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Day 5 Late Edition: Premier League Primer

August 13, 2010

This is the opening weekend of the English Premier League.  The EPL is often labelled as the best soccer league in the world, and it certainly has earned the title in terms of viewership.  Following the World Cup, more Americans than ever are going to check in to see how the players stack up.  This is a primer for those of you that are looking for an alternative to American football.

Structure of the Competition

The EPL consists of 20 teams.  Each team will play every other twice, once at home and once on the road.  There are no divisions or conferences.  During the course of the season, teams pick up three points in the standings for a win, one point for a draw and zero points for a loss.  There are no penalty shootouts or overtimes, just two standard 45-minute halves plus injury time.  There are no playoffs.  The team with the most points at the end of the season is considered the league champion.  Any ties are broken based on goal differential (how many more or fewer goals you’ve scored against your opponents).

Running concurrently are several domestic single-elimination competitions including the FA Cup, which involves 759 registered professional teams from every level of the English ladder system.  EPL teams receive byes through several rounds of the competition where lower-tier teams tend to get whittled away.  In this tournament, there are no seeds; games are decided by random draw.  SO if your little semi-pro county club makes it through the first few rounds, you could very likely host a European powerhouse at your cozy, 3,000 seat stadium.

Rewards

The top three teams will earn automatic berths in the next year’s UEFA Champions League, a continent-wide competition featuring the champions and high-finishers from Europe’s top domestic leagues.  The fourth-place team earns a qualifying spot in the Champions League and must win a playoff to guarantee a spot in the main competition.  5th place earns an autmoatic berth in next year’s UEFA Europa League, a second-tier continental competition along the same lines as the Champions League, while 6th and 7th place must qualify through playoffs.

Punishments

Yes, punishments.  For many American fans, this is the most intriguing aspect of world soccer.  Teams that finish in the EPL’s bottom three are relegated to England’s 2nd-highest league, the Coca-Cola Championship.  Stunk it up the whole year?  Management did a lousy job with team finances?  Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.  Meanwhile, the top two teams from the Coca-Cola Championship are promoted to the EPL, while the 3rd through 6th place teams enter a play-off, with the winner also earning promotion.

This ladder system exists through 21 levels.  Theoretically, it’s possible for a team in the local pub league to perform successively through the years and earn its way through promotion to the EPL and vice versa.

Who’s Who?

In the 18 seasons since the league was founded in 1992, only four different teams have won the league title.  In 17 of those seasons, that team has been either Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal.  Those three as well as Liverpool, make up the Premier League’s “Big Four”.  These are the clubs with the biggest pocketbooks, largest sponsorship deals and biggest fanbases.

More recently, several other clubs including Aston Villa, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur have stepped up and made a considerable effort to compete.

Mid-tier teams such as Everton and Fulham are well known for taking on American players who will or have played for the U.S. in World Cups.  Ifyou’re getting into the league because of the World Cup, Everton’s the way to go with goalie Tim Howard leading the way.

Three promoted teams enter the competition including Blackpool, who finished 6th in the Championship and won their playoff to make their first-ever run at the top level of English soccer.  West Bromwich Albion returns for their second run in the EPL, returning since a five-year spell that ended in relegation in 2006.  Newcastle has a rich history at the top level of English soccer, holding a spot in the country’s top league from 1889 through 2009, when financial woes based on their lead sponsor Northern Rock(collapsing as the first shoe to drop in the global economic crisis) preceded an unprecedented 18th place finish.  The club responded by winning the Championship league title the following season and a spot back in the EPL.

What are the major storylines?

1.  Which team will go bankrupt? – Several of the top teams in the EPL leveraged tremendous amounts of debt in order to build stadiums or purchase top players’ contracts from other teams.  Now, the bill is due and teams such as Manchester United and Liverpool face the prospect of a short sale or a hostile takeover.  Many English fans are particularly disgruntled over the reckless nature in which many of the league’s American owners have operated their franchises.  Last season, despite making the finals of the FA Cup, Portsmouth FC entered bankruptcy on the condition that they exit before the start of this season in the Championship.

2. What can Newcastle do now that they’re back in the fold? – Many observers hold Newcastle’s history in the same regard as many of the Big Four.  Management had grown so scattershot that fans grew resigned to the fact that they’d need a season away to rebuild.  Have they done so?

3. World Cup Hangover? – Many of England’s World Cup stars fell well short of national expectations and have had plenty of time to recharge.  Many of them stayed home while their clubs travelled overseas for pre-season tours.  A club like Tottenham Hotspur or Aston Villa that has plenty of talent that plays for national teams who didn’t qualify for the World Cup could sneak up on the Big Four early in the year.

4. Could Landon Donovan end up overseas? – MLS Commissioner Don Garber wants to hold on to his top commodity and Donovan has always enjoyed success playing in the U.S.  Follwoing a brief yet impressive stint at Everton last year and an attention-grabbing performance in South Africa this summer, Manchester City came forward with a very vocal interest.  Aston Villa could also make a push for Donovan if the rumored hiring of U.S. National Team coach Bob Bradley goes through.

What games should I catch this weekend?

All times Eastern (Fox Soccer Channel)

10:00am – Aston Villa vs. West Ham United

10:00am – Blackburn Rovers vs. Everton (Fox Soccer Plus)

12:30pm – Chelsea (defending Legaue & FA Cup Champions) vs. West Bromwich Albion

2:30pm – Bolton Wanderers vs. Fulham

Sunday, 11:00am – Liverpool vs. Arsenal

Manchester United plays Newcastle on Monday on the Cartel.

DR

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