Do you know what tomorrow is? OK, you don't. But I will tell you. Like literally dozens of other Americans, I will be waking up at 5:30 tomorrow morning to watch the kickoff between Everton and Manchester United beginning another season of Barclays English Premier League Football. I love soccer, it's easily my second favorite sport after baseball. The Premier League is the best soccer in the world, even if it does have its own unique problems -- huge financial disparity between the big teams and the little teams, domination in the standings by a handful of dynastic clubs, regular displays of immense stupidity on the part of its fans. Well, OK, not such unique problems. Also, steroids are not an issue in English football. (Knock on wood.)
While it is true that one of the same three teams wins the league almost every year, the Premiership is structured very differently than American sports, in such a way that there are meaningful storylines for all of the twenty competing teams. There are no playoffs. The team with the best regular season record wins the title. However, a team's finish has tremendous financial bearing on its future. The top four teams in the league qualify for the European Champions' League, which is not only prestigious but guarantees several home dates with Europe's biggest-drawing teams. The fifth through seventh finishers get into the second-tier UEFA Cup tourney. Then there's the real kicker, relegation. If you finish eighteenth, nineteenth, or last, you're out of the league. The first- and second-place finishers plus the winner of a two-round playoff between the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth teams from England's second league, the Coca-Cola Championship, come up to take the places of the last season's relegated teams.
Last year Crystal Palace, Norwich City, and Southampton failed to make the cut. Sunderland, West Ham, and Wigan Athletic take their places for 2005-06. It's usually a real challenge for a team just promoted to avoid going right back down. Players don't want to sign with a team not long for the big leagues. Survive a year, though, and you've got some money to start working your way up the table.
Last year Chelsea, one of six London-based Premiership sides, won their first English title in fifty years with a league record 95 points (wins are worth three points and ties one). It's hard to imagine them waiting fifty years before winning again. More than likely, they'll be repeat champs, with Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele returning and Shaun Wright-Phillips coming on board from Manchester City. They hope Hernan Crespo will score them more goals from the striker position this year, but with Lampard at midfield, who needs goals from strikers?
Arsenal will miss Patrick Vieira but still have goal machine Thierry Henry and a great manager in Arsene Wenger. They're not as loaded as their London rivals Chelsea but will probably win one of the in-season cup tournaments as they often do, raising the FA Cup last season. They need a good year from Jose Reyes, Henry's partner at striker.
Liverpool was buried by injuries in the Premiership last year but rallied to win the Champions' League with a three-goal comeback against AC Milan. It's hard to imagine manager Rafa Benitez not building on that win, already being called one of the greatest games in the history of club football. Full seasons from midfielder Xabi Alonso and striker Djibril Cisse alone would seem to suggest a better finish than last year's fifth, but the Reds have also brought Peter Crouch on board from Southampton and have signed Jose Reina to clear up an uncertain situation in goal. Milan Baros is on his way out but with a better keeper behind an already-stout defense, Liverpool should be able to qualify for another year of the Champions' League in less dramatic fashion.
Manchester United get more like the Yankees every year. They have an aged and pricey core, a fanbase that expects nothing less than a title and a clutch of cups every year, and now even an eccentric American owner. Roy Keane is getting up there in years, Ruud van Nistelrooy isn't as explosive as he once was, and signing 34-year-old goalie Edwin van der Sar isn't quite as desperate an acquisition as the Randy Johnson trade, but it's close. The Red Devils won't fall as hard as the Yankees, though, because in Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo they have A-Rod times two. The uproar over Malcolm Glazer's takeover of the team will get very ugly if they get off to a slow start.
Middlesbrough had a good finish (7th) last season despite weathering some injuries and should keep rising this season. Pairing Yukubu with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink gives them the best front two this side of Arsenal, and some magnificently silly names to boot. Bolton should be joining them in Europe with Sam Allardyce's keen eye for far-flung talent and Jay-Jay Okocha's leadership. The battle for the final UEFA Cup spot will be fierce but I think Tottenham Hotspur, who overcame some ridiculous off-field distractions last year to finish eighth, has the goods. In Edgar Davids they've added the biggest star among the mid-table teams and Jermain Defoe returns. Manchester City seem a good bet to finish just a place out of Europe again. They do have a good shot at beating United in one of their derby games this year, however. Goals scored/goals allowed isn't as perfect a predictor of won-loss record as baseball's RS/RA, but Everton seems awfully lucky to have finished fourth last year despite giving up one more than they themselves scored. Back to the middle climes for the Toffees, I think.
Hanging around just out of the money you have Aston Villa, who already have Juan Pablo Angel and are looking to add Milan Baros. That'll give them some great scoring but what they really need to worry about is keeping some balls out of their own net. Newcastle United would dearly love to give grand old man Alan Shearer a proper sendoff, but haven't assembled much around him to carry it off. Blackburn Rovers took Newcastle's problem child Craig Bellamy off of their hands but otherwise return the same team that finished 15th last year. You have to like a club that takes its defense seriously, though (7th in goals allowed last year, behind only Tottenham, Man City, and the four big boys). Charlton Athletic finished just a point away from the top half last year despite an ugly -16 goal differential; they're a good bet to underperform this year. They've been very busy on the transfer market (Alexei Smertin, Darren Bent, Darren Ambrose) but haven't done much to bolster their defense.
Birmingham City seems around to stay in the Premiership, but they're a bit thin to be thinking about Europe quite yet. Portsmouth has played just well enough to attract the attention of richer teams to their best players, as Boro poached Yakubu this offseason. Collins Mbesuma could be a bold choice to replace him. Fulham looked average indeed during a trip to the United States this offseason, losing handily to an MLS all-star team. Collins John seems poised for a breakout year. American Brian McBride has yet to make a big impact in Europe but will get his chances. West Ham barely managed promotion last season by finishing sixth in the Championship and winning the playoff, but they seem best-suited among the the three new teams to hang on for more than a year, thanks to one very old star (Teddy Sheringham) and one very young one (Mark Noble).
As for Sunderland and Wigan Athletic -- well, as the term "yo-yo" implies, they may well be right back for another crack at it year after next. West Bromwich Albion finished 17th only after a remarkable set of circumstances on the final day last season; the Baggies won't be so lucky again.