By Aaron Gordon
There are glorious days upon us, where my alarm sounds at 7:30 a.m. on the East Coast, I roll out of bed to brew myself a cask of coffee, crack open a Boddingtons, make some Guinness pancakes (replace milk in the recipe with Guinness) and turn on NBC Sports this season to watch the titans of English soccer release slide-tackle krakens upon each other.
On the most glorious of these days -- Sundays starting in September and extending through the end of January -- the 11 a.m. game will end at 12:55, leaving us EPL/NFL fans with precisely enough time to empty our bladders, switch dialects and/or physical clothes from kits to jerseys and then watch a full 11 hours of the other kind of football. It's an 8 a.m. to midnight day of foot-related games, the type of day your friends and family can never understand, likely concerned about your mental and physical health, lack of exposure to sunlight and productivity toward a prosperous society. But I understand.
Alas, the misnamed football-sans-feet is still a month away, but the football-with-feet starts this weekend, with a full slate of fairly uninteresting matches. This year, American fans have an unprecedented luxury: We can now (legally) watch every match for free. That's right, no more Fox Soccer Plus ++ Extra Goals Two. With this great opportunity comes limitations: Who should we watch, and when? Not to worry, I have compiled this handy guide, which will be useful at least until everyone overreacts to the first week's results and declares the season irreversibly altered.
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The "You Have One Job" Group
Aston Villa, Cardiff City, Crystal Palace, Hull City, Newcastle United, Southampton, Stoke City, Sunderland
These clubs have a single goal: to not get relegated. When they play each other, points will be expected. When they play other clubs, any result is a good result, which means most of them will play very defensive formations and hope to steal a goal at some point. In some ways, this is a liberating position. They aren't crippled with expectations, hounded by relentless tabloid media. On the other hand, they're stuck in perpetual mediocrity, or worse. For this season, though, they're here.
Who should I watch?
If you're an American without any other EPL allegiance, Stoke City is your team. For some reason, Stoke has a bit of an American fetish, buying five in the past year: Maurice Edu, Geoff Cameron, uber-American Brek Shea (who I'm counting as two Americans, one for each gun he is holding in that picture), and most recently Juan Agudelo, who will join the club in January. Of course, there's no guarantee our boys Over There will get serious playing time (with the exception of Cameron), but that won't stop us from coming up with terrible Americanized nicknames for the team: Stokeamerica or Stokes and Stripes are the worst I've heard so far, but feel free to recommend your own vomit-inducing ideas.
Who should I watch if I'm not American?
You should watch Sunderland. Their manager, Paolo Di Canio, is an avowed fascist whose goal celebrations are almost always more entertaining than Sunderland's goals themselves. Also, the joke's on you, non-American, because you'll still be watching American Hero/striker Jozy Altidore, bought by Sunderland this summer from AZ Alkmaar (which I always wish was actually named AZ Ackbar and had the Admiral as their mascot). Although Altidore has settled down a bit as a 23-year-old elder, he and Di Canio could make for a dynamic pair. Hopefully, Jozy will give Di Canio lots of reasons to run around like a lunatic at a Mussolini rally.
When the games aren't on, tune into Crystal Palace's postgame press conferences. Their manager, Ian Holloway, is a cross between Bill Parcells and Ricky Gervais. If you're exhausted by rehearsed Agent Smith-like regurgitated talking points, Ian Holloway is your Red Pill to take you out of The Matrix. For example, when he was asked about Joey Barton mooning Everton Fans:
"It was a bit cheeky wasn't it? But I don't think it was that bad. It would have been worse if he'd turned round and dropped the front of his shorts instead. I don't think there's anything wrong with a couple of butt cheeks personally. (…) If anybody's offended by seeing a backside, get real. Maybe they're just jealous that he's got a real nice tight one, with no cellulite or anything."
Crystal Palace just got promoted to the EPL, and will likely get relegated again after losing their best player, Wilfried Zaha, so enjoy Holloway while you can.
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The Miscellaneous Group
Fulham, Norwich, Swansea, Liverpool, West Brom and West Ham
You're unlikely to notice these clubs all season until they play the club you follow, and if they take points from your club you're going to be slightly more livid than usual, because it will feel like having your filet mignon stolen by the Hamburglar. This is particularly true of West Ham and West Brom. Due to their names being so similar, it may feel like they conjure themselves as if characters in a Harry Potter tale, popping up more frequently than necessary throughout the season. Fun parenthetical fact about West Brom: There is no East, North or South Brom, making their mere existence that much more mysterious.
Liverpool's inclusion in this group may be controversial, but I'm assuming, after his suspension is over, Luis Suarez will racistly chomp his way out of Anfield and/or not contribute on the field the rest of the season. Also, Liverpool finished seventh last year, mostly due to Suarez's somewhat under-appreciated ability to play soccer astoundingly well. Without him at his best, they look to sink further into mediocrity with the rest of these clubs, who all finished between 43 and 46 points last season. It's hard to forget about Liverpool, but they look to be about as threatening as a Suarez dive.
Who Should I Watch?
Avoid watching these clubs, with two important, name-related exceptions:
- Norwich v Arsenal: This will feature the "matchup" of striker Ricky Van Wolfswinkel of Norwich against left back Nacho Monreal of Arsenal. Neither I nor Dr. Seuss made up these names. These are real names of real players who will play on the same field. It is with great sadness I report we will have to wait until the 2018 World Cup for the chance to hear Gus Johnson shout, "WolfswinKEEEEEEEEEEEEEL!!! WOOOOOOOWWWW!"
- West Ham bought a player named Danny Whitehead from Stockport County (their jerseys are probably made out of masking tape). Not only is Danny Whitehead's name very similar to that of Danny Woodhead, diminutive running back on the San Diego Chargers, but he also has the same post-acne/chin-bearded adolescent face. If Danny Woodhead wanted to resume his high school soccer career so badly, he probably should have chosen a better pseudonym than lazily altering his last name from [what paper is made from]-head to [what color paper is]-head. I'm not saying we have an international conspiracy on our hands, but we have an international conspiracy on our hands. We're about to find out whether the Chargers or Canaries want Danny WoodWhiteLooseLeafCollegeRuledHead more.
Also, be warned: If you're thinking of rooting for West Ham because you like ham, I could not be more sympathetic; I, too, enjoy some ham cubes dropped in my coffee every morning. But West Ham has nothing to do with the delicious meat.
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The Champions League Competitors
Arsenal and Tottenham
Arsenal's troubles have been well-documented: They're like a kid in a candy store suffering from decision paralysis who ends up fainting and taken to the hospital, only to find he'll be eating chicken broth for the next month. Unless Arsenal can swing a late deal for Suarez or Rooney (or really anyone other than a free, injury-prone French striker whose career goal is to emulate a current Arsenal player with 39 career injuries) they're stuck with what they have, again. The thing is, what they have isn't bad, and could actually be quite good, but it lacks depth and a definitive scoring punch. Even though Arsenal finally got through a summer without selling their best players, the rope-bridge manager Arsene Wenger keeps toeing to the Champions League each season is bound to snap eventually.
Things are looking better for their North London rivals. Their summer has been lifted by the dreamy zeros floating from Madrid with respect to Gareth Bale's worth (which, by the way, the rumored £100 million transfer fee for Bale would be equivalent to 0.2 percent of his home country's GDP). Yet, Tottenham have quietly hedged their bets, breaking their own transfer record twice with the purchases of box-to-box midfielder (what midfielder coming to the EPL isn't box-to-box?) Paulinho for £17 million and Roberto Soldado, a striker from Valencia, for £26 million. It's been nothing but doom and gloom predictions should Bale be sold, but Tottenham have quietly positioned themselves well for what looks like his eventual departure. Still, if Bale is as important to their fortune as he is made out to be, Pele, Messi and Jozy Altidore themselves couldn't resurrect the Lilywhites.
Who Should I Watch?
Potentially, both. Jack Wilshere is poised for a tremendous campaign, his first healthy one in the last three. He will be central to Arsenal's success, particularly with their need for goals to come from midfield. But if they can't score, they will be painful to watch, with lots of 1-1 and 1-0 games. By far, Wenger's greatest concern going into the season is, what misfortunes will befall his giant puffy coat this winter.
Since Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas successfully convinced Bale that matches didn't begin until the 80th minute, combined with Bale's ability to score at will from 20 yards out, Tottenham were a riveting spectacle last year. Even without Bale, their new additions make them worth investigating. They will either be a scintillating offensive display, or a complete train wreck of mismatched styles. Either way, it should be fascinating.
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The New Manager Division
Chelsea, Everton, Manchester City, Manchester United
When it comes to canning managers, some deride the rapid-fire approach of the EPL's richest owners. But this makes more sense than the American model of coach-canning, which generally keeps coaches in the top two-thirds of the league and fires coaches in the bottom third. This model implicitly expects coaches to have a huge impact on a team's performance, since you're effectually blaming the coach for being terrible.
Ironically, firing managers of the second-, third- or fourth-place teams is a much more modest estimate of a coach's effect. Chelsea and Man City are going to be good even if Jason Sudeikis is their manager; they just might need a fantastic coach to win the league, to make that extra little bit of difference. This is a much more marginal claim than believing a coach makes bad teams good. Of course, the only manager in the EPL who is consistently expected to make a huge impact on the field is the one who can't zip his jacket.
And so, we have our group of title contenders, with Everton being the exception, only because United hired their coach to fill its own post. United's vacancy was a result of the legendary and perpetually cold Sir Alex Ferguson retiring after a near-perfect tenure. So the new sideline shouters are:
- Chelsea: Jose Mourinho, former Real Madrid manager, and former-former Chelsea manager from 2004-2007, which adds additional intrigue. Mourinho was abruptly fired despite being the most successful manager in Chelsea history, supposedly over a dispute with owner/yacht connoisseur Roman Abramovich. But, like a couple that just needed some time apart to realize how much they truly need each other, the two have been re-united for our voyeuristic pleasure.
- Manchester City: After sacking the impeccably-scarved Roberto Mancini, City hired Manuel Pellegrini (not to be confused with the beverage San Pellegrino), formerly of Real Madrid and Malaga. He will have a loaded roster with which to prove himself, including new strikers Stevan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo, as well as box-to-box-to-box-to-box midfielder Fernandinho and winger Jesus Navas.
- Manchester United: There's an old saying that I'm just making up now, which says when one Scotsman goes away, another Scotsman appears from the fog. Of course, this Scotsman, David Moyes, is much angrier-looking than the old one. Having been at Everton since 2002, there are lots of questions surrounding this hire. How will he cope with a star-studded roster? Can he handle the higher expectations? How well can he deal with more games and international play? These are all legitimate questions I suppose, in that they are all a form of words meant to evoke a response. But one thing is for sure: He will be haunted by comparisons to Sir Alex until he proves himself (and perhaps even beyond), especially since he will be playing very much the same roster as last season.
- Everton: Moyes' departure left a gaping, decade-long void at Everton, which has been filled by reigning FA Cup champion Roberto Martinez. The suave Spaniard is tactically sound and made a hell of a lot of lemonade out of some pretty rotten lemons at Wigan before the club got relegated this past year. Fearing EPL fans might not get their Wigan fix, Martinez has brought approximately half of Wigan's starting lineup with him.
Who Should I Watch?
There could be a lot of controversy and growing pains in these perennial powerhouses (for the rest of the conversation, I will ignore Everton, who for all intents and purposes are likely Champions League Competitors and/or Miscellaneous). Chelsea and Man City are on perpetual Sacking Watch; I believe there is a giant red button in each owner's office that, when pressed, triggers an email to the manager instructing him to pack his things. Any slip could be their last, which makes things fun for fans of the other clubs to watch. United will likely be infuriating within 20 seconds of kickoff, with commentators and fans alike questioning Moyes' every move as if Sir Alex's ghost disapproves, despite him being very much alive and still a part of the club's front office.
Although United won the title with ease last season, they were unanimously regarded as an unimpressive impressive champion, which is a title only the English press and Skip Bayless could anoint. With Chelsea having a season to mature, City's signings and even Tottenham's potential, the status quo may not be good enough at Old Trafford. But, all three are supreme clubs, and if you like soccer, you should watch as much of each of them as you can, because they will do beautiful things involving their feet, head and a medium-sized ball. That, after all, is why we get up when the alarm goes off way too early on weekends.
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Aaron Gordon lives in Washington, D.C., and has written for The Classical and Buzzfeed. He tweets about movies and the Hartford Whalers @A_W_Gordon.