Wednesday, August 14, 2013

CHEATSHEET: Preparing for the English Premier League Invasion - Part 2

English Premier League play begins on NBC this Saturday (August 17). Twenty teams will start the season. Thirty-eight games later, three will be relegated out of the league, four will qualify for the Champions League tournament to crown the best team in Europe, and one will lift the first place trophy.

Meet your cast of characters: [cue the Dating Game theme]


1. Manchester United
Overview: Probably the most recognizable soccer "brand" in America, Manchester United is known for winning everything. A lot of people compare them to the old school New York Yankees, throwing money around high-dollar stars, but they don't hold the monopoly on that market anymore (see: Chelsea, Manchester City, the nation of Spain). By the way, just as a reminder, ManU is owned by the same people who own the Tampa Bay Bucs. I'm surprised every time I remember that because these things are not overly similar. ManU is fun to root against, but I struggle to see them as pure evil, especially since I watched the BBC movie UNITED on streaming NetFlix, about how the team was nearly destroyed by a plane crash in the 1950s. This movie stars David Tennant as the coach who kept the team going, so Doctor Who fans, stream away!
Notable Players: Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Javier Hernandez (known as 'Chicharito')
Color: Devil Red.

2. Manchester City
Overview: A hard luck team recently acquired by a very rich owner (as Roger Bennett would say, 'Oil money solves a lot of problems'). They stole the 2012 title from their arch rivals (ManU) on THE LAST KICK OF THE SEASON after spending decades living the Chicago Cubs experience, and then their fans stormed the field NCAA-style. What else do you need to know? Well, you could say that they took a rather Miami Heat mercenary approach to getting it done. But I don't judge.
Notable Players: Joe Hart, David Silva, Sergio Aguero.
Color: North Carolina Tar Heel Blue

3. Chelsea
Overview: I like to think of Chelsea as the LA Lakers. They're a fashionable team in a fashionable area of London, and they just seem to find a way to stay in the conversation. They have a coach who's back for his second term with the club (Phil Jackson style) - and this coach even invented his own nickname: The Special One. Chelsea is another team with an extremely rich owner (any time you get the chance to type the words 'Russian oligarch' you HAVE to do it). He's owned the team for 10 years, Jerry Jones style, hiring a new manager more or less every season (I've been following EPL for two years and have already seen four different guys in charge).
Notable Players: All of the players. Just all of them.
My favorite player: Fernando Torres, known in my household as the Iberian god of sadness. So talented, so shy and unassuming, so perpetually sad.
Color: Blue - like Indianapolis Colts blue.

4. Arsenal
Overview: I hate Arsenal. I can't even explain how it started, but the more time I spend studying them, the more they reminded me of the New York Knicks. Very passionate fans, proud tradition. They have a grumpy old French coach who wears a puffy coat (NBC keeps showing a clip of him struggling to zip the zipper and it still hasn't lost its funny). Their team logo is a cannon. As much as I hate to admit it, that's pretty badass. There was a time when Arsenal went on a 49 game win streak and earned the nickname the Invincibles. They have a bitter rivalry with their London neighbors Tottenham Hotspur that dates back 100 years. If you're bookish by nature, pick up FEVER PITCH by Nicholas Hornby, a delightful read about his experiences growing up with Arsenal (and a lot of poignant observations about sports fanhood in general).
Notable Players: A lot of people who transferred to Manchester United, and a lot of people who will soon transfer to Manchester United, assuming ManU wants them.
Color: Chicago Bulls Red.

5. Tottenham Hotspur
Overview: The Spurs are my team of choice. I tried to avoid it, but the gravitational pull was too strong. They're a London team, but they don't strike me as fancy (when compared to Arsenal or Chelsea). Their manager is Andre Villas Boas (AVB), a rather good looking Portuguese man who is only about 35 years old. (Note: there seem to be a lot of very attractive people in European futball.) NBC has been promoting the living daylights out of their upcoming soccer coverage, including a 30-min special with short introductions to each team. I can't find a link to a video right now, but it taught me that Tottenham gets its name from a royal knight that later became a character in a Shakespeare play (very classy). I did find a link to an NBC video thing comparing my Spurs as the Knicks. This makes me furious. Also, they've been showing this a lot.
Notable Players: Gareth Bale (please Lord, let him stay; he's phenomenally good and he looks like Schmidt from New Girl), and until recently American team captain Clint Dempsey, who just accepted a gig in Seattle.
Color: Lily White

6. Everton
Overview: I wanted to be an Everton fan. Really, I did, and they still have a special place in my heart. They're a "moneyball" type of team that always seems greater than the sum of their parts. Founded in 1878, they have NEVER been relegated out of the top league. But, the plot thickens: their long-time manager just accepted a job with Manchester United, ushering in a new era that has yet to be defined (and possibly a new rivalry?). Everton is located in the city of Liverpool, home to the Beatles and also their arch rival, Liverpool Football Club. Everton and Liverpool's stadiums are about one mile apart, separated only by a park.
Notable Players: American goalie Tim Howard, Marouane Fellaini (the one with the big, curly hair).
Color: Another team wearing Indianapolis Colts Blue.

7. Liverpool
Overview: Much like ManU, they're team with a proud tradition that's really fun to hate (they were ManU before ManU was ManU). Take every Boston area team (the Patriots, the Red Sox, the Celtics, the Bruins) and squish them together - because Liverpool is owned by the same group who owns the Red Sox, and thus seem to carry a similar vibe. Last season, they starred in a "Hard Knocks" type reality show called Being Liverpool, which featured a scene showing the baseball and soccer players in a very awkward interaction facilitated by former Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine. I wish I could find a YouTube clip of this, because trust me, it was scrumptious. Liverpool used to win everything, but lately, I've rather enjoyed watching them finish 6th or 7th. They have an amazing fanbase, who are best known for belting out their team anthem: You'll Never Walk Alone.
Notable Players: Luis Suarez (who has been in trouble more than once for biting other players), Steven Gerrard, long time player for Team England.
Color: Red Sox Red.


8. West Brom
Overview: "West Brom" is short for West Bromwich Albion. To be honest, I don't know a lot about them. I think they may be the best of the middle, like an NFL team that finishes 8-8 every year. They're nicknamed 'The Baggies' and they have a trademark celebration in which they BOING BOING (it reminds me of the Wisconsin Badgers "Jump Around" thing).
Color: Blue and white stripes.

9. Swansea City
Overview: I'm fond of the Swans, the first Welsh team to play in the English Premier League (note, Wales has its own league, but some Welsh teams choose to play in the English leagues instead). For the first time in history, both Swansea and their bitter Welsh rival, Cardiff, are in the Premier League. They're a team on the rise, one I'm looking forward to seeing more of.
Notable Players: Michu (winning at most adorable name), Michel Vorm
Color: White and black

10. West Ham
Overview: West Ham, known as The Hammers, is an east London team in the process of moving in to the Olympic Stadium (where Paul McCartney led the world in a Hey Jude sing-along in 2012). Their anthem is 'I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles' and the fans actually blow bubbles all over the place as part of their celebrations. It's worth tuning in just for that; the bubbles look pretty awesome in HD. Back in the 1960's, West Ham was home to many of Team England's best players. Lately, however, the Hammers have been rebuilding. They were promoted to the Premier League in 2012 and enjoyed a pretty solid first season back.
Notable Players: Andy Carroll (the big dude with the long hair)
Color: Sort of a red wine with sky blue sleeves.

11. Norwich City
Overview: Norwich is another team I'm still getting acquainted with. They were promoted very quickly (in successive seasons, I believe) - like an entire baseball team going from Double-A to Major League in two years. They've got a distinct look and flavor, but I don't think I've ever seen them play. It's something I'm looking forward to this fall.
Notable Players: I'm not familiar with his work, but they have a forward on their roster named Ricky van Wolfswinkel. I need to know more.
Color: Bright green and yellow, sort of a Brazilian vibe.

12. Fulham
Overview: I'm not sure why Fulham isn't more popular. Their stadium is RIGHT on the Thames in London, a stone's throw from Chelsea. Until recently, they were owned by the guy who owns Harrod's department store (famous for being able to get ANYTHING). A few months ago, the new owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars bought up Fulham (and keep in mind, the Jags also signed a multi-year deal to play games in London for the next several seasons). Could there be some sort of Fulham/Jax cross-promotional efforts in the works? I kind of hope so. Also, they have a rather famous Michael Jackson statue outside their stadium. Even before they had an American owner, Fulham seemed to be one of the more American friendly teams. Team USA Captain Clint Dempsey was one of the top goal scorer's in the league his last year there.
Color: White and black

13. Stoke City
Overview: I like Stoke, if for no other reason than "STOKE" is s strong name for a team. They keep bringing in American players (which is kind of unusual in Europe). Regular listeners to Grantland's Men in Blazers know Stoke as the home of "Quarterback Style" - a hilarious reference made by a British TV commentator, when he described how American Geoff Cameron did throw-ins. It's kind of hard to explain, but the point is this: when Geoff Cameron does something good, it's fun the shout QUARTERBACK STYLE at your television. By the way, JK Rowling fans, Stoke City's known as the "Potters".
Notable Players: Team USA's own Geoff Cameron, Brek Shea, and Maurice Edu. Also the very tall Peter Crouch.
Color: Red and white stripes

THE UNDERDOGS (aka The Relegation Zone)

14. Southampton
Overview: Southampton is probably best known for being the port from which the Titanic sailed. The soccer team is nicknamed the Saints, and their anthem is 'When the Saints Go Marching In,' so New Orleans fans, take notice.
Notable Players: Rickie Lambert!
Color: Red

15. Aston Villa
Overview: Villa is a team with a proud tradition who seem to have under-achieved lately. They're from the Midlands of England (Birmingham, birthplace of Top Gear's Richard Hammond), and until recently they were owned by the same guy as the Cleveland Browns (these things may be a bit similar - seeing as how both teams were QUITE respectable a few decades ago).
Notable Players: American Goalie Brad Guzan, Christian Benteke
Color: Wine and blue, distressingly similar to West Ham's.

16. Newcastle
Overview: Newcastle, known as the magpies, basically looks like an entire team of NFL referees running around the field. Two years ago, they were flirting with the Champions League. Last year, they barely escaped getting relegated. ANYTHING could happen!
Notable Players: Basically everyone from France
Color: Black and white stripes

17. Sunderland
Overview: The only thing I know about this team is that they just acquired America's Jozy Altidore. Please excuse me while I consult Google: Their home field is called "The Stadium of Light" (excellent name); they're located somewhere near their arch rival Newcastle (good, good); they're nicknamed 'The Black Cats' (fits nicely with Newcastle being the Magpies - cat vs bird).
Notable Players: American Jozy Altidore
Color: Red and white stripes

18. Cardiff City
Overview: The other Welsh team, newly promoted to the Premier League! Everything I know about Cardiff I learned from watching Doctor Who (they film the show in Cardiff, therefore they've had several episodes that take place there). They're known as the bluebirds, but their new Malaysian owner decided red was a luckier color. Thus, their uniforms are now red.
Color: Red

19. Hull City
Overview: Some teams are known as 'yo-yo' teams, meaning they're in and out of the Premier League on a fairly regular cycle. Hull is NOT one of these teams. They're known as the tigers (perhaps a match for Bengals fans looking to suffer in a second sport?). They also feature a father and son pairing - Dad Bruce is the manager, Son Bruce is a defender.
Color: Amber and black stripes.

20. Crystal Palace
Overview: The third newly promoted team, Palace is from London. They actually got their ticket to the Premier League after a thrilling playoff that went to overtime in the mother of all venues, Wembley Stadium. After winning what's known as 'The Richest Game in Football' (because of the huge boost in revenue that comes with playing in the Premier League), Palace's coach said: "We're in the Premier League! God help us..."
Color: Half blue/Half red

Take your time, get a feel for what you like. A team is for life! Choose carefully.

Monday, August 12, 2013

CHEATSHEET: Preparing for the English Premier League Invasion - Part 1

On August 1, I took my parents and my husband to watch what amounted to an exhibition soccer match in Lucas Oil Stadium with about 41,000 of our closest friends (including my cousin Katie who provided these pictures - thanks Katie!). We were there to see Chelsea, one of the world's elite soccer teams, all the way from London, dressed in the same blue as everything else in the Colts' stadium. Their worthy opponent: Inter Milan from Italy. One thing was immediately clear: the home crowd LOVED Chelsea. Most of us were there - in Indianapolis - specifically to see them.

Maybe it was the color, maybe it was Chelsea's marketing team successfully drumming up interest here State-side. Either way, brace yourselves sports fans: English soccer is coming.

Close your eyes and think of college football. There are more than 100 Division I teams, but only 25 at a time are 'ranked.' Teams are scattered around the country such that it's hard to find a community without an allegiance.

Now shift your mind to baseball. Players move up and down through Major League, Triple-A, Double-A, and "A." Teams date back to the 1870s/1880s. If you look at a map of the destruction caused by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, you'll find the 'White Stockings' field nearby.

Now mentally squish these images together. Throw in a dash of NFL physicality (minus the pads) and NBA speed (minus the height). Make the clock count up instead of down, and remove all timeouts and commercial breaks.

You're almost ready for the English Soccer Experience.

* Last year, NBC bought the rights to show 380 English Premier League games. Games start on August 17th and run through spring (long past the end of NFL season). Most of them will be on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and since soccer games can end in ties, you'll always know EXACTLY what time they will end (an underrated perk of being a soccer fan). And just LOOK AT THIS SCHEDULE! Most of the games begin at 10am EST, the perfect time to ease into the day with a cup of hot tea.

* Soccer in England is broken into four levels: The Premier League (20 teams), The Championship (24 teams), Division One (24 teams), and Division Two (24 teams). Kind of like our baseball system, no?

* NBC is televising games between the 20 Premier League teams. They'll play each other twice (home and away), for a 38 game season, roughly one game a week.

* At the end of each season, the bottom three teams in the Premier League are sent down to the Championship, and the top three teams in the Championship take their place. Imagine the Cubs or Royals being sent down to Triple-A (the TEAMS instead of individual PLAYERS) and then having to earn their way back.

* Note that it is specifically the "English" Premier League. England has its own league. So do Scotland, and Spain, and Germany, and several other countries (including America's MLS, which we share with Canada).

* You know how every March, we watch the NCAA basketball tournament, featuring (X) teams from the Big East and (Y) teams from the Big Ten, PAC-howevermany, mid-majors, etc? The best 68 teams from the various conferences compete and typically Duke or Kentucky wins? In soccer, the equivalent is the Champions League - the top four teams from England qualify, the top few from Spain, and Germany, Russia, Turkey, Belgium, France, etc, and they play to crown the best team in Europe.

* Behold, the League Table, which not only tells you who's winning - it tabulates points, wins, losses and so much more. A win is worth three points, tie is worth one, and a loss gives you nothing (kind of like hockey). Points are most important, but goal difference matters. If you CAN run up the score, you probably will.

* Here is a MAP showing where all of this season's English Premier League teams are located. For the first time in league history, two of the teams are in Wales.

* But keep in mind, whenever anyone says "for the first time in league history," the English Premier League as it's currently organized was founded in 1992. This general soccer system has been in place for over 100 years, but the league did some refreshing and rebranding - and it exploded globally as a result.

* Six of the twenty English Premier League Teams are owned by Americans.
* Don't have the time to research which of the 20 teams is right for you? There are some cheatsheets available below to help you get started. Just keep in mind that, thanks to promotion and relegation, the league CHANGES EVERY YEAR. This isn't annoying, it's part of the drama - like characters coming and going on Game of Thrones!

You can look here and here and here and here to get started, but I'll post my take on the 20 Premier League teams in part 2. When in doubt, you can always just cheer for the elite American players (for example, goalie Tim Howard plays for Everton, Jozy Altidore just signed with Sunderland, and Stoke City has a couple of Yanks, as well).

* Here is NBC's EPL schedule so you can PLAN. Soccer isn't just coming - it's already here.