A guide to Soccer: The Right Premier League team for Philadelphia sports fans
I tend to hate love stories, always full of cliches and impossible coincidences. When I’m on can number five and asking my cat “When will I find love?” it always hits me: I am in love. Whenever we’re together it’s exciting, it’s dynamic and new… and yeah sometimes it can be heartbreaking. My brain starts analyzing every next move so I don’t embarrass myself, and even if I do we just pick right back up next time. It feels like-- how do I describe it?
Do you remember feeling like this the first time you watched Doc Halladay pitch or Desean Jackson catch a bomb? What about sitting through six years of basketball and hockey hell to finally watch it all pay off as Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Claude Giroux take charge of the teams they deserve? That pure ecstasy of watching your team win after sticking with them for so long. It’s such a beautiful feeling to be in love like that, and I think I can offer you a chance to feel that kind of love again.
It’s not a time machine that’ll take you back to when you were 12 and sitting in the stands, but it’s pretty darn close: I’d like to introduce you to my true love, and my True Love’s name is Football. When we’re home, we’ll just call her Soccer.
I know, I know, you’ve glanced over before and you’re not interested. I just think you haven’t gotten to know each other. Let me put it like this: why do you love basketball? Let’s look at the Sixers. You have an absolute maestro at point guard in Simmons, and even though he won’t shoot the dang thing, he can beautifully set up a power move from Embiid or an ice-cold three from Seth Curry. Doc Rivers’ team likes to move the ball around with so many different looks that defenses are helpless, and every guy plays his role.
Also as a Sixers fan, you probably watched some real dumpster-fire basketball and some hope-shattering injuries. That being said, there was a plan (mostly) in place, and we’re all watching it pay off now. You can see something similar (dare I say better) in the English Premier League.
After a whole lot of mediocrity, Liverpool Football Club appointed a new coach in 2015 called Jürgen Klopp, who did his own version of the Process. You can’t really tank in soccer (you’ll never have to suffer like you did with the Sixers) so Klopp sacrificed his team’s ranking in the league for a couple years to focus on smart signings and project players. The result was one of the best teams in the world by 2019, winning European soccer’s Champions’ League and following up by winning the Premier League title and the Club World Cup.
Like the Sixers, Liverpool depends on elite athletes who can adapt to multiple roles yet prefer their specialty. One of the most creative players in the world, Thiago Alcantara, spends his days setting up either Sadio Mane on the left wing, or Mohamed Salah on the right, and they proceed to either take it themselves and score or lay it off to a hungry central player. Just think Simmons with Embiid, Simmons sets up the big man while he creates the scoring.
Meanwhile, defender Virgil Van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson anchor an elite, oftentimes impenetrable defense. Everyone in Philly can appreciate a good swat; a strong block from Virgil ain’t too bad either. Liverpool currently stand tied for 1st place in this season’s intense title race, and since they’re such a big team their games are almost always nationally broadcast on NBC or NBC Sports. All in all, Liverpool is an exciting glimpse into what the Sixers could become for the NBA.
Flyers: Aston Villa
Perhaps you’re a Flyers fan? You might have experienced total, unmitigated trauma in 2010, followed by a few years of “close but no cigar”, all wrapped up with a few more seasons of what I like to call “crap”. Then, weirdly enough, its 2019-2020 and the Flyers look unbeatable, yet promptly lose to the Islanders. Even with that loss, how did they look that good?
Both Ron Hextall and his replacement Chuck Fletcher focused on home-grown talent as general managers. The difference is that Fletcher managed to sign the right veterans and blended them perfectly with a coach who’s been around the block in Alain Vigneault. The on-ice result has been a well-balanced team which can play attacking or play patient, striking at crucial moments. It helps that a strong defense and an excellent young goalie keep the puck from going in the net.
This kind of team makes me think of Aston Villa, currently 8th in the league but only a couple wins away from being 1 point (every win is three points) off of 1st Place. What I like about Villa is, just like the Flyers, they can be gritty yet they know they don’t always need to be; sometimes they just go out and play with an electrified attack. Just like captain Claude Giroux, Villa’s captain Jack Grealish lives and dies with the club, and they play the game just like each other. Both are generous when setting up their teammates with some beautiful and creative passing, they can rip one top corner whenever they want, and they’re never afraid to get into scrums.
In net, Emi Martinez (an absolute hero) is getting his first taste of being the #1 goalkeeper… and my goodness has he paid off for Villa. Like Carter Hart, Emi has recently gotten his chance to be the first-choice goalkeeper, and both have been magnificent haven’t they? Hart has earned being widely recognized as one of the brightest young stars in the game, while most would similarly call Emi the best goalie in the league (his aggressive sweeping style is like a gladiator fighting for his life), and honestly it’s really hard to not just love the guy. Maybe I’m biased: Emi led my team to a English League Cup (FA Cup) victory last year.
Ah my team, let me tell you about my team…where the hell do I begin with the team that I both love and hate. (If this doesn’t already scream “Eagles Fan” then I’m not sure what will.) If you have the guts to root for the Eagles, then you’re ready to be an Arsenal fan.
Governed by a shambolic front office (like the Eagles), Arsenal is known for its demanding fans (like the Eagles), legendary single-season accomplishments (like the 2017 Eagles), elite players which have come and gone (like the Eagles), and somehow an inexorable ability to come up short when we all expect better (holy mackerel they’re the same team as the Eagles).
There’s more to this story, though. Eagles fans love their veteran heroes to a fault, and when they get replaced by a rookie who is somehow always a draft miss, we hate ourselves and our team just a little bit more. At Arsenal, you get the best of both worlds. We love our veterans like captain Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, goalkeeper Bernd Leno, and World Cup winner Mesut Özil, but the club has done a much better job of bringing in future replacements who can learn from them. The attack alongside Aubameyang is led by Gabriel Martinelli (19 years old), Bukayo Saka (19), and Özil’s successor Emile Smith-Rowe (20).
In spite of some truly horrendous signings by Arsenal, these guys have brought the attack to another level, the likes of which we haven’t seen in years. But this is Philly; a good defense is non-negotiable. Say no more: In front of Leno stand two under-the-radar signings in Gabriel Magalhães and Pablo Mari who have contributed to a rock solid defense as of late. Meanwhile, Kieran Tierney is the star of the defense and one of the best defenders in the league, reminiscent of Fletcher Cox’s dominance on the defensive line.
With a dynamic new coach in Mikel Arteta, Arsenal look like they can actually come back from a *really* bad start to the season as the boys are only 10 points off 1st place. I’m ready to be hurt, of course, and I have had some Sundays obliterated by Arsenal and Eagles losses within the span of an afternoon, but if the North London club can keep this up, then they’re everything that Eagles fans want in a team…besides the front office, but we’re used to that.
Phillies: Chelsea and Manchester United
Last but not least, we have the perennially frustrating Phillies. Honestly, I don’t even want to think about the Phillies right now, but I’m sure they’ll rope me in again somehow. During our hot streaks, the Phils look unbeatable, and that success comes almost exclusively at the hands of our big-money players: Bryce Harper ($330 million contract), Aaron Nola ($45 million), Zack Wheeler ($118 million), and JT Realmuto (I don’t want to talk about it). Phillies fans like seeing the team splash the cash, and even though we berate other teams for doing it, there is an undeniable positive effect on the field.
There are two big English teams that come to mind, and even though I despise both of them, there’s not much arguing against the fact that their spending has certainly gotten them some results. West London club Chelsea (9th place) and Manchester United from… well… Manchester (T-1st place) are right in the middle of the title race.
United are powered by a midfield battery of World Cup winner Paul Pogba and the king of drawing cheap fouls, Bruno Fernandes. Chelsea meanwhile have been relying on their pair of brand new signings from Germany, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, alongside Captain America himself Christian Pulisic. Pulisic is great: he’s exciting on the ball and can really do it all with his speed, strength and skill. When the attacking trio is firing on all cylinders, Chelsea look fantastic.
They just need consistency, a lesson we Phillies fans know all too well. Phillies fans also appreciate a workhorse pitcher, especially when he can mix power and movement like Nola and Wheeler. The great thing about soccer is that bullpens don’t exist, which should win over anyone who watched a game last season, but that creativity and decision-making from the starters is still on display for all.
Someone like Marcus Rashford from Man United can easily curl a shot into the top corner or blast one right by the keeper. He also has the ability to play games with the defenders, dancing circles around them before playing it to a goal-scoring teammate or dinking it in himself. And off the field, Rashford is honestly one of the nicest humans in the world of sport, and you should check out what he’s doing here.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely hate both of these teams, but they’re everything that Phillies fans ask for: teams with owners that are willing to back them with money and who refuse mediocrity. They put out an entertaining show on the field and they play the sport well; I would kill for the Phillies to do that.
In the end, you don’t have to pick any of these teams to start following. I’ve only mentioned five of twenty English Premier League teams, not to mention the leagues in Germany, Italy, Spain and France. The Union play in Chester and they were incredible this year in the MLS, and even though our two young stars Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie went over to Europe, go give them a shot.
There’s untapped love for a new sport, and I know so many Philadelphians would embrace it if they just gave it a chance. When I was 19 years old I got to see my favorite player Olivier Giroud attempt—not even score, but attempt—a bicycle kick in Emirates Stadium in North London, and it took me back all those years to when I first saw guys like Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu light up Citizens Bank Park. I fell in love again, and in times as bleak as these, I hope you can feel that too.