Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Experiment is Over

Last year at this time, the men's World Cup had just finished. I wasn't impressed. The soccer was generally boring to me. Perhaps it was the constant sound of the vuvuzelas coming from the South African crowds, perhaps it was the great lack of scoring opportunities during each game, or perhaps it was that I knew almost none of the players. Whatever the reason(s), I mentioned on the show how the World Cup generally put me to sleep, and that opinion was met with great anger from the soccer community. So, I decided to give the world's number one sport one more chance.

Most of the emails I received from soccer fans actually agreed with me. They said that the World Cup was not the best soccer to watch--that most of the teams played very defensively and they weren't as familiar with their WC teammates as they were with their normal professional club teammates. Many suggested that I watch European pro soccer--the English Premier League, La Liga (Spain), or Serie A (Italy). I decided that the best the league to follow would be the EPL, since everything would be in my language--the broadcasts, the articles, etc. I also decided to pick one team and follow them for the entire season, that way I would get very familiar with the players while seeing every other team in the EPL as they popped up on the schedule.

But which team? At The Ticket, Bob Sturm adopted Liverpool, so I couldn't pick them. Man U are the Yankees of the EPL, so I couldn't pick them. Chelsea is a close second to Man U, so I didn't want to pick them, either. I didn't want to go too far down the EPL table, because I needed a team that would be popular enough to have all or most of their games televised. Arsenal stood out. They are very good, but not the best. They have a colorful history. They have a cool name. And, everyone told me that they played a very wide-open, Euro-style of football that would be exciting to watch. So, a year ago today, I officially adopted the Gunners. The announcement was carried around the world. My one year experiment was underway.

I pledged that I would watch all of the Arsenal games that I could, read as much about them and the sport as I could, and, at the end of the year, I would decide whether the sport was worth my time or not. How did I do? Of the 38 regular season games, I saw 32 of them. I missed a couple due to vacation, and I missed the last three at the end of the season when I lost interest and while the NBA playoffs were heating up. I checked my various soccer websites almost daily. Bob loaned me his copy of Fever Pitch, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I bought an issue of Four-Four-Two magazine and digested it. I gave the experiment all that I had. I left everything out there. It was a remarkable effort.

My conclusion? I really enjoyed the journey, and I now really enjoy the sport. I had a blast. Arsenal was, at times, very frustrating, but they were always interesting and entertaining. Some of my favorite things from my year with the EPL:

The Four Competitions: It's a long season, and with the schedule constantly broken up by the four different trophies that clubs chase, I thought it would be too much. It actually turned out to be one of the most interesting things about the season. The EPL title, the Champions League title, the FA Cup and the Carling Cup all being contested during the same season keeps things lively. Arsenal had a shot to win all four (they didn't win any). Just as you might start getting bored with the EPL regular season, here comes a Champions League game against Barcelona, or the Carling Cup Final, or a game against Man U in the FA Cup. Can't imagine that kind of a season working for an American pro sports league. Maybe that's why I liked it so much-it was different.

The Color and Pageantry: I can't wait to go to an Arsenal game in person. I will do it this season. It's a spectacle on television, so it must be 10 times better in person. I love Euro sports anyway--the signage, the announcers, the uniforms. Again, it's different to what I'm used to watching in this country, so it's stimulating. The fans, the chants, the stadiums--it all captured me.

The Game: I now understand why they call it 'the beautiful game.' It's not always beautiful when watching the World Cup or the MLS, but when you see the best players in the world playing in the best leagues in the world, it's beautiful. The EPL teams, for the most part, play to win. Arsenal's style is great--their passing is precise, they like to get up and down the pitch, and they get a lot of scoring opportunities (although they tend to want to walk the ball into the net sometime, which made me sorry I missed the halcyon days of Thierry Henry). Bottom line: I don't need a lot of goals to make me happy, but I do need a lot of scoring chances, and I got a lot in the average EPL match. I also like the fact that it's a tidy presentation: two, 45 minute, running clock halves. Two hours for a match--never more, never less. The only time you see a commercial during a game is pregame, halftime, or postgame.

The EPL Table: 20 teams. You play each team twice--once at home, once on the road. That's perfect. No divisions. No playoff. Simple. Top team wins the title (the best always wins--no chance of some Wild Card team getting hot and stealing a championship), top four teams qualify for the Champions League (the best of Europe), and the bottom three teams each season--get this--are demoted! The crappy teams get sent down to the minor leagues and the three best from the minors get called up to the show--great concept!

I learned that there is a lot to like about soccer, and I'm just scratching the surface. One problem: I've already become a soccer snob. Just like an NFL fan trying to watch the CFL or the XFL, I can't just sit down and watch any college, low pro-level or women's soccer match. But at least my one year experiment has given me a base of knowledge to work with when discussing the sport.

Soccer didn't become my favorite sport (I would still rather watch a bike race, any NBA game, any NFL game, or any college football game over soccer), but it's now on par with baseball and golf for me, and ahead of hockey and tennis and anything else. It's something that I'll always watch and follow. I'll always be an Arsenal fan.

I also discovered that you are never too old to start following a new sport. It can be invigorating. There is so much great action and drama out there, it's a pity that some people get football or baseball tunnel vision. In fact, I'm thinking about adopting a new sport to watch this fall--maybe curling? Or badminton? Or camel racing?

I was wrong last year when I said that soccer sucks. I should have said cricket sucks.


  1. Couldn't agree more. I took your lead Junior and adopted a team myself for this last season. Could not go with Liverpool, Man U or Chelsea for the same reasons and could not go with Arsenal because you did. I went with Tottenham and had a blast. I was glued to every game I could see and even bought a few months worth of Fox Soccer Plus online for a few games I could not see otherwise. The games and atmosphere were beautiful and although Tottenham also frustrated me at times and was out of their league a bit in the Champions League quarterfinals it was still a great ride. Despite the top 4 or 5 being fairly constant it is still fun to root for other teams as well and you always have the relegation threat looming so EVERY game matters to every team. If you need someone to go to London with you I'd go in a heartbeat to see an Arsenal vs. Tottenham game - a great rivalry. Day 1, P1 Mark

  2. I thought for sure you were going to say that you were right and that soccer sucked...

    I was born and raised in Portugal so soccer is pretty much all I knew until I moved to North America.

    These days, I'm a big fan of baseball (Rangers), football (Cowboys) and hockey (Canucks) but there's nothing like soccer.

    I disagree with you on the World Cup deal - I believe that there's NOTHING like watching your country (in my case, Portugal) play in the World Cup! (or Euro for that matter)

    I get emotional just watching the national anthem and once the game starts, the conversation stops...

    Welcome to the club!

  3. Hah, wow. I did this same experiment this past season and chose Tottenham Hotspur as well. Spurs were incredibly entertaining to watch at times, especially with the young Welshman Gareth Bale in the Champions League, but also frustrated me with draw after draw late in the season.

    When the NFL was looking more in doubt, I was actually slightly comforted by the fact that this way I'd be able to get college ball and some EPL play on Saturdays and then more EPL on Sundays in the fall. Now that the NFl seems to be coming back, I don't know where I'll find the time.

    But this was a great experience and I will always be a Spurs fan (which I never thought I'd say, growing up in Houston- ha!), and I highly recommend people giving soccer a chance. There are really a lot of parallels with football such as the importance of ball possession and the idea of lots of short, interconnected plays setting up a scoring drive of sorts. Truly a beautiful game.

    Come on you Spurs!

    (and Gig 'Em Ags!)

    Andrew R.

  4. I don't know, a 20-20 cricket match can be riveting...

  5. as someone trying to follow as well, what are the "various soccer websites" of which you speak?

  6. Thanks Junior, great blog! I started following Chelsea when I knew nothing about the EPL and a friend gave me his tickets for the game about 18 years ago.

  7. Great post — and glad to hear the experiment was a success. Now that so many EPL, FA Cup and Champions League games are on ESPN and FOX Soccer, it's easier than ever to get into the sport.

    I'd encourage everyone to give it a try. And picking a team is part of the fun. You don't have a regional bias or family rooting interest to sway you. You're starting from scratch and don't have to feel guilty for picking a team because they have a cool name or awesome uniforms.

    I'm an Evertonian because Tim Howard is there, my grandparents were from Liverpool (I couldn't allow myself to root for Liverpool FC), and I could actually get an Everton ticket when I went over there.

    And you're right, seeing it live is that much more incredible. It's the passion and tradition of college football with chants and songs instead of marching bands. Pleased to have you on board, Craig.

  8. Right there with you. I picked Chelsea. I knew it couldn't be Man U or Liverpool. I was close to picking Arsenal too but in the end I made my decision based on the team rosters and players I was familiar with from the World Cup. Honestly, I didn't look at the table before I made my decision because I didn't want that to effect my decision. I glad I didn't. I like all of the Chelsea players and the style they play. Had I known they were reigning champs I would have picked differently for being "that guy" and jumping on the wagon. It sounds like you enjoyed the ride as much as I did. I can't wait for the start of the new season.

  9. My brother and I picked teams this year as well. He went with the Spurs and I was deciding between Arsenal and Chelsea when I asked the guy that owns The Londoner pubs for his opinion. His semi-tongue-in-cheek response was "well, you can pick Arsenal, but you can't come back here." So it's the Blues, and part of me is glad they didn't win the EPL this year so it's not like putting on a Miami jersey after the Decision.

  10. You should check out the soccer community on reddit, you'll enjoy it:


  11. Yep, Cricket sucks.

  12. Did you watch any non-Arsenal matches during the season?

  13. I tried watching several teams but none really jumped out at me. So I lost interest fast.

  14. Football(soccer) is the beautiful game and as an American I feel a bit ripped off at not being able to discover it sooner. But thanks to the net now I'm pretty sure Americans will finally be able to see what real football is all about.

  15. Interesting that you consider Manchester United to be the Yankees of the EPL. As a loooooong time follower of the Red Devils, starting in 1969 with manager Wilf McGuinness, then spending time with them in relegation in '74 and Sir Alex's 11th place finish in '86 and '89 the sentiment that the Red's buy the title like the Yankees is a bit disingenuous. It wasn't until this year that Man U broke the Liverpool stranglehold on the EPL/First Division.

  16. Take my advice. If you would like to watch a new sport this season, pick Aussie Rules Football. I began watching it about 6 months a go and I have never seen a greater sport.

  17. Any recommendations on the best way to find the games being televised for your team? Ie, let's say I wanted to watch Man City how would I find them on US tv easily?

  18. Chris, this site is good for finding the televised games: http://www.epltalk.com/premier-league-tv-schedule/

    It's not current for the upcoming season because TV schedules in the US aren't official yet, but it should be updated in the next few weeks.

  19. I did the exact same thing after the 2006 World Cup with very similar results. I was 'converted' after seeing Maxi Rodriguez score in extra time against Mexico. I picked Liverpool as my team right after the WC (who Maxi now plays for), and I never miss a game, including reserve games, and I watch the highlights of the U18s every week. The European model for player development I think is FAR superior to producing top level talent than the American model. Imagine how much better quarterbacking in the NFL would be if EVERY college qb played in a pro-style system . . . from the age of 8.

    I also agree in terms of preferring the European system for naming a champion. Why even allow the chance for a clearly not as good team to make up for a season of mediocrity with a couple of wins at the end of the season? I consider it manufacturing drama. But the Euros are not without their sense of excitement. The FA Cup is like the NCAA tournament on steroids.

    Like someone else mentioned up above, I would suggest giving one of the Australian sports a go. Aussie rules football is OK, but I find the games are rarely close; I much prefer to watch Rugby League, a sport that is popular in basically only two places: Northern England and the North Eastern side of the Barassi Line ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barassi_Line ) in Australia. Its very different from what Americans think of as 'rugby,' which is actually a sport that is more properly known as Rugby Union. In Rugby League, the play is more similar to American Football in that there are downs, which leads to a slightly more structured playing style that I found easier to understand as a newcomer to the sport. Plus in Australia, they have this competition called State of Origin. Where the best players from the two main states that play rugby league (New South Wales and Queensland) play a 3 game series against each other. Imagine if you got to see a Texas vs. Florida American football game, where the best players that each state has to offer play as hard as they can. The atmosphere is intense, this is no NBA all-star celebration, and the quality of play is excellent.

  20. Jr,

    I was inspired by your venture, as I too found soccer to be intolerable. I chose AC Milan after quite a bit of research. I was quickly drawn into the sport, the players, the history of the opponents. In the end the 'rossoneri' won the Italian companionship, and as a 10 month fan I felt compelled to attend their last home game during which they received their trophy. This was at the storied San Siro stadium in Milan. It was the most intesne sporting event I've ever witnessed!! So in 10 months I went from a "who gives a crap" to a rabid "I'll fly over 5000 miles to see a game" fan. Thanks for the inspiration!!

  21. If you looking for games not on FSC or ESPN, try a website called MyP2P. They've carried the European feeds in the past.

  22. Now that you're a fan of soccer, you'll come to appreciate hockey more. Hockey is just soccer on ice... except faster and more punishing.

  23. Do you like websites?

    Eurosport.yahoo.com, don't mind the angry british article comments, most are annoying. But there is great all around coverage of all the English leagues, tourneys and what not. Can't watch many of the video highlights though in the USA due to rights restrictions.

    For ear pleasure, TalkSPORT radio stream is decent, and the BBC London 94.9 radio stream usually has live games that aren't blocked (mostly london club games). Perfect while working outside on a Saturday morning before NCAA Football gets rolling.

    Bbc.co.uk/sport has some good coverage too.

    Espn's soccernet isn't terrible.

    The club websites can be ok.

    YNWA with your new found love Craig.

  24. ... you'd rather watch a bike race?

  25. Someone asked about websites. When I was just getting into European football, a friend told me to read UnprofessionalFoul.com. They have mostly EPL coverage, but have regular stories on leagues in Italy, Spain, and South America. The stories are funny, engaging and really helped me understand the nuances and personalities of the teams, players and leagues. There are a bunch of sites out there, so dig around. That extra knowledge will really help develop your love of the game.

  26. Great summation, Junior.

    Football (soccer) has me hooked, as well.

    I'm a big football podcast consumer, for anyone looking for weekly (some daily) football conversation I recommend the following.

    The Football Ramble (if you could only choose one, look no further)
    The Tuesday Club (Arsenal-centric, but great for all)
    Chappers' Premier League Podcast
    Football Weekly (Guardian.co.uk based, i believe)
    EPL Talk Soccer
    The Footy Show (canada based, touches some of north / south america)
    5 live football daily BBC
    606 football phone-in BBC

    Peace, J.

  27. Glad you enjoyed it Jr. Had Arsenal made a longer run in CL you would have really been hooked. Unfortunate that they had to play Barca.

    I'm watching Chelsea vs Malaysia right now!

  28. Did the same thing two years ago. I went with Everton. Actually went to England for two matches last November (Liverpool at Tottenham and West Brom at Everton). And although the frustrate me to no end, they sure are fun when they are on.

    It'll never replace college football, NFL or baseball for me, but it's great to follow during the week and every weekend. It's especially great after football is over and before baseball. Love it.

  29. This is really cool.

    As someone from the UK, we often wonder why soccer hasn't taken off more in the USA. Firstly, I would say that the 2010 World Cup is widely seen as one of the worst World Cups ever. Incredibly low scoring, barely an interesting match, no-one standing out.

    It's amazing when I read things like your surprise at the relegation/promotion system. I couldn't imagine any other system. I support Watford- a team in the division below the EPL and some of the most exciting games are in this division between sides desperate to get promotion to the promised land of the EPL.

    And yes, make sure you get to a football match in person, and try not to make it a friendly game where the fans aren't too bothered. Get to Arsenal v Spurs or Arsenal v Man Utd and you'll witness how incredible the atmosphere can be.

  30. Similar experience but from the soccer side of life. I grew up playing "the beautiful game" and in 2001 had the opportunity to coach soccer in England's primary schools. I ended up with a hosts (retired) that had:
    1. Season tickets to Manchester City.
    2. A Blue Room with sky blue walls and a framed autographed jersey.
    3. An academy player living there as well.

    The academy kid gave us his seats for a home game in which a 10-man City took down Norwich 3-1. Tens of thousands of fans (we were in the league below the premiership) were singing Blue Moon. I was hooked; "City Till I Die," as they say.

    10 years later, married with a 5 year old son, we watch the games together whenever possible, flaunt our jerseys wherever we go, and bleed Blue.

    I understand the addiction to quality. I cannot seem to get into F.C. Dallas or any MLS games. But who knows, if you and I can cheer the Rangers for dozens of years of poor quality baseball, perhaps we can bring ourselves to cheer for our local soccer team as well. It may pay off someday.

  31. Next year by this time you will be following cricket as well

  32. The Ticket is airing a promo talking about nothing going on in sports right now--Mavs won, Hockey's over, Cowboys are locked out, and playoff baseball months away. They completely leave out FC Dallas. They're playing! There's something to talk about!

    I love that Junior is fully on board with EPL soccer... Now if we could get him and the Ticket Team to give some love to FC Dallas, that would really be awesome.


  33. Great post. I've been a Gooner since around 2002, die-hard since 2004, and it's been a hell of a ride. I wish more people would do what you have done before writing soccer off as boring or not worth their time.

    I've been to Emirates a few times now, but will always regret not being able to see a match at Highbury. By all means, follow through on your desire to see an Arsenal match in person. It is well worth it.

  34. You aren't a "Soccer Snob" Craig, you are still just a novice. You aren't experienced enough to consider yourself a snob. Watching a years worth of fixtures doesn't make you anyone to judge other leagues or quality of play.

  35. It is always nice to hear when an American fan of sports in general adds proper football to their sports repetoir. And the fact that you have selected to support Arsenal is brilliant. I am from Dallas, played since I was four and a bit in college (Navarro Jr College) barely worth mentioning and have been watching VCR tapes of past Arsenal games since I was 6. I have been to Emirates and watched a game live...one of the best sports experiences I have ever had.

  36. Good job mate. You picked the best team. The Gunners are by far the greatest team the world has ever seen and the pride of North London. I lived in London in the early to mid seventies and attended the American School. Me and my mates went to every match at Highbury and some travel games. We were regulars at the Northbank, the terraced area that the boot boy hooligans watched over and chanted. With our Doc Martins and rolled up pants we thought we were pretty tough. It was all a lot of fun especially when we took the Shelf at White Hart in 72. That got a little crazy.Bloody y$d's! We knew all the chants and some they still use today. It's called the beautiful game for a reason and once you understand it you will never want to be without it. My favoutite day of the year is the Community Shield or whatever they call it now, informal beggning to the season.

  37. you do realise that cricket is all about drinking, not watching??

  38. You're wrong about cricket. It is a cracking game but is less easy to follow given it's various forms and domestic/international structure.

  39. Four years ago, I adopted Newcastle United. I chose them because I like Newcastle Brown Ale and the fact that they're not one of the "glamour teams" that front-running American fans gravitate to. They're not too good, but I'm a patient guy drawn to hard-luck causes. Probably because I'm a lifelong Saints fan.

  40. Read Soccernomics by Simon Kupar. Great book that explains the economics in soccer (i.e. who the best fans are, who watches the most soccer on TV, do the teams make any money, etc.) As a huge fan of soccer, I couldn't put this book down.

  41. What a great read this blog and ALL the comments have been. I was raised here in Texas on Friday Night Lights...until 1979...when I moved to New Zealand where the choices were Soccer, Cricket, and Rugby. I ended up with soccer. And the love grows deeper with the passing years.

    Just you wait. You only think you are hooked now. And experiencing the game in person will make you want to go to other games live and in person. (I remember even going to local rec league games just because I wanted to see a game, any game live.)

    If you make an effort to attend FC Dallas games, and learn the names of the 30 players and their back stories - you will get to watch them grow from young hotshots to a few World Cup, EPL worthy players. You will get to care for the local team, while yearning for them to consistently play at that next level. But you will still delight in the game.

    It's the next step in your love-affair: support your local team.

    Oh, by the way, local Texas boy, Brek Shea (of FC Dallas) is currently tied for league leading goal scorer along with Landon Donovan and Thierry Henry = each has scored 9 goals so far. He is an early contender for league MVP.

  42. The EPL is good but I prefer Bundesliga play. It seems a bit more rough and physical, yet still a beautiful game

  43. Make sure to go to some MLS games. FC Dallas is a really good team and a fun team to watch.

    Dont discount it just because its not the EPL, live soccer is great.

  44. Welcome to the Dark Side.

    I got into EPL 10 years ago when my Mom went "home" for her mother's 90th Bday. I asked for a soccer jersey and my cousin gave me his Man City shirt. Been a fan since.
    I get my info from SkySports ( recently got rid of their forums ) and ESPN soccer section ( you can follow your team as your start page ).
    Bought FC Dallas season tickets this year in the supporters section. A BLAST. I do have to admit I haven't watched an MLS game on TV. It's not that the game is bad......it;s the fact our anouncers SUCK. The EPL announcer all call it like it is.
    For any of the novices following teams check out this site for chants: http://fanchants.co.uk/football-league/premiership/ As much as I hate ManU they have some funny chants,

  45. I did the same thing a few years ago. I actually bought a book on Amazon that gave the history of ALL the English teams, read the histories of the EPL teams & made my choice from there. It amazes me the passion I now have for a team I barely knew existed a 5-6 years ago (it also amazes me how much I loathe their rivals)! One of the teams I narrowed it down to based on my reading was Everton. There were a number of reasons, but the "last straw" was that Tommy Hicks was the owner of bitter rival Liverpool...& one more reason to dislike that sorry SOB was the only additional rationale I needed to cast my lot with the Toffees! It's been a great ride!!

  46. Way to give it a try! So tough for the U.S. sports consumer's need instant gratification only satiated by high scoring. With soccer, it's the struggle, the agony, the near misses, that make the game emotionally torturous. But, when the ball does make it into the back of the net.....the instant rush is unlike any other in sports...now you need to see an EPL game in person.

  47. I never watched soccer but started watching Manchester U. Loved it. You have to watch soccer for a while to know whats good. I now like it better than baseball and basketball although I am mostly an nfl fan. I also love the tabloids that follow these guys. I know much more about their love lives in one season than any nfl or mlb player.lol

  48. Perhaps it is natural to wish to support a team that wins more games than they lose, or that has even an outside chance of winning the league. This doesn't mean that you should discount the less successful teams. From my experience the exultation when your unfavoured team occassionaly beating one of the big teams far outweighs the fleeting joy of an expected win.
    As a Wolves fan the highs and lows of the final EPL game where every goal in the whole league had an effect on the clubs future in the league was exquisite torture. During that match we were in and out of relegation position on numerous occasions only to be saved with 3 minutes of the whole season to go.

    To be fully immersed in football, its not just the sport you need to watch, its the rumours, transfers, gossip, chat and rivalry that is of equal importance.

    As for cricket, There are different forms dependant on what you want. There is the 20-20 for he wham-bam brigade, and the 5 day test match for those who love strategy and one day games for those in-between.

    ...but to conclude the best sport to follow is Irish hurling

  49. I encourage you to give MLS another shot as well. The keys are:

    * Go local - nothing like backing your home team (and Dallas is a pretty good side these days).

    * Go live - Dallas has some problems here, but generally the atmosphere can be awesome at a soccer game. Unlike any other sport, and you'll never experience it by following EPL.

    * Get to know the players. Lots of colorful stories of kids coming onto the scene alongside more and more superstars finishing off their careers.

    Don't compare the play to EPL, where a single player makes more money than a handful of MLS teams put together. MLS is a young league, getting better every year. Take if for what it is - and take delight when your players (Brek Shea perhaps?) go on to make it in the big leagues overseas.