I’m not sure the new EPL season could have had a better opening weekend, primarily because Manchester United lost, at home, to Swansea City. If Man U keeps up this utter mediocrity, which began last season, I might eventually have to stop disliking them so much. It’s interesting to me how much disproportionate post-match hand wringing has occurred about the sky falling at Manchester United. It is only the first game of the season, and like the best action-movie villains, you predict Man U’s demise at your own peril. They will live to attack another day.
While I greet each opening weekend of the EPL season with as much enthusiasm as the next fan, it’s always a little disappointing starting every season knowing that only five or six teams have much of a chance of winning the league (with the exception of Chelsea of course – I always want them to win it). What I mean is, aside from the fun of occasional upsets, three-quarters of the league’s teams have very little chance of actually winning the title. I wish the EPL had a bit more parity. I’ve read the anti-parity arguments, that every league needs its super clubs (Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski make a good case for this in one of my favorite soccer books Soccernomics), but I just think it would be more fun if an Aston Villa or Stoke City had a realistic chance of challenging for the title. At least the EPL has a handful of teams that could win the title – the parity (at least as far as how many teams could actually win the league) seems much worst in La Liga and the Bundesliga.
Meanwhile, over in the ol’ MLS, FC Dallas is turning into quite the story this season. Despite a ton of injuries to key players throughout the year, they keep on keeping on. They’re building a lot of confidence at a key point in the season and might just end up winning the Western Conference. I was skeptical about rookie Tesho Akindele during his first few appearances this season, but he has steadily improved and now looks like a future franchise DP and permanent starting striker (especially after his hat trick at San Jose last Saturday). FCD’s other current standout star is Fabian Castillo who is probably the league’s fastest player in the final third with the ball at his feet. I wrote about Castillo in my book, mostly marveling about his speed with the ball, coupled with his very poor finishing and passing ability in the final third last season. This season he has finally matured and is living up to his potential. His decision-making in the box is significantly better.
Real Salt Lake is my least favorite team in MLS. Their “Goal Gong” at Rio Tinto Stadium makes me dislike them even more. I don’t have a rational reason per se, the “Goal Gong” just strikes me (pun intended) as cartoonish-ly goofy and all wrong for soccer. Because of my disdain for RSL, I reveled in being at Toyota Stadium Friday night to see FC Dallas defeat them 2-1 (Castillo scored his 9th goal of the season, a career high). FC Dallas won playing with 10 men in the second half no less, after Blas Perez received a second yellow card just before halftime. Perez frequently brings these punishments on himself with diving, embellishing, and generally running his mouth, but in this case he was innocent of both cards. It was a ridiculous decision by the referee. But, beating RSL with 10 men just made victory all the sweeter. Remarkably, Dallas is now in a three-way tie for first in the Western Conference with RSL and Seattle.
In other favorite team news, Chelsea looked comfortably dominant in their season opener at Burnley. As with the Manchester United hand wringing, the media overhyped Chelsea’s win a bit – this was just newly promoted Burnley after all. But, Chelsea looked very good. Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas made more of an immediate impact than I anticipated. Costa scored a goal that strikers should score, but frankly, it was the kind of goal poor Fernando Torres has missed buckets of the past few seasons, so it was great to see Costa smash the ball in with such authority. That Fabregas pass to Schurrle for the second goal was jaw dropping. I also got a thrill out of seeing Didier Drogba jog onto the field for a few minutes at the end. It’s going to be fun having him around this season.
The only mixed feelings issue I had with Chelsea’s opener was seeing Thibaut Courtois replace Petr Cech. I understand progress and I’m not surprised that Courtois got the starting nod. And a big part of me wants to transition to Courtois because he’s so awesome. But I mean, Petr Cech. And Petr Cech’s helmet. And it almost doesn’t seem like a legit Chelsea match without the helmeted Cech tending goal. If this transition to Courtois is permanent, I think it would be easier to swallow if we had a proper changing of the guard ceremony. Maybe Cech could remove his gloves and hand them to Courtois. And then Cech could remove his Cech helmet, place it on Courtois’ head, and fasten the chinstrap. Sorry Courtois, but if Cech has to go, the helmet has to stay. From this point forward Chelsea keepers should have to wear the Cech helmet.
In other soccer world news, Luis Suarez’s appeal of his post-bite suspension partially worked. He’s now allowed to train with Barcelona and even featured in a friendly last week. I already thought he was getting off easy with the length of his “ban”. Now it’s barely a ban at all – it’s a paid vacation. He gets to train and play in meaningless friendlies without the pressure of performing in legit matches. Ridiculous.
In other wacky-player news, Mario Balotelli is apparently now a Liverpool player. Not sure what Brendan Rodgers was thinking. It’s hard to see much upside in that acquisition. I certainly wouldn’t want to take a risk on Balotelli. At least he probably won’t end up at Chelsea now. Speaking of Liverpool, Fox Sports must give us a where-are-they-now-type Being Liverpool special so we can see what football poet Dave Kirby’s been up to. Plus, I’d still like to know who was in the three envelopes!
Then there’s the business of Tim Howard announcing he’s going to step away from the U.S. national team for a year to spend more time with his family. I say more power to him. It shows he has his priorities straight. Plus, it’ll probably just make him all the hungrier to return and make a big impact when his sabbatical is over. In the year leading up to World Cup 2014 I was ready to see Brad Guzan take over for Howard. I thought Howard’s best goalkeeping was behind him. Then he goes and has an amazing World Cup. Howard’s not done yet. I hope he enjoys the break and then returns to his Matrix-like shot-stopping ways for Team USA.
The Columbus Crew announced this week they’re unveiling “new branding” in October. The only surprise here is what took them so incredibly long? That Crew crest has befuddled me since the league kicked off in ’96. The new crest could be a plain white circle with “Crew” written on it in Sharpie and it would be a vast improvement over The Village People that populate the current version.
Speaking of new stuff in MLS, the latest expansion franchise in Atlanta announced they’ve already sold over 14,000 season ticket deposits and the team doesn’t even kick off until 2017. Very impressive. Good job Georgians! Now let’s just hope the club doesn’t get named Peach Fury or anything like that. Or have any Village People in the crest.
While I’m all about healthy, responsible MLS expansion in cities where there is demand, MLSSoccer.com ran an article this week about Austin, Texas making overtures about landing an MLS franchise. Though I live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and would enjoy seeing another intra-state MLS rival for FC Dallas, I don’t think an Austin franchise is a good idea. Dallas and the Houston Dynamo should be league powerhouses in attendance and support, but they are not. Despite enormous soccer communities in the big Texas cities, we still don’t support the MLS teams we have well enough. I say give the next franchise to a city with Seattle/Portland-type demand. That means Miami should also be scratched off the list. Sorry, Miami.
Lastly on the MLS front, this Jermaine Jones saga is weird. No one understands MLS’ “allocation” process, except MLS and maybe Alexi Lalas, but seriously, why can’t the league just sign Jones already? The World Cup is long over and he could’ve been playing for an MLS team all this time. Who is dragging their feet in this deal? If Jones wants to keep playing pro soccer anywhere, why would he allow such a long delay? If MLS isn’t going to work out, he’s already missed the beginning of the Euro league seasons. Strange stuff.
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