Just because the World Cup is over doesn’t mean soccer stops. Soccer never stops; that’s one of its biggest appeals. There are so many different teams, leagues, club competitions, and international tournaments that, if you want to, you can always find someone to cheer for or some team to root against. It can also be a bit daunting to wade into without any experience. Luckily, you have me, your Russian Premier League–watching, tactics board–chalking, Opta Stats–devouring Gandalf,1 to help you tailor your soccer-watching habits. And now I will answer some completely made-up questions to guide you along your soccer path.
I fell in love with the USMNT and wish to continue observing them as they begin their journey to inevitably winning the 2018 World Cup. How might I accomplish such a task?
Four years is too long to wait for a second date with the USMNT. Fortunately, you won’t have to wait that long to fall in love again. The U.S. will compete in the Gold Cup in 2015 and in a pretty cool Copa America Centenario tournament in 2016.
Those tournaments are great events on their own. The Gold Cup decides who has CONCACAF region bragging rights, while the Copa America will bring together teams from across the Americas to compete. You can get invested in what winning those tournaments means, or doesn’t mean, but you don’t have to.
That’s because you can also approach them the same way Jürgen Klinsmann likely will: as the first steps in developing the USMNT roster for 2018.
If you thought there was upheaval in the last couple months, wait until you see the next four years. Young talent will be brought in, old stalwarts will be shuffled out, and Klinsmann will begin the process of sifting through the U.S. talent pool with an eye toward putting together an even better squad. If you want to track the growth of DeAndre Yedlin, Julian Green, and Aron Jóhannsson, and get a sense of how Klinsmann is preparing for Russia, you’re going to want to watch the Gold Cup and the Copa America.
The World Cup was great, but I’m ready to integrate soccer into my normal sports-consuming routine. I probably can’t do that, right?
Of course you can. The easiest way to go from watching only international competitions to watching regular league play is to tune in to Major League Soccer.
The league, which was founded in 1993 as a condition for the U.S. hosting the World Cup in 1994, has all sorts of things that make it appealing. Most of the U.S. players with whom you fell in love in Brazil are there. Some are young stars who may have a trip to Europe in their future, such as Yedlin (for now); some are career MLS pros, such as Kyle Beckerman and Chris Wondolowski; and some are conquering heroes returning home from stints abroad, including Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley.
MLS has all sorts of things you’re used to as a sports fan, like evening start times and bizarre salary-cap rules. And playoffs. The league isn’t on the same level as the big European competitions (we’ll get to them in a second), but it’s trending in the right direction. MLS is demonstrably more talented and competitive than it was even two or three years ago. Also, aging stars (Thierry Henry, David Villa starting in 2015) and a host of other accomplished foreign players (Tim Cahill, Jermain Defoe, Robbie Keane) now call MLS home. Lastly, supporting MLS has the added benefit of supporting the development of U.S. soccer, in general — a key component to the world takeover we’re all secretly planning.
The U.S. guys are fine and all, but what about those awesome international superstars with names like Neymar and James who isn’t James? I want to watch them more.
Well, then you want European soccer. That’s a little more complicated. There are four completely separate major European leagues: the Premier League in England, La Liga in Spain, Bundesliga in Germany, and Serie A in Italy — to say nothing of Ligue 1 in France, where the world’s most interesting man, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, plays for PSG. For the most part, the games for these domestic leagues take place on the weekends. Meanwhile, the Champions League, which consists of the best teams from the European domestic leagues, plays on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from fall to spring. Like I said, there’s always soccer.
Well, I like bandwagons, so should I get into the Bundesliga? I mean, the Germans are awesome, right?
If you start watching the Bundesliga (which is a little difficult to do on American television since their rights are owned by the little-carried GolTV for the next year), be prepared for one thing: It isn’t very competitive.
Bayern Munich might be the best team in the world, and they are definitely the best team in Germany, by some distance. They’ll have all those German faces you’ve come to know and love — Götze, Müller, Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Boateng, and Neuer (as well as some non-German ones like Arjen Robben). And they’re coached by Pep Guardiola, who is largely responsible for instituting Barcelona’s and Spain’s tiki-taka style of play. He has a bit of the Phil Jackson aura about him (both in his fanatical devotion to a system and his fanatical devotion to coaching only the most talented teams). Bayern is a fascinating mix of prestigious names and expectations of perfection, which makes them an interesting watch, even as they’re blowing out teams 4-1 every week.
Borussia Dortmund are an excellent club in their own right, and have an amazing fan base and an awesome coach in Jürgen Klopp, but they simply don’t have the resources to compete with Bayern. Dortmund have also become a fixture in the knockout stages of the Champions League, and one year ago they progressed all the way to the finals, where they lost to … you guessed it, Bayern Munich.
Outside those two teams a lot of talent is floating around, but none of it is cohesive enough to crash the top of the table. Though if you do dive into German football, you’re going to want to make sure you check out Schalke 04’s Julian Draxler, the 20-year-old wunderkind who made Germany’s World Cup roster despite his tender age.
So, Germany: Come for Bayern Munich’s pursuit of perfection, stay for the rich assortment of German talent spread throughout the league. Just don’t expect a title race.
Is there something slightly more balanced?
La Liga is, in theory, a two-team fight. In one corner is Barcelona. The Catalan club has the best player in the world (Lionel Messi), and was, until about six weeks ago, playing what was considered to be the best tactical system in the world, tiki-taka.
The whole Barcelona mystique is built around their fabled youth academy, La Masia. Barça likes to think of itself as a club that grows players and molds them into their beautiful system. Of course, during the past two seasons, they’ve bought two megastars — Neymar and Luis Suárez (who gets to start playing after his four-month timeout for biting). Still, despite their splurges, they are for the most part made up of homegrown talent. This puts them across the ideological divide from Real Madrid, who at any given time are in talks to buy the best and brightest in world soccer. They’ve wrapped up a deal for Toni Kroos already, and have been openly ogling James Rodríguez since about halfway through the World Cup. And what Real Madrid ogle, Real Madrid generally get.
Last season, though, a third team crashed the Spanish party. Real’s cross-city rival, Atlético Madrid, came from out of nowhere to stun the two superclubs and win La Liga. In 2012-13, they had finished third, 24 points behind league winners Barcelona. They nearly pulled off what would have been a truly unbelievable double, coming within minutes of beating Real Madrid in the Champions League final. Atletico’s roster has been weakened2 for the upcoming season, but they’ll be competitive. The three-team dynamic makes La Liga a compelling watch, and when two of these three are facing each other, it’s must-see TV.
So, is La Liga what most U.S. soccer fans watch?
Probably not. England’s Premier League, along with the Champions League, is by far the most visible European competition in the U.S. There are two reasons for this: presentation of product and depth of talent.
The Premier League is the best-presented soccer league in the world. The games are fast-paced, the play is generally action-packed, and there’s no language barrier to the coverage. Tons of English-language media outlets cover the sport, and here in the States, NBC has been pulling out all the stops in its television presentation of the league. But really, the reason the EPL is the most attractive league is the level and depth of talent. It is simply the best in the world. That’s why it’s so popular.
Over the last five years, while other leagues have become one- or two-team races, more and more teams in the Premier League have been getting better. The quality and the televised product are linked. The league’s eye-watering TV deals fund its influx of talent.
All of the EPL’s top seven clubs are littered with players who were featured prominently in the World Cup. There are probably five teams — Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United, and Chelsea — that have a reasonable shot at the title each season. No other league has as much depth at the top of the table, and with the possible exception of the Bundesliga, no other league has as much depth overall.
When does all this Euro-y goodness kick off?
The Premier League starts on August 16 and is broadcast on NBC. The Bundesliga begins August 22 and can be seen on GolTV. La Liga kicks off August 26 and can be seen on beIN Sports. It’s all about a month away.
That’s still too long for me to wait. What am I supposed to do in the meantime?
Well, you could try reading a book. There are tons of incredible soccer books out there that approach the game from a wide variety of perspectives. If you want a crash course in tactics, there’s nothing better than Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson. For the more analytics-oriented fan, there’s The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally, which, among other things, takes a look at how some very basic assumptions people have long made about soccer hold up to mathematical scrutiny (here’s a hint: not well).
If you’re excited about diving into the Barcelona and Real Madrid rivalry, Fear and Loathing in La Liga by Sid Lowe is definitely your go-to source before the season starts. And then, of course, there’s I Am Zlatan by Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It’s about being Zlatan. Because he is Zlatan, and you are not.
This is all way too complicated. Why can’t I just have another World Cup?
Good news! You can have another World Cup. Next summer is the Women’s World Cup, and it will be awesome. Since it’s hosted in Canada, you’ll have all the same fan-friendly kickoff times for hosting viewing parties, breaking out your red, white, and blue outfits and sliding seamlessly back into your kick-ass, go-go-USA mentality.
There’s only one crucial difference. The USWNT rocks. All those stats you heard all summer long about how this guy was the fifth-leading U.S. goal scorer of all time or that guy entered the top-10 all-time whatever? Turns out those were mostly lies, because the U.S. women are comparatively way, way better than the men. They also have their own awesome Ian Darke moment.
Four years ago, the U.S. lost on penalties in the World Cup final, a situation it found itself in only because it conceded a late extra-time goal to Japan. In fact, despite being the best in the world, the U.S. hasn’t actually won the World Cup since Brandi Chastain’s iconic 1999 moment. If you want a new set of story lines to follow, talent to discover, and personalities to fall in love with, you absolutely couldn’t ask for a better group than the USWNT. And for those of you who got annoyed at the lionization of an American men’s team that won only one game, you won’t have the problem next summer. It’s first place or disappointment for the women.
One of the best things about soccer is that there is a wide variety of equally awesome ways to consume it. Honestly, the above is just a small sampling. It doesn’t include Mexico, or South America, or any of the smaller but no less compelling European leagues (Portugal, the Netherlands), or the National Women’s Soccer League, or collegiate soccer, or probably a host of other competitions, both at home and abroad. So, if you find yourself pining for the World Cup, just remember, there’s always more soccer out there. The key isn’t deciding whether you like soccer, it’s just figuring out which soccer you like. Without the World Cup every day now, you have tons of time to find out.