The Disappointment Zone

Musings from a Cleveland sports fan

Archive for August 25th, 2006

A guide to the English Premier League

Posted by disappointmentzone on 25 August 2006

Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner is very close to taking over Aston Villa after two key shareholders, Villa chairman Doug Ellis and Jack Petchey, sold their share to the billionaire. Lerner now owns 59.96% of the club. He needs 75% to assume full control of the organization, and if he reaches a 90% ownership he can legally buy out the remaining 10%. There was a rival group interested in buying the club as well, but Lerner has squashed them in true American businessman form.

Aston Villa plays in the English Premier League, one of the richest and most storied sports leagues in the world. You can follow the happenings on the EPL on Fox Sports (or, better yet, Fox Soccer Channel) and occasionally you’ll find an EPL team playing in a Champions League match on ESPN and ESPN2.

The EPL is unlike any of the major sports leagues in the US (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS) and accordingly requires a bit of a primer for the uninitiated. But don’t fret–the league structure is simple and you may have even heard of a few of the top clubs. The Disappointment Zone will be tracking Aston Villa throughout the EPL season, but not without the help of my good friend at the Soccer Spot, who has graciously penned a quick guide to the EPL and will be providing semi-regular updates throughout the season. His words below.

A Quick Guide to the English Premier League (EPL)

The English Premier League is England’s highest soccer league, of which there are 5 professional leagues. All the leagues are part of the Football Association, better known as the FA, which is the governing body of football (soccer) in England. You can think of the EPL as the Major League of English Soccer, while the lesser leagues are kind of like AAA, AA, A baseball, only that most of the teams are autonomous. You can learn more about the internal structure of the FA HERE and the FA’s official site. A straight up Premier League breakdown is available HERE. The structure is fairly like other European club systems in that the three clubs who finish last (fewest points) in the EPL descend to the Championship League and the top three Championship League clubs replace those cellar dwellers for the next season. To keep the baseball analogy running, if baseball in the US worked like professional soccer in the UK, the Royals, Devil Rays, and Pirates would all be demoted to AAA while the best three AAA teams would be promoted to the Major Leagues. Only the three AAA teams to be promoted would not be farm systems but autonomous teams.

The clubs are ranked as an entire group; there are no divisions in the EPL. The point system used to determine who goes up or down in the standings is pretty simple: each win is worth 3 points, a tie is worth 1, and a loss is worth none because you suck. Each team plays every other team in the league twice during the full season, which generally runs from late August to early May. That’s 38 games, folks, in case you’re starting a tally.

A note about European competition and money:

The prize of prizes in English soccer is, obviously, the EPL trophy, but an international sought-after trophy closely follows the EPL title: the Champions League trophy. The Champions League pits the best teams from all the UEFA member countries against one another in a tournament spanning the length of the regular season (August – May) and at each step provides a cash incentive to clubs for advancing farther in the tournament. This makes it an extremely intense competition and the goal of every club in Europe. In order to qualify for the UEFA Champions League from the EPL a club must finish in the top four of the EPL the season year. The FA Cup and the Carling Cup are other, purely-British competitions pitting all the FA leagues against each other in a tournament. The FA Cup is the more important of the two.

In the end, England has several perennial Champions League representatives who therefore receive the bulk of the earnings in the league. There is no salary cap (see: Chelsea, the Yankees of European club soccer). This creates a disparity between “large” and “small” clubs – a fact that is true about every soccer league in existence with the possible exception of the MLS, but especially in Europe’s top leagues (Spain, Italy, England, Germany, France, and Holland – here they are ranked in order of their caliber, with all other European leagues falling somewhere below them). However, there are other opportunities for European glory and money for British clubs. The UEFA Cup, a sort of “runner’s up” behind the Champions League, is a competition for those who come in 5th through 8th in England and the UEFA Intertoto Cup is for those who come in 9th. So, in reality, almost half of the teams in the EPL take part in European competition every year.

A basic breakdown of the top clubs in the EPL is perhaps in order. This is not meant to be a guide to the upcoming season so much as merely a starter lesson for those who don’t understand the EPL system or its teams.

1. Chelsea is based in London and has become one of the dominate forces in England–as well as Europe–over the last few years. The reason behind this is Russian oil tycoon (and therefore billionaire) Roman Abramovich, who bought the club in June 2003 for 60 million GBP (~$120million). This turned out to be a tiny amount of cash to Abramovich, who has subsequently poured some 400 million GBP (lots of $$$) into buying a ridiculous number of extremely talented players from around the world. He was able to do this because of the soccer transfer/trade system which, if it unfamiliar to you, can be best explained here. It’s kinda like free agency in US sports, except all players are always free agents in that any player can be traded during specified transfer windows. If a player transfers teams a large sum of money is paid to the team the player leaves as well as the player. Basically, all of this Russian oil money (and there is wide speculation that it is not exactly legitimate since Abramovich can’t return to Russia for fear of indictment and imprisonment; think of George Steinbrenner as an Italian mobster) has bought Chelsea a fantastic squad and a genius coach, as well as the last two EPL titles. So far they have fallen short of a Champions League trophy, reaching the semifinals two years ago. It is my opinion that Chelsea is the Devil. They are ruining a beautiful sport by buying everyone in sight and making the EPL a one trick pony. If there’s any way back from this, I’d love it to happen. Especially if a smaller club could take the title away from the Blues. Chelsea’s men to watch are: Andriy Shevchenko, Frank Lampard, and John Terry. The coach is Jose Mourinho (Portugal).

2. Manchester United is Manchester’s biggest club and is currently the biggest threat to Chelsea’s dominance. Before Chelsea came around, the EPL was basically comprised of Man U, Arsenal, and everyone else who lost to them, which isn’t exactly a fun league to watch, but certainly better than the current format of “Let’s come in second to Chelsea.” The Red Devils, as they’re known, were one of the few publicly owned teams (a la the Green Bay Packers) until Malcolm Glazer (the guy who owns the Tampa Bay Bucs) became majority shareholder and now is changing a few things around (though basically leaving things as they are). Man U is always to be feared, but more so in England than in European competition where their tactics aren’t as successful. Man U’s men to watch are: Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Rio Ferdinand. The coach is Sir Alex Ferguson (Scotland).

3. Arsenal is arguably London’s biggest club, though with Chelsea flying so high, it’s hard to say. The Gunners won the EPL in 2003/04 and play a free-flowing game rarely seen in England. Their coach is French and most of their players are European imports and they like to open up the field to provide their strikers were more one-on-ones rather than over-the-top passes like most English clubs. It is the look that Chelsea is beginning to adopt more and more, itself having more and more foreign players (though Lampard and Terry are both English players). Their fourth-place league finish last year was the worst in several seasons, but they ended up coming in second to FC Barcelona in the Champions League. Arsenal’s men to watch are: Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas, and Emmanuel Eboue. The coach is Arsene Wenger (France).

4. Liverpool is considered by many as having a legit shot at taking the EPL title this year, but that is probably a pipe dream rather than a serious prognostication. While the Reds are strong in almost every position, especially in the midfield, they lack a general cohesion that comes from playing together for several years and without the superstar power of Chelsea, will probably wind up third or fourth at the end of the year. What is being called the “Spanish Armada” has consisted of an influx of several Spanish players thanks to Liverpool’s Spanish coach. While the core of the team remains British, the tactics have slowly begun to open and the team is making tentative strides towards consistency. Liverpool hasn’t ever won the EPL (the EPL was created in 1994), but before that, Liverpool capture 18 league titles, the last of which was in 1990. It has been all gloom and doom since then, though Liverpool won the 2004/05 Champions League crown. Liverpool’s men to watch are: Craig Bellamy, Steven Gerrard, and Jamie Carragher. The coach is Rafael Benitez (Spain).

Below these clubs is everyone else, including Aston Villa. It is highly doubtful that anyone but these four will earn a Champions League spot next year, but in Tottenham’s last-second choke-job last year, a glimmer of hope appeared, though only because Arsenal faltered heavily throughout the year and only just came in fourth. All four of the above teams have qualified for this year’s Champions League. Manchester United currently sits atop the EPL with 6 points from 2 games, the only team with 2 wins. The most notable teams beyond the Big Four are Newcastle United and Tottenham. The three new teams to the EPL this year are Sheffield United, Reading (pronounced Redding), and Watford. Despite first day heroics, all three will probably descend back into the Championship next season.

It is interesting to note that of the coaches listed above, none are actually from England, but Gerrard, Carragher, Ferdinand, Rooney, Lampard, and Terry are all members of the England international squad, which would be frightfully good if they ever got a good coach – and new boss Steve McClaren looks like he might just be the man to solidify the team and bring home some bacon for the first time since 1966).

An in-depth look at Aston Villa will be coming shortly.

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Posted in Aston Villa/English Premier League, Cleveland Sports | 13 Comments »

8 is great

Posted by disappointmentzone on 25 August 2006

The Browns traded a 2007 seventh round draft pick yesterday to the Chicago Bears for eight-year veteran Lennie Friedman. Friedman is the eighth center to be on the Browns’ roster this preseason and, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, is expected to compete for the starting center job and could earn it by the opening game. I don’t know if this is a good sign or a bad sign. Friedman is the most experienced center on the team (who isn’t injured), having started 10 games at center in his career. This is most-definitely a bad sign. Ross Tucker, the current starting center, who was acquired from New England in a trade on August 8th, has four career starts at center. This is another bad sign. Tucker went undrafted out of Princeton in 2001 and has 24 career starts on the offensive line. Friedman graduated from Duke and has 35 career starts. When coupled with Tucker, Friedman should push the Browns over the edge and onto the short list of the smartest O-lines in professional football history. This is a good sign. But Friedman graduate from Duke. This is a bad sign. Duke is kind of like the Oberlin College of Division 1A football–good in the early 20th century; something less than good since. On ESPN.com’s list of worst football teams of all time, Oberlin is ranked 7th, Duke is ranked 8th. Here are two highlights from the readers’ responses to the list.

Oberlin, who’s first football coach was Heisman himself. Oberlin, who in their first season ever, went 7-0 and outscored opponents 262-30. Oberlin, the last Ohio team to ever beat Ohio State. Yes, for Oberlin to have fallen to the depth at which they are now truly makes them the worst team ever.
Matthew Stoecker
Bellevue, Wash.

I personally saw [Duke] get dismantled at College Park last year. Maryland was up 7-0 before we were done tailgaiting, and midway through the third quarter, the fans had already lost interest in the action on the field and just started doing the Tomahawk Chop (the Terps were playing FSU the next week). Bad.
Kevin Griener
Pasadena, Md.

In all fairness, Oberlin College football is on a slow rise to mediocre, a huge leap up from the worst football team of all time. Dukestill sucks. But that’s no reason to think that Friedman will suck. His sub-average eight-year career is enough to make one think he’ll suck at center all on his own.

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Wednesday’s comeback, in graph form

Posted by disappointmentzone on 25 August 2006

This is what a 9-run comeback looks like in graph form. The early dip was Hafner’s homer in the first. The other big moments are highlighted with red dots and text. When Shin-Soo Choo hit his game-tying triple in the top of the ninth the probability of the Royals winning, according to the graph, was above 50%. Statistically this was probably true. After all, the Royals only needed to score one run in the bottom of the ninth to win the game. But still, there was absolutely no way the Royals were winning that game after the Indians made such a huge comeback. Whatever morale remained with the Royals after they blew a nine-run lead by allowing the go-ahead run to come to the plate in the sixth inning quickly left the building, along with the hapless Royals faithful, after Choo rocketed a pitch down the right field line. The only way the Royals were going to win that game would have been if the Indians absolutely botched it.

Come to think of it, that 50% sounds about right.

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