international or Arsenal’s new German schemer, Mesut Özil.
A Good Problem to Have: Liverpool is atop the Prem table with 10 points. Dancin’ Daniel Sturridge has scored in all four league games. Luis Suarez will be back from his suspension after this weekend’s game with Southampton at Anfield. A player of Suarez’s talent — saying nothing of his personality — should automatically be inserted back in the starting XI. You can never have too many goal-scorers and Suarez and Sturridge — even with his lack of passing — are adaptable players. Reds manager Brendan Rodgers will have to make some decisions, although long term the rise of Sturridge might make selling off Suarez much more palatable in the future.
Game of the Weekend:
Manchester City vs. Manchester United (Sunday, 11 a.m., NBCSN): Fascinating, if impossible game to predict. Both clubs have new managers and come into Sunday’s game riding high after wins in the Champions League midweek. City have the pieces to eventually build up into a title winners, but it’s not there yet. United, meanwhile, are actually getting goals and dynamic play from Wayne Rooney, rather than pouting. It’s only the fifth league game, but this game has statement potential, especially for David Moyes and United. City have Vincent Kompany back healthy and rarely ever drop points at home. … Manchester City 2, Manchester United 1