As soccer is becoming more popular in this country and some of my friends are beginning to follow teams, I have been asked lots of questions about the best league to follow - the English Premier League, which is also known as the Barclay's Premier League. The EPL, as it is most often abbreviated, is made up of the top 20 teams in England. On an annual basis (August-May), these teams compete in a 38-match season where each team plays the 19 other teams once at home and once away. The top four teams in the league advance to the UEFA Champions League, which is a hotly contested annual competition among the top teams in all of Europe. The bottom three teams in the EPL each year drop to the second league in England, while the top three teams in that league move up to the EPL. The Champions League and relegation process mean that even if a team is running away with the title or having a very poor season, there is much to play for among the other teams to either advance to the Champions League or try to avoid relegation.
For those of you who are American soccer fans and wanting to cheer for our guys on EPL teams, here are five teams to consider rooting for:
Everton - My team of choice has Tim Howard as its goalkeeper and recently re-acquired Landon Donovan on a two-month loan from the L.A. Galaxy during the MLS off-season. Marcus Hahnemann, backup keeper to Howard for the U.S., is also his backup for Everton. Everton currently sits in 11th place in the EPL at 25 points. They are perennially in what I call "EPL Purgatory," usually not seriously threatened by relegation, but also not often contenders for a Champions League spot.
Fulham - Clint Dempsey has starred for Fulham over the past couple of seasons. He leads Fulham this season with six goals in the EPL. Last month, Dempsey scored his 37th EPL goal, becoming the all-time American goal scorer in league history. Brian McBride scored 36 EPL goals during his illustrious international career. Fulham often is in the middle of the table like Everton - this season they are currently 14th at 23 points.
Tottenham - This is one of the top teams in the EPL this season, currently sitting in third place at 46 points. Their starting goalkeeper is Brad Friedel, another in a long line of outstanding American netminders.
Aston Villa - Brad Guzan, one of Howard's backups, is fighting for the #1 keeper spot for Villa, and Eric Lichaj is trying to work his way into the Villa backfield just as he is looking for time in the U.S. lineup. Villa is currently tied for 12th at 24 points.
Bolton - Stuart Holden, one of the rising stars in the U.S. midfield, was selected as Bolton's most valuable player last season and soccer fans were looking forward to another big campaign from him in 2011-12. Unfortunately, Holden has not been able to suit up yet this season due to injury. Should Bolton be relegated, which looks quite possible given their current 19th place standing, look for Holden to be sold to another EPL team.
This year's EPL action has been outstanding so far. Manchester City and Manchester United are tied with 48 points (teams get three points for wins and one point for a tie). United has played one more match than City to this point, so City technically is in the lead. Tottenham and Chelsea currently hold the all-important third and fourth spots to lay claim to the Champions League spots at 46 and 40 points, respectively. Arsenal and Newcastle United are desperately trying to move up the table and into those spots - they both have 36 points. On the other side of the things, Wigan Athletic (15 points), Bolton (16) and Queens Park Rangers (17) are in the last three spots, which is called the "Relegation Zone" because those would be the relegated squads if the season were to end today. In danger of fallling into that zone are Blackburn Rovers (17 points), Wolverhampton (18) and West Bromwich Albion (22).
For those of you who want to get a taste of EPL action, I encourage you to watch two outstanding matches next Saturday morning featuring four of the best teams in the world. Manchester City takes on Tottenham at 8:25 am et on Fox Soccer, while at 10:30 am et Arsenal will face Manchester United on Fox Sports as Fox continues to jump on the soccer bandwagon.