Ryan O’Hanlon and Kevin Lincoln know that soccer is on the rise in America, but they’re still trying to figure out why we’re obsessed with the English Premier League.
Ryan O’Hanlon: Hank Williams, Junior once said, “Are you ready for some football?” Well, are you?
Kevin Lincoln: I think he was talking about “American” football, though. I’m definitely ready for that. But the NFL isn’t what you’re talking about here, is it?
Ryan: As interesting as Pete Carroll letting his Twitter followers call his plays sounds, no, I’m not. I’m talking about the EPL, the self-proclaimed greatest football league in the world.
Kevin: The Muhammad Ali of football, if you will. Well, I’m ready for that also, but in a much different way. Since the heyday of my premier-league discipleship about three years ago, which included a half-assed attempt at Liverpool fandom (sorry!), my following club soccer has been a sad casualty of there only being 24 hours in a day. Oh, and those 24 hours of mine not being on Greenwich Mean Time.
Ryan: Yes, I will. But things have definitely changed over the last three years. Each year, it gets easier and easier to follow non-MLS soccer. It takes less effort, and you can kind of just let it happen. I won’t say soccer is growing in the US, but there is definitely some measurable growth in the interest of non-American soccer in America.
Kevin: I agree. And I think this shows, because I still know more about international soccer than I do about than the MLB. That being said, I love soccer, and I love the USMNT, so I’m certainly open to it. But definitely expand on this idea.
Ryan: It’s a number of things: an increasing (gasp!) Latino population, the USMNT not sucking, HDTV, the Internet. But more people watch soccer and more people know things about it. Maybe not many things, but still some things. And the EPL, with it’s English-ness, is the highest quality, least foreign-seeming league there is. Math says this equals a rise in popularity of the EPL.
Kevin: And math is never wrong. Here’s a question for you: what’s more popular in America these days, the EPL or the NHL? I’d say the EPL, Boston’s recent triumph notwithstanding.
Ryan: I think it’s pretty similar, but the EPL seems to be popular all-year round, while no one watches the NHL until the playoffs. Again, maths.
Kevin: I think maths are what the English call mathematics, so good use of the jargon here. Aside from 1) quality, which, after all, any pro league can lay claim to, and 2) technological ubiquity afforded by the interwebz, what do you think it is about English soccer–or, rather, football–that’s catching on with American sports fans?
Ryan: I tend to be a dialect expert, but thanks! Again, there’s no one answer, but if I just said “soccer is awesome,” I think I’d be pretty close to the truth. Also: scarves. That’s something I’ve noticed. People are starting to like scarves. I’m not sure if it’s one of those chicken-egg things, but yeah.
Kevin: I have a couple of those scarves, for decorative purposes. To change the question a bit: why the EPL, other than the whole English-English thing? Why not the gorgeous Primera Liga, or the theatrical Italians, or the ruthlessly efficient Bundesliga?
Ryan: The English league isn’t THE BEST league. It’s not the highest skill level. It’s doesn’t have the most parity. But it tends to be the most physical and fastest-paced. Cliche alert! But look at other American sports and those PHYSICAL things seem to be the things we’re most interested in, no? Powerful athletes! How else did Kwame Brown and JaMarcus Russell become number-one picks?
Kevin: Absolutely. And I’ve heard the legend of English physicality trumpeted before. Americans like our athletes, and athletics, physical, and what is Wayne Rooney if not a sort of bald, bulldogish tailback?
Ryan: He’s also a pacifist. His message to the London rioters: “This is embarrassing for our country. Stop please.”
Kevin: Hopefully everyone can appreciate that. The London riots are actually threatening to affect the league’s start, aren’t they?
Ryan: One game, Tottenham-Everton, was cancelled, but every other game will be played. Sport will re-unite the country!
Ryan: I’ll explain how English soccer works, instead: At the beginning of each season, everyone talks about how this is going to be the year that a team not named Chelsea or Manchester United will win the title. Then, at the end of the year, Chelsea or Manchester United always wins the title. Manchester United will win the title this season, and the cycle will repeat itself next year. But you guys should still definitely watch!
Kevin: That has always frustrated me, as a potential fan. I’ve been spoiled by the NFL’s parity, and the NBA’s illusion of parity, which comes from more than half of teams making the playoffs. (I’ll argue with anyone that, for the NBA, this is a good thing.) But the EPL doesn’t even try. Even pulling for Arsenal or Liverpool, you might as well be cheering on the Milwaukee Brewers.
Ryan: Yeah, the league was always dominated by four teams, until the last two seasons, with Tottenham wheeling-and-dealing and Man City’s oily oil money breaking into that group. So, theoretically, you’d think there’d be more parity, but if anything, it’s becoming more fractured. Manchester United is at the top, and so are Chelsea and Manchester City, with their oligarch and their sheikh money, respectively. Then there’s Liverpool, Arsenal, and Tottenham fighting for 4-6. And then everyone else. Despite that, we all still watch.
Kevin: Sheikh Money is probably the name of Jay-Z and Kanye’s next album. Anyway, that makes sense: with four challengers to the throne instead of two, the key assets for a successful upset bid are spread about, while Man U and Chelsea stay just as strong. It’s almost like people are going to see a movie, the ending of which they already know.
Ryan: Yeah, it’s like one of those Goosebumps books with the different paths you can take, except every ending is the same. And you’ve already read through every possibility. Part of that is how the winners are crowned, too. In American sports, I think, if we didn’t have playoffs and just gave the title to the team with the best overall record, we’d probably have a similar outcomes. It’s fair, which can’t be said about many other sports-y things.
Kevin: It’s true. Fairness is, in reality, often detrimental to good theater. If anyone’s going to give Man Chelsea a tough time of it this year, who will it be?
Ryan: If you added up the talent of every player on each team, Man City would have the highest rating, but that doesn’t always matter, especially since only 11 people play at a time. They just added Sergio Aguero, the post-Messi next-Maradona, who’s also Maradona’s son-in-law, and who’s also really good at soccer. No one’s talking about Chelsea—well I’m sure some people are, I’m doing it right now! They’re old, but they have ridiculous talent still, and they just hired a 33-year-old manager. He’s a less-dorky, much better-looking, European version of Brad Stevens. Then again, Brad Stevens is really good at coming in second. Zing.
Kevin: To Duke! Heyyyyyyy. Sidenote: I was a huge Duke soccer acolyte my freshman year. Able, exciting team made up of Mike Grella, who plays for Leeds United now, Michael Videira, who plays for the Chicago Fire, and this 6’7″ Peter Crouch-esque guy named Paul Dudley, I think. NCAA soccer is unfortunately ignored. But I’m getting off track. So, Man City has accumulated firepower, but still hasn’t lassoed the big steer. Let’s call them the Philadelphia Eagles, just for fun. Who are the individual players poised to dominate, aside from Aguero?
Ryan: /takes a minute to reminisce about his NCAA soccer days
/decides to write through the tears
Kevin: /brief applause
Ryan: /bows. Chelsea has three of the highest-profile, biggest-baggage strikers on the planet: Fernando Torres (general suckiness and injuries), Didier Drogba (unfortunate hair and age), and Nicolas Anelka (lack of ability to experience or relate to human feeling and emotions), but I think their young striker Danny Sturridge, back from loan with Bolton, is gonna have a huge year. Luis Suarez came to Liverpool in January and ruined more than one defense. He continued this into the summer at the Copa America. And—for the sake of my own personal sanity—he should pick up where he left off and score goals for fun. Because sports are fun, remember? One more guy is Luka Modric, the Gollum-looking, tiny center midfielder for Tottenham. He plays a position with guys much taller and stronger than he is, but he plays better than all of them. Chelsea and Man U could both buy him by the end of the month. But he’s definitely the best ambiguously-moral-LOTR-character lookalike in the world.
Kevin: A crowded field, for sure. You seem to have a soft spot for undersized center-midfielders.
Ryan: Are you implying something? I can’t tell, it’s the Internet.
Kevin: I’ve never implied anything before in my life, and I’m sure as hell not going to start now. Being an undersized individual myself, I’ve always had similar soft spots—I mean, my favorite Jets player is Wayne Chrebet, after all. Wayne! But let’s talk a little about the Americans in the EPL, because if there’s anything more exciting than Spaniards and Argentinians with overly elaborate haircuts, it’s Americans trying to do their disrespected nation proud overseas.
Ryan: Why yes! Our goalie, Tim Howard, is still playing for Everton (from the blue, not-as-evolved-as-other-human-beings side of Liverpool) and is one of the better gloved dudes in the league. Clint Dempsey is in a weird spot. He’s the best guy on his team, Fulham, but if he goes to a better team, he probably won’t be a consistent starter. He might leave the unfriendly shores, actually. Oh, and there’s Stuart Holden. He might be the most important American player for the National Team, but he never plays because he’s always hurt. he needs to drink whole milk so his bones stop breaking.
Kevin: Whole milk does the body good. So we’ve got Clint, Tim, and Stuart, who, not coincidentally, are also three of the most important ingredients in any delicious (read: successful) USMNT. That is one fascinating aspect of the multinational leagues spread out across the world: it’s almost like an international version of the hierarchical American sports systems, like baseball and its farm leagues or football/basketball and the NCAA-to-majors tracks.
Ryan: Sort of. It’d be like if the minor league and major league teams hated each other, the minor league teams sometimes refused to let their players go up to the majors, and the minor league teams sued the major league teams if one of their players got hurt. Well, not really, but that’s as close as I’ll get.
Kevin: That would make minor league sports way more interesting.
Ryan: Probably. I went to a Long Island Ducks game once. There was a lot of quacking.