For years, the Premier League was nothing but a two-team race between Manchester United and Arsenal. Chelsea and Manchester City spent their way into the running for the title, and Liverpool occasionally showed flashes of their long-departed glory years, but ultimately most Premier League seasons felt like a series of exhibition games designed to pad out the schedule beside the glittering confrontations between top clubs.
This year, the big teams may well dominate the standings again. But as the English season kicks off today, it’s the clubs in the tier just below the top that are providing much of the excitement.
Take Crystal Palace, for example. Under manager Alan Pardew, who took over halfway through last season, Palace clinched a finish in the top half of the standings — and quickly became everybody’s favorite team to watch, thanks to a commitment to an attacking, pass-first style. In the summer, Pardew brought in French international midfielder Yohan Cabaye to mastermind a further offensive leap forward in the hopes of more than just a top-10 finish. The Eagles can’t be ignored, as Manchester City, Liverpool, and Tottenham know; all three powerhouses lost to Palace last spring.
Several other clubs have similar stories. Southampton manager Ronald Koeman overcame the preseason sale of perhaps the Saints’ five best players to guide his team to seventh in the standings, and a berth in the UEFA Europa League. Swansea City, like Crystal Palace, has a reputation for playing an offense-first style that’s easy to watch. Even Stoke City, who for many years employed a brutally physical style that bordered on vicious, has remade itself under manager Mark Hughes as an offense-minded club and has signed a number of former Barcelona youth players to go with its new direction.
None of these teams will challenge for the league title this season, at least not yet. Chelsea, last year’s champion, is again the favorite, and both Manchester City and Manchester United have spent big to retool for challenges of their own. Arsenal signed goalkeeper Petr Cech from Chelsea to help shore up its defensive weakness, and is a trendy darkhorse title pick for some experts. Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers is under huge pressure to deliver after spending without realizing big results, while Tottenham is feeling comfortable with a familiar team in place — as well as 22-year-old phenom Harry Kane, who scored 31 goals for the Spurs last season.
Those six, though, will have to watch out for the teams below. The new breed of attack-minded, exciting teams are here.
• Last week, the Los Angeles Galaxy ended up in the strange position of announcing another big-name signing, forward Giovanni Dos Santos, in the same week that starting goalkeeper Jaime Penedo abruptly quit the club over his contract. It was a stark reminder of the two-class system in MLS — big money for big names, little for the rest. With barely half a season gone in the first year of the five-year collective bargaining agreement, player discontent is growing, especially as the league continues to announce new sponsorships and TV deals from around the world. I’m not sure this labor situation ends well.
• Minnesota United’s Christian Ramirez was named the NASL Player of the Month for July, his fourth such award in just two seasons in the league. Ramirez scored four times in four games in July, and added another goal on Wednesday against New York and still, arguably, wasn’t even the best Loons offensive player, with both Ibson and Kalif Alhassan making cases as well. That said, scoring talent is one of the most difficult things to find in the American second division, and Ramirez is now just two goals away from the 2015 league lead.
Premier League Predicted Top 10
2 Manchester United
3 Manchester City
5 Tottenham Hotspur
6 Crystal Palace
9 Swansea City
10 Stoke City
To be relegated: Leicester City, West Ham, Watford
Weekend watch guide
Premier League: Swansea City at Chelsea, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. Chelsea’s title defense begins with a tricky game at home with Swansea City. Last year, the Swans shocked everyone by going to Old Trafford and beating Manchester United 2-1 on the first day of the season, but repeating that feat at Stamford Bridge this year against the champions is a tall order.
NASL: FC Edmonton at Minnesota United, 7 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 45. Dating back to May, United has just two wins in nine games. Minnesota’s already fallen eight points behind Ottawa in the standings for the fall season, and is in fifth place for the combined fall and spring standings. With the year more than half over, the Loons need to put a winning run together or they’ll be in danger of missing the playoffs altogether.
Premier League: Liverpool at Stoke City, 10 a.m. Sunday, NBC Sports. This will be our first glimpse of the new-look Liverpool, which sold star forward Raheem Sterling in the summer and brought in Christian Benteke from Aston Villa to replace him. Stoke likely won’t have playmaking midfielder Bojan Krkic back from last year’s ACL injury yet, but it’ll be looking to continue its easy-to-watch renaissance under Mark Hughes all the same.
MLS: New York City at New York Red Bulls, 6 p.m. Sunday, Fox Sports 1. The Red Bulls have won the first two editions of the New York rivalry game, but since the last one, NYC has added both Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard to its midfield. The MLS will be hoping both teams have all their stars available. The Red Bulls are unbeaten in their past four matches, and are now second in the Eastern Conference.