Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Because He Asked (Simmons and Soccer)

In today's ESPN chat, Sports Guy has this:
Joe (Philly): I loved the world cup, and am thinking about continuing to follow soccer through the English Premier League. How can I pick a team to root for and remain a somewhat-principled sports' fan when I know nothing about England?

Bill Simmons: Intriguing question, I have been wondering the same thing. I was thinking about just picking the team that Michael Davies hates the most, just for comedy's sake, but that's too easy. if anyone wants to make the case for an English premier team for me, email me. I might make the leap. Soccer's growing on me, you don't have to pay attention, it's easy to follow, no sideline reporters, no commercials, no annoying announcers, the crowds are fantastic ... there's a lot to like.
WELL...since I'm in a soccer talking mood anyway, let me give the breakdown.

I'm assuming a few ground rules:

1. The team can't be awful - some chance to win something (if not the league than a chance at Europe or a good cup run) - though the threat of 'the drop' adds something to the bottom of the table battles, if your team is relegated it is simply impossible to really follow them from the states, meaning you have to start over. Which defeats the purpose of, you know, picking a team.

2. The team must play an entertaining style - because dour, defensive, negative, 'park the team bus in front of goal' soccer can be excrutiatingly boring. Which is why the Italian league is the worst league for a neophyte to watch at first - you thought the national team is a bunch of cheating divers, wait til you see the guys just a cut below. They make Bruce Bowen look like a goody-two-shoes.

3. The team cannot be 'the Yankees' - because who roots for the house in blackjack? (And to the guy who kept betting 'don't come' last time I was playing craps in Vegas - screw you, jackass.)

So, with those rules in mind, from top to bottom:

Chelsea - Total Yankee frontrunner pick. Plus, despite having a hugely talented squad, they play as if their coach, Mourinho is auditioning for Serie A. Which he might be, come to think of it. How a team with a midfield of Robben, Essien, Lampard, Maniche and now Michael Ballack can play boring soccer is beyond me. Definite nix.

Manchester United - Full disclosure, this is my team. When I first really got into soccer, they seemed to have the most going on, from a high-pressure, almost frenetic style; to a wildly entertaining Scottish manager (Sir Alex has mellowed, a bit, in recent years, but he still gets all red-faced and splotchy from time to time;) to the personal redemption story of Daivd Beckham post World Cup '98. And there was the little thing of the Treble that first year with sensational comeback wins over Juventus and Bayern Munich in the Champions League and the unfathomably good FA CUP Semi-Final replay vs. Arsenal: Down a man, giving up a penalty near the end of regulation, Schmeichel saves from Bergkamp (who IIRC never took another penalty. Ever...) and Giggs scores that goal, the best I've ever seen...

(Not the best video, better is at the 3:54 mark and onward here.)

But, more objectively, big strike against due to their partnership with the actual Yankees. However, though they are definitely a 'big market' team, they are far from profligate spenders, indeed they have declined a bit in recent years as they have not really replaced Beckham or especially Keane, and the suspicion is that the young players brought up from the youth team aren't quite championship quality. They are still challengers both for the league, and in Europe. Still good to watch as well, with Rooney and Ronaldo (assuming he stays) as well as the short fuses of Alan Smith and Gabriel Heinze. In the end though, for a new fan, picking Man U. is a little too close to being a front runner. Though I came by it honestly and naively, probably not the pick.

Reading, Sheffield United, Watford - Three promoted sides, almost assuredly battling just to survive - very rarely do these kind of teams even endeavor to entertain in their first season. Wigan's performance last year was something of an abberation. However, Reading does have an American, Bobby Convey on their roster, but I think all three squads fail both the first and second test.

Aston Villa, Blackburn, Bolton, Charlton Athletic, Portsmouth, West Ham: Zzzzzzz. Some of these teams will finish well, make decent cup runs, threaten European qualification. Some will flirt with relegation and suffer embarassing losses to lower division sides in the cup competitions. None of them will be particularly compelling to watch on a week to week basis. Bolton and Portsmouth have...colorful management which could add an extra bit of spice. West Ham is likely to be the most entertaining of this lot.

Everton, Fulham, Manchester City: Similar to the previous teams, though they might be easier to follow due to American involvement (Tim Howard if he wins the starting GK job at Everton; McBride and Bocanegra at Fulham; Reyna at Man City) Everton and Man City are managed by a fiery (ginger-haired, no less) Scot and a ex-player named "Psycho" respectively. Still not a lot of consistent entertainment, unless Chelsea loan Shawn Wright-Phillips back to Man City, where he was probably worth the price of admission by himself two seasons ago.

Newcastle, Middlesbrough: Probably a step above the last two groups in terms of quality of play and expectations, though Newcastle may struggle to score with Alan Shearer retired and Michael Owen injured for a good portion of the season. If the rumored Oguchi Onyewu deal goes through, Boro will also have U.S. ties. Best analogy would be Cleveland Browns (pre Ravens) fandom - decent teams, rabid supporters in a somewhat provincial environment.

Wigan: Last season's cinderella story - played very nice football for the first half of the season, I'm skeptical as to their ability to sustain, probably not a good pick for a new fan due to the high probability of sucking in a particularly crushing manner.

Which leaves three real candidates:

Arsenal: As a Man U. fan, I have to hate these guys. That said, there is no doubt that they consistently play the best attacking soccer in the league. Henry is an absolute genius in the red shirt, and other World Cup stars such as Spain's Fabregas and Reyes; Sweden's Ljunberg; Holland's Van Persie and the, at times, electric Adebayor of Togo provide plenty of entertainment value. Threat to win the league every year, Champions League runners-up a year ago. Definite 'big market' team, but more the Mets than the Yankees (especially with Chelsea next door) - a fully acceptable choice, if you can handle being called a Gooner (or worse, by me). Also, not too far removed from "boring, boring Arsenal." Just saying.

Liverpool: Steven Gerard, Steven Gerard, Steven Gerard. Saw his best only in flashes in the World Cup, but in the Premier League can completely dominate for weeks on end. And the supporting cast isn't terrible either (Xabi Alonso, Momo Sissoko, Luis Garcia, Harry Kewell.) Rich history, great set of fans, two always dramatic 'derby' matches with Everton every season. The problem here is the (over)reliance on Gerard - if he's hurt (as he tends to be from time to time) they can be unwatchable. If you can stand rooting for the Cavs, you can go for the 'Pool. Best baseball analogy is Cinicinnati - dominant in the late 70's (and early 80s), not much since.

However, this leads us to rule #4 for Yankee soccer love, which is a strong preference for London-based clubs just so it's easier to, you know, go and actually see your team, which leaves only one winner:

Tottenham Hotspur: If the Dodgers had stayed in Brooklyn, they'd be Spurs. A team that almost always promises more than they deliver, partly because their fans not only want to win, they want to win in style. Through the years, the style has been much more reliable than the results, though they just missed out on the 4th Champions League spot last term. A young, energetic and exciting squad, an attack-minded coach, and that particular fanbase make them the best bet for a combination of results and flair if one is going to not jump on the "Big 3" bandwagon.


Anonymous said...
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Al said...

You think that CHELSEA is the most "Yankees" of all the EPL teams??? You're on crack. ManU are the Yankees. Chelsea are the Red Sox - lovable losers until a couple of years ago. I mean, how can you say that a club that hadn't won a title in 50 years are the Yankees??? BTW, if ManU are the Yankees, that makes City (not Arsenal) the Mets.

I would say Arsenal or Liverpool are the Dodgers - winning titles now and again, usually good. (If Liverpool are the Dodgers, that would make Everton the Angels, or maybe the SF Giants.) If he chose Arsenal, of course, all he'd have to do is read Fever Pitch to understand.

I think it would be difficult to pick up Chelsea now, since they've won the last 2 titles. But as a Red Sox fan, I think Simmons could figure out the mentality.

Liverpool is probably the best option, given the history, the crowd, everything. But if you are going for a London-based club not named Chelsea or Arsenal, Spurs are a good option. Especially given Aaron Lennon. Alternatively, I'd point him toward being a Hammer. Goon it up, ya know? He could go watch that movie with Elijah Wood to get into the spirit. And Jonathan Spector!

Pooh said...

Consider how much Chelski spends on players every year...and it's been that way since before Abramovich took over, I might add. Going back to when Vialli was the manager, they outspent everyone. Remember, the Yankees were godawful despite having big payrolls in the 80s, so it's not just a success thing.

And for someone new, (as of WC '06) to the sport, Chelsea is clearly the most Yank-ed out...

Nick said...

As a Spurs fan, I'd say they're more like the Cubs: formerly great, haven't won the title for yonks, lots of history, famous ground, want to win in style, bags of potential, long injury list, always P*** it up the wall ...

Anonymous said...

I e-mailed and suggested Arsenal. Man United are so obviously modeled after the Yankees, who Simmons hates, and Arsenal are still Man United's greatest inter-regional rival despite the rise of Chelsea. It's a natural match.

I made this suggestion despite being a Spurs supporter, which kind of shocks me in retrospect. For no other reason than if he picks Spurs, there will be tons more Spurs supporters Stateside.

Al said...

Read Simmons' column today - he says he's got a ton of mail on this one, and will have his pick in Wednesday's column... and it ain't ManU.

I can see Spurs being like the Cubs, or pre-2004 Red Sox, I guess, and presumably what he's going for. Nonetheless, I'd say Liverpool is the best bet.

Pooh said...

Yeah, I saw that Al. I'd be surprised if it wasn't one of Arsenal, Liverpool or Spurs. Take out the Arsenal-Man U. thing (and that I can't freaking stand Arsene Wenger) and one of those three would be my pick. That said, I think if actually trying to go to a few games is part of the plan, that gives a significan edge to a London based club. And between Spurs and the Gunners, I just can't bring myself to advocate Arsenal. (Plus, if Man U does buy Carrick, then, as a Spurs fan, he will have all the Man U hatred that is required...)

Anonymous said...

He picked Tottenham, and it looks like it's because of your Brooklyn Dodgers comparison, Pooh. Congratulations!

DJ Ninja said...

Nice work, Pooh--and he picked up your Brooklyn Dodgers analogy! Congrats.