NOTE: When not writing about the Premier League for SoccerCentric, Dana Wessel can be found here. Dana?
A fun, eventful opening weekend in the Premier League that saw five road winners, 25 goals, 22 different goal scorers and a pair of red cards. Not much for surprises or shock results, as is to be expected with healthy sides anxious to play meaningful games - aside from Arsenal taking one in the shorts at the Emirates (more on that below).
Thanks for all of you who gave positive feedback from last week’s curtain-jerker post of Nuclear Wessel (for the record, @Randball and @RandballsStu named this, I had nothing to do with it). Nice to see most people don’t get their soccer shorts in a bunch over good-natured ribbing and clearly Chelsea-biased, unscientific conclusions about other supporters.
Where to watch notes: Before we get started previewing some matches this week, I want to give some feedback from the Chelsea In America - Twin Cities Chapter’s experience at Morrisey’s in Uptown. It took them until the stroke of 10 (kickoff) to let the 20 or so Blue-clad fans inside. Hoping we can get that changed, because 10 o’clock door-openings don’t do PL fans much good most weekends. Once inside, the staff was wonderful and the experience was great. The sound of the match was put on and we had a blast. I am going to keep working on them to cater to us soccer fans, and I am guessing they will - they wouldn’t have had any customers besides us, and we all combined dropped some good money.
Onto three matches to look forward to this weekend...
No. 3: Southampton vs Sunderland at St. Mary’s Stadium
When: Saturday at 9am on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Sunderland won this match last season 1-0 with a Steven Fletcher goal in the 42nd.
This match lacks any sort of sex appeal just about everywhere else in the world, but was important enough in the United States to prompt NBC Sports to shake up their programming schedule to make sure it is shown stateside. The reason, of course, is forward Jozy Altidore. Jozy has become appointment-viewing for any soccer fan in the States, and has people scheduling their Saturday around two teams that were within five points of being told to not let the Premier League door hit them on the way out last year.
A year or so ago, the thought of Jozy in the Premier League was a bit outlandish. He was left off the roster for a pair of crucial World Cup qualifiers in October and had seemingly fallen out of favor with coach Jurgen Klinsmann. He was in the midst of a national team goal-scoring drought that would eventually reach 18 months, and was losing confidence fast.
He was playing for a club in the Netherlands after being loaned out more times than a VHS copy of American Pie in the late 90s. He was scoring goals, sure, but scoring in the Netherlands is like scoring on ‘amateur’ in FIFA- it isn’t all that impressive, especially for a guy that Spanish giants Villarreal paid a $10 million transfer fee just three years earlier, still a record for a player from Major League Soccer.
Altidore clearly used his embarrassing US snub (31-year old MLS journeyman Alan Gordon, god love him, even made that October WCQ roster) as motivation. As was always going to be the case for the mind-game master Klinsmann, Jozy was called back into camp with the USMNT for the start of the final round of World Cup qualifiers, and he played 90 largely uninspired minutes in a loss at Honduras and a win vs Costa Rica. He started again in a 0-0 tie at Mexico but was subbed off in the 55th minute.
He was stuck in an odd middle ground. Fans and pundits all took opposing sides in a debate, both of which were rooted in logic. On one hand, he was only 23, a proven club goal-scorer who just needed to break his scoreless drought to get his country confidence back. On the other, he had regressed after winning 50 caps for the national team, had only scored five goals total since scoring six in 2009 alone, and he was seeming to stall.
Qualifying for the World Cup isn’t just big business - it's the only business in international soccer. There is no time to waste and there is no time be nostalgic for a jersey-shedding goal celebration against Spain four years ago. It's all about "what have you done for me lately". Just ask Landon Donovan.
Altidore was called back into camp for the June WCQs and gave the dump-Jozy crowd another huge round of ammo after being subbed off at half of a lifeless performance in a 4-2 loss to Belgium.
Then... then the Summer of Jozy began. He got another start against Germany five days later, and repaid his manager for continued faith with a volley goal in the 13th minute. He played the full 90 in the national team's 4-3 win that day, and played his most complete match in a US shirt since Klinsmann took over.
That goal was the first of what is now a five-match scoring streak - a USA record. Jozy capped it off with a second-half hat-trick against Bosnia to erase a 2-doughnut halftime deficit. Seven goals in five matches, to help guide the US to a 12-game win streak (boosted by the B-team Gold Cup, but wins are wins) that is currently the best in the world and only just three shy of Spain’s all-time record.
What a difference a year makes. What a difference three months makes. And, well, what a difference Klinsmann pairing Jozy with a second striker rather than leaving him stranded up top with little service makes.
Jozy is now one of the bigger pieces of the Brazil puzzle next summer. He’s seemingly matured, having the confidence of his elder teammates. Goalie Tim Howard referred to him as their “moneymaker” in an interview recently. The embarrassing ‘Stanky Leg’ goal celebration he and Chuck D used to do seems to be gone forever. The US may finally have that strong, powerful forward that we’ve always dreamed about.
The next 10 months between now and Brazil are crucial. In order to have chance at making noise in Brazil we need ‘Summer of Jozy’ Jozy. So we will watch. We will watch Sunderland all year long.
No. 2: Fulham vs Arsenal at Craven Cottage
When: Saturday at 6:45am on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Arsenal won this derby last season 1-0 from a Per Mertesacker goal in the 43rd.
These are indeed dire times at the Emirates. Gunners supporters were able to peek out from the blankets they’re hiding under momentarily, after winning 3-0 at Fenerbahce on Wednesday in the Champions League playoff, but the road is still rough.
They have a thin squad with massive weak spots, and they are running out of time to bring in reinforcements before the transfer window closes. It must be incredibly frustrating to be an Arsenal supporter right now, especially with everything that is happening across town at Tottenham.
If there was one team that really couldn’t afford to lose out of the gates a week ago, it was Arsenal. They lost 3-1 to Aston Villa, and the home supporters couldn’t decide whether to stick around and voice their displeasure to manager Arsene Wenger and the board, or run their trademark fire drill and hit the exits early.
Getting back on track on Wednesday in the first leg of the Champions League playoff was good, but this stretch of matches is only going to get more crucial. It's a stretch so important that it not only could define their season, but also have huge implications on what the future holds for them.
Their trip to Fulham Saturday is followed up by the return leg of the CL playoff on Tuesday at the Emirates. You’d hope they couldn’t blow a three-goal lead at home, but would you bet on them at this point? Then, just five days later they welcome Spurs for the North London Derby.
No time to even catch their breath.
Fulham secured full points last week against Sunderland, and are no doubt relishing the opportunity to make life worse for their London rival. Arsenal dropping points for a second straight week, with the Spurs match looming, would be a huge blow.
Grabbing zero or one points of their first three matches would put Arsenal in a deep hole in what is sure to be a heated race with Tottenham for the Top 4 and the coveted Champions League league cash that comes along with it. Arsenal have been huffing and puffing and blowing Tottenham’s house down for years. But after their active summer (and Arsenal’s dead summer), Spurs’ house appears to be made of brick, and the Big Bad Wolf might be finally be on the outside looking in.
No. 1: Manchester United vs Chelsea at Old Trafford
When: Monday MONDAY UGHHH WHY MONDAY? at 2PM on NBC Sports Network
Last year: Juan Mata scored in the 87th to hand Sir Alex Ferguson his last loss at Old Trafford.
Well this should be fun, yeah? More fun if it hadn’t been moved to a Monday. And, yeah, I'll say it, more fun if Sir Alex Ferguson hadn’t put down the chewing gum and called it a career.
I, along with (I hope) most non-United fans had a come-to-Jesus moment when it became official that Fergie was retiring for good. We didn’t hate him. At all. We actually loved him, loved to hate him. He was the perfect adversary, the ultimate bad guy. Beating United is always so satisfying for a lot of reasons, but few were better than seeing Fergie get up, give an insincere handshake, and head to the dressing room.
It is weird that he is gone. Most people don’t know the Premier League without Fergie. I thought for sure this was just a ruse or the media making something out of nothing when hints of the story first broke. It especially bums me out now since his old nemesis Jose Mourinho is back on the touch-line for Chelsea. We were so close to getting these two back in the same domestic league and all the joy that would have come along with it.
But let's be honest, if new manager David Moyes and United struggle out of the gates in the League, orfind themselves in a hole in the Champions League group stages, the rumors will start early and often. It wouldn't shock me whatsoever if Fergie is back in charge by the January transfer window.
I digress; back to the match itself. It comes at a very odd time and too early in the season for my liking. It is always more fun when big matches like this happen later in the season when both teams have things sorted a bit more.
There is also the whole Wayne Rooney thing. Mourinho says Chelsea still plan on placing another bid for the disgruntled, hair-plugged striker, but won’t do so until after the match Monday. The whole thing is just bizarre - and I don’t believe that anyone at Chelsea would be dumb enough (I hope) for that absurd Mata/Rooney swap talk. They should just close the transfer window once the season starts so we can all get on with it.
The match is at the Theater of Dreams (I can’t help it, that is a cool nickname for a stadium) but it isn’t exactly a house of horrors for Chelsea in league play, having won last year, and in 2009-10. (Drogba wasn’t offside.) (OK, fine, he kinda was.)
It is definitely the biggest match of the early season, and I bet there will be a winner. The two giants have only drawn three times in Premier League dating back to 2006-07. A winner will get bragging rights and an early lead in what is looking to be a three-horse race until May. But resist the urge to draw any grand conclusions from the match. The table is not typically decided in these matches, the table is won by teams who can eke out wins, rather than settling for ties against mid-table teams when the grind of multiple competitions piles up over the winter.
This will be a lot of fun - it always is - despite being on a Monday this early in the season. Try to sweet-talk your boss into a long lunch, or channel your inner-Ron Swanson and take a nooner.
Alright, that is it for this week. Until next time, may you always be in good form and your runs always be to the far post.