It's time to forget about Jurgen Klinsmann and Bob Bradley, and Alex Morgan and Hope Solo, and put aside our hatred for El Tri for the moment, as the self-appointed MOST EXCITING AND BEST LEAGUE IN THE WORLD (™), the English Premier League, kicks off tomorrow.
It's been a relatively quiet summer in the transfer market, for the most part, but that could change before the window closes on August 31. Here's how I see the season playing out -- a vision which, like my fantasy team, will probably come undone in about 3 weeks. Let us know how you see things in the comments.
Arsenal: This could be the season where the wheels fall off for Arsene Wenger. It was apparent to everyone that Arsenal needed strengthening at the back last season, so Wenger responded by selling off fullback Gael Clichy this summer, and bringing in another forward from the French league and Theo Walcott the 2nd. What's worse is that (as of this morning) it looks like Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri are on their way out, and if Arsenal are going to have a chance of staying in the top 4 this season, Wenger's got to spend the 60 million pounds he'll make from them on bringing in several top-class players. Arsenal's season will be decided between now and the close of the transfer window on August 31.
Aston Villa: Villa responded to the retirement of their manager by poaching Alex McLeish from their crosstown rivals. Rivals who had just been relegated. For the second time in their last three seasons in the Premier League. They've lost two key attacking players in Ashley Young and Stewart Downing. The replacement they've signed, Charles N'Zogbia from Wigan, is a good player, but it's unlikely he'll be able to create half of Villa's goals, as Young and Downing did. Meanwhile, McLeish's spotty record in the Premier League doesn't engender much confidence that this team is on the up.
Blackburn Rovers: Blackburn fans were cheering last year when their club was taken over by megarich foreign owners. Then they found out they were Indian chicken magnates who don't know anything about football. The club has sold promising young center-back Phil Jones to Manchester United, and it's possible they could lose another center-back, Christopher Samba, as well. While the team managed to pull its act together and win the last 4 games of the season to avoid relegation last term, a lack of new signings and meddling owners could see them get the drop this time around.
Bolton Wanderers: Everybody loves Bolton manager Owen Coyle and his attacking style of football. Part of the reason everybody loves him is because his teams are largely unthreatening. This season will be no different as Bolton's biggest challenge will be scoring goals, with center-back Gary Cahill and keeper Jussi Jaskelainen shoring up a decent defense. American midfielder Stuart Holden was one of the top performers in the league last season, before having his knee asploded, and he remains out of the first team. Getting Holden back and up to his pre-injury form -- and keeping him away from the surgeon's knife -- will be a big boon to the team.
Chelsea: Two seasons ago, Chelsea won the league and cup double; last season, they finished 2nd, so they canned their manager. So goes things in West London, where the players are in control and coaches live at the behest of the kajillionaire owner. In comes "the new Jose Mourinho", 33-year-old Andre Villas Boas, with all of 21 months' managerial experience in the Portuguese league. He certainly looks the part, but he faces a stern test in staring down a stubborn Chelsea squad of aging stars, and the club's extreme short-term outlook may not work in his favor. Chelsea have some great players, but they've really just papered over the cracks and remain susceptible and some way short of title contenders.
Everton: David Moyes is, undoubtedly, one of the top managers in the Premier League. Year after year, he puts out a highly competitive team that's made up of no real superstars and players bought on the cheap -- since there's no other choice at Everton. Typically, the team endures a rocky patch of the season that takes them out of contention for any honors, often due to injuries and a lack of depth in the squad. Moyes appears to have to choose between selling off key members of his squad (such as Leighton Baines, Jack Rodwell and/or Phil Jagielka) to make new purchases, or making do with what he's got. It will likely be the latter, which means the team will still lack enough bite in front of goal.
Fulham: The biggest off-season move for Fulham was the decision by manager Mark Hughes to quit, with the assumption he'd be getting the Aston Villa job. The move backfired when Villa never offered, and Fulham turned to ex-Spurs manager Martin Jol. Hughes had continued the improvements at Craven Cottage started by Roy Hodgson, and Jol is a good choice to follow. He has tinkered with the squad a bit, and built around a one of the league's stingiest defenses, this team can rise up the table. For that to happen, though, it's got to fire on all cylinders and get top form out of Clint Dempsey, Danny Murphy and Bobby Zamora, and avoid injuries.
Liverpool: Expectations are high at Anfield, following Liverpool's great finish to last season and a summer of heavy investment. Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing should provide some much-needed service to Liverpool's strikers, while Kenny Dalglish's biggest challenge may be in determining how to fit the 37 central midfielders at the team into a starting 11. Central defense remains a concern, with Jamie Carragher showing his age and his comrades looking shaky. But Liverpool's fortunes really rest with one man: Luis Suarez. He showed flashes of greatness last season, and if he can maintain top form -- and bring in the goals -- Liverpool will find themselves back in the top 4.
Manchester City: It was a quiet summer for Man City… apart from dropping 38 million pounds on Sergio Aguero from Atletico Madrid. He was meant to be a replacement for fellow Argentine Carlos Tevez. The only hiccup is that City hasn't been able to find a club willing to pay a reasonable fee for one of the world's top players, or take on his astronomical salary. There are worse problems to have, really, but it highlights one of manager Roberto Mancini's bigger challenges: keeping a squad full of millionaire mercenaries happy. On the field, Mancini's conservative, defensive tactics -- despite his squad of offensive weapons -- are the team's biggest barrier to success.
Manchester United: The beat goes on for Man U and its managerial guru, Sir Alex Ferguson. Fergie embodies the "we don't rebuild, we reload" cliche, but in his case, it's true. Coming off last season's Premier League triumph, the team had two real needs: defensive cover and a goalkeeper to replace the retiring Edwin van der Sar. In come David de Gea from Atletico Madrid and Phil Jones from Blackburn. They're quintessential Fergie buys: top young players who can immediately contribute, but offer lots of upside potential and years of future service. Another player in the same vein that came in was Ashley Young from Villa, as Fergie continues to build teams that will win titles this year, and for years to come.
Newcastle United: Newcastle owner Mike Ashley could write (well, okay, probably ghost-write) the book on how to destroy a football club. The incompetence at the top flows down through the entire organization, and has infected this once proud team with a serious case of mediocrity. Top players have been sold, with little of the funds put to use (see a recurring theme here?), leading to outbursts on Twitter from philosopher-footballer Joey Barton… and him being frozen out of the first team and made available for transfer. Manager Alan Pardew came in mid-season last term and quietly turned things around, but with more players shipped out, he's putting a lot of faith in unproven newcomers, and is only hurting himself by leaving Barton out in the cold.
Norwich: The first of the three promoted teams we've come across, Norwich face the usual challenges for newcomers to the Premier League: having enough defensive solidity to get draws and enough upfront to take 3 points of off teams in the lower half of the table. The team will struggle, but Paul Lambert looks like he's been ruthless enough with his squad to squeak them to safety -- helped by the fact that there's a handful of teams worse off than they are.
Queens Park Rangers: QPR came up as Championship Champions, on the back of massive investment by their megarich owners. The consensus thinking on QPR was that the owners would buy the team on the cheap, get it into the Premier League, establish it among the other London teams, then sell at a massive profit. That's played out, except following promotion, the investment really hasn't come. The total outlay has been 1.2 million pounds on striker DJ Campbell from (relegated) Blackpool, along with a couple of players from (relegated) West Ham and some lower-division teams. A weak squad, combined with manager Neil Warnock's lack of success in the Premier League, will see QPR go straight back down.
Stoke: Stoke is like the jock itch of the Premier League: nobody really likes it, it's a persistent irritant and at times, makes your life hell. Despite any claims to the contrary, manager Tony Pulis puts out his teams to frustrate and defend, with much of their attacking bite limited to opposing players' legs and ankles. They're formidable at home, but terrible away. They didn't score in more than a third of their games last season, and Pulis responded in the transfer market by bringing in two aging center-backs on free transfers. Stoke's main goal threat remains Rory Delap's long throws, which become less and less potent as time goes on. Playing not to lose will keep Stoke out of the relegation zone, but it won't get them into the top half of the table.
Sunderland: Sunderland's Steve Bruce has been the most active man in the transfer market this summer, bringing in a mix of older players (such as John O'Shea and Wes Brown from Man U), young and unknown talent (Connor Wickham from Ipswich) and proven PL players (Seb Larsson and Craig Gardner from Birmingham). Sunderland's two biggest problems have been inconsistency and a lack of goals. Bruce has addressed the second in the transfer market, but must eliminate the first to erase some question marks that are appearing over his managerial career.
Swansea City: The Swans are this season's Blackpool, but without the early-season success. Attractive, attacking play that will win them lots of kudos, but few points. Their goalscorers have great records in the Championship, but in the Premier League, not so much. For them to stand any chance of success, Swansea have to turn their nice football into wins over teams at the bottom of the table -- but don't bet on it.
Tottenham Hotspur: Last season was supposed to be Spurs' coming out party, but the team failed to build on its progress in the Premier League, finishing fifth and out of the Champions League spots. While the last few summers have seen Harry Redknapp build up his squad, things have been quiet this summer, with Redknapp apparently under orders to sell before he can buy; a shortage of buyers has kept him in check. There is no doubt that Spurs are a good side, but it's difficult to see them improving on last year's performance, particularly when teams around them in the table have strengthened. There are questions about just how good a manager (as opposed to a wheeler-dealer) Redknapp is; this season should shed some light one way or another.
West Bromwich Albion: Roy Hodgson's mid-season entrance saved West Brom's season. After his terrible spell at Liverpool, the success made it look like this is the sort of job he's really cut out for: instilling solidity and organization in a team devoid of superstars, and getting the most out of a team rather than individuals. Peter Odemwingie and Chris Brunt are significantly underrated offensive players who will benefit from some other summer signings as well as Hodgson's defensive strengths, and the goals they create and score will see West Brom just make it into the top half of the table.
Wigan: It's somewhat amazing that Wigan have managed to stay in the Premier League for six years. They're from a town of about 80,000 that's within spitting distance of Manchester, Liverpool, Bolton and their top-level teams, but through stable ownership and management, they've consolidated their position in the league. That doesn't mean they've been successful, though, and required last-day heroics to stay up last season. The team's ownership has shied away from big investments, and largely remains a selling club, as shown by the sale of their best player, Charles N'Zogbia, to Villa. Hugo Rodallega remains one of the best second-tier strikers in the league, but a lack of service won't do him (or Wigan any favors) this season. Roberto Martinez will need to squeeze everything he can out of this squad; that still may not be enough.
Wolverhampton Wanderers: While Wigan (above) seem to be backtracking, Mick McCarthy's Wolves are moving themselves up the ladder of the Premier League, doing a little more each season -- and just enough to stay out of trouble. Wolves are regarded as one of the best-run small teams in the Premier League, and their path shows how difficult it can be to balance fiscal responsibility with on-field success. McCarthy has shored up the defense, and if he can keep players like Matt Jarvis and Shane Long at the club, it will be safe, taking another small step up the ladder.