What the fuck ever, it's been a while, but it's the off-season for the only Buffalo sport to hold any interest this year, the Sabres are a tire fire for whom only merit my mention with remarks such as "Oh God thanks to Jesus they're terrible please draft well and fuck off until then," and I've been reluctant to talk about soccer since it is a bore for the #BillsMafia readers who have inexplicably wandered here in search of Buffalove or some such vague feeling of positivity. Not today. Buffalo is rad as hell, but the only local sport of current interest to an expat living in the Garden State is probably Syracuse Men's Basketball but, seriously fuck that and Go Duke. /ducks
Soccer it is, I suppose.
August to May is the time for English soccer, an unappreciated gem in the US, giving Americans sports at dawn to enjoy over coffee and pancakes and whiskey. The sport that gives you a reason to jump start the weekend with consciousness and, if you invest yourself enough in it, an excuse to avoid the inevitable list of chores your sports-agnostic spouse has prepared while somehow simultaneously feeding your baby, calling a plumber, redecorating your living room with inspiration from a few hundred photos she saw on Pinterest before the baby even woke up, and making a second list of all the ways you've failed and continue to fail her, not the least of which is oversharing relatively intimate domestic details on the internet.
Like I always say, soccer is fun!.
So if you haven't, to reiterate the urging of many posts you might see before the start of each EPL season: try it out, find a side that makes watching the sport fun, and make sure it's not Manchester fucking United.
I really don't know how to else to caption this section without sounding like an asshole, but the most compelling story for the whole season has been the parity between teams at the top of the league table and, as it applies to Liverpool, the difficulty of making sure you're not on the outside looking in. Two points now separate 1st place from 3rd, and only another nine points between 3rd and 6th place Tottenham. To put it in perspective, at the same spot in the season last year, after 24 games played by all 20 teams, 1st place Manchester United was thirteen points above 3rd place Chelsea.
Part of this parity comes from what looks to me to be the most bizarre difference between results home and away for Manchester City, a team that has scored a staggering 68 goals in 24 matches. 42 of those goals have been scored in Manchester City's 12 matches at home, resulting in 11 wins and 1 loss. City's inability to replicate that kind of play on the road, particularly early in the season with losses to Sunderland, Cardiff City and Aston Villa, has made the field much more level than it should be at this point. Until their loss to Chelsea yesterday, City seemed utterly untouchable at home, particularly given their wins of 4-0, 4-1, 6-0 and 6-3 against Newcastle, Manchester United, Tottenham and first place Arsenal, respectively. Yet, despite the crazy pants goal differential of +33 at home, they are only +8 on the road, half of which is accounted for with their 4 goal win over Tottenham at White Hart Lane.
Manchester City play like presumptive Champions at the Etihad, but with 7 remaining matches on the road against teams they beat at home, including 4 against top half teams Arsenal (1st), Liverpool (4th), Everton (5th) and Manchester United (7th), City has a lot to prove.
What's left, then, is a Top 5 (or 6 if you want to tip your hat to a Spurs team that could find itself in the hunt again if it can exploit it' remaining home games) incredibly bunched together with no real sense of who will achieve the top spot and, more to the point for my Liverpool Football Club, no real sense of which teams will make the top four and the precious qualification into the UEFA Champions League.
As a fan of the team currently seated in 4th, six points from 3rd and only two points ahead of 5th, it's precarious. Liverpool were in 1st place before Christmas, yet it felt precarious even then. Where Buffalo sports have nearly 15 years of playoff drought on the one hand, and playoff futility on the other, Liverpool has a history of storied success clouded by the recent ownership of American assholes Hicks and Gillett, the prospect of bankruptcy within five years of being crowned Champions of Europe, and, even more recently, the logical conclusion of being a club that hasn't qualified for the most prestigious and financially rewarding club tournament in the world: the best players in the world want to play in Europe, and the best of those best want to play in Champions League, and that means elsewhere. Despite the relative success this year - Liverpool's 47 points after 24 games played is 12 more than last season's, 8 more than the year before, and 15 more than the year before that - the team is in 4th place, barely. While Luis Suarez may have been convinced that Liverpool have Champions League qualification in them, he of course trusts his own boots to get us there, and players targeted by the club have, for one reason or another, not necessarily felt the same way.
Be it Moneyball taking its place at Liverpool through the ownership of John W. Henry, or players not trusting that the team is a good place in which to invest their talents, or a combination of those factors and others, Liverpool looks equally poised to finish 3rd and to finish 8th, and neither last summer's transfer window, nor the window mid-season, have made much of an impact in encouraging the more positive of those two possible outcomes. Just as soon as they beat Everton into the ground midweek, they give up a halftime lead and draw at 16th place West Brom. Even with the top two scorers in the Premiership, the feeling of dread remains palpable.
This all could change within a week's time, of course, as Arsenal comes to Anfield Saturday for the first of two matches between the two teams in two weeks, the other being an FA Cup match next week at the Emirates. A win this weekend puts Liverpool solidly into the mix with the next three league matches against a disastrously terrible Fulham team, a middling Swansea side, and Southampton, a team against which Liverpool will be looking to avenge an early season loss at Anfield. Of course, a loss against Arsenal, while not completely detrimental to the season's hopes, likely turns the April matches against Manchester City and Chelsea at Anfield - when both of those teams will likely still be fighting for a league title - into must-wins.
Fuck it, this is fun as hell.
Another great thing about the Premier League for me is watching the shitty teams sort themselves out and decide which three will be relegated to the second division. This system is something I desperately want to see in American sports - soccer, sure, but really all American sports ... the relegation of shitty, underperforming teams to a lower division that might better suit their skill set, and the corresponding promotion of the best lower division sides, rewarding them for their success and giving them the opportunity to test their skills against the next highest division. For the Premier League, the three worst teams get sent down to "the League Championship," which is what England calls its second division, and the three best Championship teams (actually the best two, plus the winner of a single game playoff between seeds three and four, which is always an awesome one to catch) take those shit bag teams' places.
Being in the Premier League means, even for teams that aren't all that great or all that big, a tremendous amount of revenue. In terms of actual numbers, Hull City was predicted to make £120 million in EXTRA revenue if they gained promotion to the EPL last year (they did). Conversely, it very much blows to get relegated. The club loses that extra revenue, potentially loses some fans who were drawn by high quality football, and, very often, loses its best players since they wouldn't be caught dead playing in a division with fucking Huddersfield Town. The difference between 17th place and 18th in the EPL, the line between staying up and going down, is a matter of hundreds of millions, and that doesn't even consider whether a relegation might send the club spiraling further out of control as happened to Wolverhampton, who achieved a spot in the Premier League in 2009, only to be relegated to the League Championship in 2012, and then further to League One (the third division) in 2013.
To sum up: it sucks to be relegated and it's a lot of fun for everyone else to watch it happen.
Of course, when a team faces relegation within the course of only one season up in the EPL, it's doubly fun. And such is the case with Cardiff City Dragons, née Bluebirds, a club owned by tyrannical Bond villain, Vincent Tan. This fucking guy is my favorite.
Tan took over ownership of Cardiff City in 2010, promising to bring the club into the Premier League. Upon getting the club into a position where it could achieve promotion, however, he let the crazy take over ... the kind of crazy that allows him to think he knows the best way to run a club, despite having such little knowledge of the game that he's complained about his goalkeeper not scoring any goals. In an effort to rebrand the team and make it attractive to Asian markets, he changed the club jersey colors from blue and yellow - as they were the fucking bluebirds - to red and black in exchange for investment from Malaysian co-owners, and rebranded the Club crest to include the Welsh flag's dragon. Tremendous.
This did not go over well.
But at least they were better. They got to their first League Cup final in 2012, under the leadership of manager Malky Mackay and, in 2013, gained promotion to the Premiership for the first time in club history. Extra revenue gained, success achieved, Cardiff event beat Manchester City in the second match of the season. Rebrand aside, Tan had done what he promised... well, that is, he hired a manager that got the players that could do what he promised. Yet, despite Mackay's success at the helm, even after having inherited a shit sandwich squad with several players leaving on expired contracts .. despite the revenue windfall gained by the promotion to the top flight, Tan fired Mackay just after this last Christmas, the team in 16th place - outside of the relegation zone - and the manager who got them to the EPL asking for more help from his owner.
This, also, did not go over well.
Since the firing, the "Bluebird Dragons" have played 6 matches and have a record of 1-1-4 and are now in 19th.
If only because I love to observe the crazy, I'd love to see them stay up, but at least two Buffalo sports fans decided to be assholes and cheer for Cardiff at the beginning of the season - aided by that outlier win against Man City - and it is heartening to see their dreams shattered into a million delicious tears.
Along with Cardiff in the relegation zone are Fulham, where Clint Dempsey weirdly decided to return and get a run in during his preparation for the World Cup (and who are owned by another level of crazy), and West Ham United, a club made internationally famous by a shitty movie starring Frodo Baggins and Jax Teller. I have no objections to either of these sides being sent down ... West ham because they are knuckledraggers, and Fulham because their stadium, Craven Cottage, is an unbelievable piece of shit and because they have Dempsey again and I wanted him last year (and again, the batshit owner).
Apparrrrently, Mohamed Al-Fayed, pictured above, is no longer owner of Fulham Football Club, having relinquished ownership to Shahid Khan, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, another team deserving of relegation. As are our Bills, don't forget. Anyway, I didn't know this tidbit of information because Fulham is a terrible club, incidentally made more terrible since Khan took over and tore down the MJ statue. Who knew that the King of Pop was the source of all of Fulham's marginal success?? I feel no guilt at my error, of course, as Fulham can suck all the dicks it can find.
Thanks to the handsomest man on twitter for cluing me in to my mistake.
The Premier League season is 63% done, and little is established except Jose Mourinho is an attention whore, no one wants Arsenal to win a title except their idiot fans, Liverpool is still pretty shit and Ian Ayre is a pussy, Vincent Tan drinks dragon blood, Manchester United are a regular club at last (more on this in a few weeks, it's awesome), Liverpool is red, Tottenham like losing by 4+ goals, Stamford Bridge is the quietest place in England, Frodo Baggins fights like a girl, Jozy Altidore needs to play in the Eredivise, Brek Shea shouldn't play in Brazil, Deuce makes bad career decisions, Stoke City hate America as well as the whole world of football, Luis Suarez loves killing Canaries, West Brom is inexplicable at The Hawthornes, Tony Pullis is frustratingly immortal, the other Welsh team also stupidly fired their manager, and Manchester City can't be bothered to play to their absurd potential when they're out of the confines of their massive stadium.
A lot to still be decided. In the meantime ... Red or Dead.