‘Over there’: Premier League preview
The most exciting soccer league in the world kicked off last weekend.Italy’s Serie A may be the most technical league in the world, and Spain’s La Liga may have the most action, but for the end-to-end stuff, no one can beat the English Premier League. Last week, nine months of blood, sweat, toil and tears began. By May, most spectators will feel as exhausted as the players. But for whom should the American soccer virgin root? What is there to choose between one team and another? One place you can start is to pick a team with a U.S. player. There are now enough American players in the EPL to make a five-a-side team – if you could play three goalkeepers. So here’s a rundown of the six guys shipping soccer back to the limeys, week in, week out: Manchester United and Tim HowardThe American success last year in the EPL was Tim Howard, goalkeeper for Manchester United. At the start of last season many rated Howard only fourth-best U.S. keeper behind Zach Thorton, Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel. By the end of the year, Howard had replaced world champion Fabien Barthez as the No. 1 goalkeeper for the Red Devils.
Manchester United is the equivalent of the New York Yankees of English soccer and have won eight out of the last 11 Premierships. But, most believe the balance of power has shifted 250 miles south to London with Arsenal. If there is one thing you cannot do, it is write off United, though. Sir Alex Ferguson is now managing United for his 18th season, unheard of in English soccer. And, he’s doing it because he’s simply the best there is. Look out for Jonathan Spector as well. The 18-year-old defender has so far only played in the reserves, but he may well break into the first team this year.Manchester City and Claudio ReynaClaudio Reyna is playing across town for United’s long suffering rival, Manchester City. City is perhaps the most inconsistent, infuriating but rewarding team to support in the whole of Britain. Its 4-3 comeback against Tottenham Hotspurs in the FA Cup, after having been three goals down and having a man sent off, was the greatest domestic game in a generation. But, City has the ability to throw it away as well.Kevin Keegan has brought in Claudio Reyna, a strong resilient midfield player, to glue the side together and make it less flaky. Reyna’s mission is to make City’s season less of a rollercoaster. If he manages it, he will have cemented his reputation as a player of some class. But, that’s a big if.
Fulham: Carlos Bocanegra and Brian McBrideThe real patriots will support Londoners Fulham. These perennial over-achievers have two-thirds of the America’s outfield Premiership contingent on their roster – Carlos Bocanegra and Brian McBride. This is the first opening of a Premiership season where Fulham is not being tipped to be “sent down.” That is to be one of the bottom three teams in the EPL who are sent out of the league. That is partially down to the Cottagers’ two Americans. Carlos Bocanegra was brought in to ease Fulham’s defensive injury worries but has since made himself a regular in the side. Meanwhile, Brain McBride made himself an immediate favorite on debut, scoring eight minutes after being brought on against Fulham’s rivals across the capital, the Tottenham Hotspurs.Tottenham Hotspurs and Kasey Keller
The Tottenham Hotspurs employ the longest-standing American player in the English League. Kasey Keller came over to England before the Premier League even got started. Keller’s place is secure, being a bright spot in yet another disappointing season for the Spurs last year.”The Whites” have signed the former France manager Jacques Santini. A great signing four years ago when France was World Cup and Euro Champions, but it’s looking rockier now “Les Bleus” have nothing. Santini will hope to whip balls in from the wing behind the opposition’s defense. The problem is there’s no plan B. Blackburn Rovers and Brad FriedelBrad Friedel is continuing to play as goalie for Blackburn Rovers. Many would argue that he was one of the weak links in a Blackburn side that was too close to the bottom three for comfort last year. Friedel can no longer seem able to cope with long crosses into the penalty box anymore. But as the player with the most appearances with a Rovers’ jersey on last season (36), manager Graeme Souness will be loathe to get rid of the experienced campaigner. Blackburn do have one thing in their favor – with no one on international duty this summer, expect an August bounce and then a long hard struggle.Whichever team is picked to be followed this season, this year’s Premiership promises to be as much of a white knuckle ride as ever.