Now, I can still follow the Owls through YouTube highlights and internet radio, but FSC lays out a nice platter of top-level games every week. That leaves me with the dilemma of picking a team to get behind. Of course, I could just watch for pure entertainment, but where's the fun in that? So, in the interest of increasing the entertainment value of the $12 I hand over to DirecTV every month for the privilege of having Fox Soccer Channel, I present Part One of my quest to find a team to follow for this season. Let's get the ball rolling by narrowing the field through the elimination of some unsavory choices.
The Big Four
While Manchester United are usually fun to watch, boasting an array of attacking talent and the mentality to really get after a game, they are Manchester United, and that makes it nearly impossible for me to feel sorry for them when they lose. Winning is an expectation, not a joy, and where's the fun in that? Similarly lacking in fun are Mourinho's Chelsea "winning machine" - engineered for results and not much else. Yawn!
Arsenal claim the opposite end of the spectrum, playing lovely futbol, but often at the expense of results. This should be the ideal team, outsiders for the title, with a lot of young guns, attacking flair, and an easy to watch style of play. There is, however, something I can't quite place my finger on about them. An arrogance? A certain Gallic je ne sais quoi? Regardless, we'll give Arsenal and the final member of our quartet, Liverpool, a pass to the next round. Liverpool also made themselves a bit harder to pull for with the amount of cash they've laid on the table, but I really like Gerrard as a player, and the club's tradition and title-contender dark horse cachet also make them an attractive choice.
Never lacking for atmosphere, the Northeastern sides will add another local derby this year with Sunderland's return, but are any of them contenders for my affections? Newcastle would seem to be a logical choice. Ostensibly a "big club", they've consistently managed to frustrate expectation, but have laid out a bit of cash this year and brought in Big Sam to helm the club. And that's what knocks them out of contention. Big Sam has proven with Bolton that he can make unfashionable sides into success stories. The problem is that he's done it by attending the Mourinho school of robotic, results-oriented futbol, and that makes them an unpalatable choice.
Similarly distasteful are Middlesbrough, who are struggling to shake the blandness that Steve McClaren saddled them with. That UEFA Cup run of a couple of years ago was barnstorming, exciting stuff, but Boro struggled to recreate that excitement in the Premiership, and the loss of Viduka won't help matters. Sunderland, on the other hand, are a bit of an enigma. Their last foray into the big-time ended in disaster, but they've got cash now, and a manager in Roy Keane that I've long admired as a player. Besides, I really like black cats as well, so we'll give them a pass into the next round.
London and Points South
There's plenty of appeal to go around here. Reading and Fulham boast multiple American players each, while West Ham and Tottenham have the power of tradition and generally attractive futbol to contend with. Toss in Portsmouth's dirty old ground and rabid fans on the south coast and you've got five pretty good options to choose from.
Unfortunately for Reading, though they boast a couple of Americans, one of whom, Bobby Convey, is even a former DC United player, I just don't get a good feeling from them. As mentioned with Boro above, they just seem to be a bit bland and I prefer 12-grain bread to the white stuff, so they're out. Similarly, West Ham suffer a bit in my esteem simply by the fact that Curbishley is in charge. I just don't see them playing enjoyable stuff under his guidance.
So who gets through to the next round? Fulham feature three Americans and have splashed some cash about to put together a competitive side. Spurs are a young, exciting side and Berbatov and Keane are tremendous fun to watch. Finally, Pompey, in addition to having an assortment of interesting players, can trot out that decrepit old dog of a charming stadium and excellent fan support to boot.
If Eddie Johnson had signed for Derby, I might have considered them, but as it is, there just isn't anything there for me to latch onto. Besides a lack of connection, I'm pretty sure that they'll be heading straight back down and deliberately picking a loser is pretty lame. Now, if they've endeared themselves to you in some way and you have a connection to the club, that's another thing, but I'm just not feeling anything for them, so why put myself through the pain? If I had latched onto English futbol when Harkes was playing for them, rather than for Wednesday, it might be a different story.
Birmingham are a bit similar in that I really don't feel any sort of connection to the team. They may have enough about them to stay up this year, but Steve Bruce's sides have never been particularly attractive ones to my eyes. On the other hand, Martin O'Neill has a bit more of a magic touch, and Villa have that sort of ephemeral "we're a big club, but not really" quality that can be so attractive, so we'll give them a ticket to the next round of qualifying.
Bolton - ugh! Wigan - ugh! Those two are right out, but the others are all worth some consideration. Everton feature Timmy Howard in goal and have historically given Americans a chance. While they don't always play the most exciting stuff, they did finally get rid of James Beattie, which has to count for something, right? David Moyes has been bringing in an assortment of talent and this could be a fun team to watch.
Speaking of bringing in talent, Manchester City have been adding it in spades. While the ownership is of questionable quality, the team on the field is improving and Eriksson is a proven quantity at club level. Blackburn, while not a side that plays attractive stuff, do have personal connections in American netminder Friedel and former DC United stalwart Ryan Nelson.
Round One Results
So, with one fell swoop, we've lopped off half of the Premiership, leaving us with ten clubs that move on to Round 2. Tomorrow, we'll try to winnow the field even further. For now, here's a look at the remaining clubs that are vying for my (admittedly tiny and insignificant and probably not undying) support:
Arsenal, Aston Villa, Blackburn, Everton, Fulham, Liverpool, Manchester City, Portsmouth, Sunderland, Tottenham
Anybody who wants to disparage or build up any of those clubs - fire away!