By J Hutcherson (Aug 6, 2019) US Soccer Players - With the return to club soccer in Europe, there are always the old reliables. Will it be Barcelona or Real Madrid in La Liga? Will Juventus in Spain and PSG in France once again run away at the top of their leagues? Will the Premier League be competitive or will it only seem that way as the favorite claims the trophy?
These are the cliches of European soccer because they're the norm. It's no coincidence that these are also the teams most likely to spend. That helps them, but it also escalates the market out of reach of their competitors while making smaller clubs offers they can't refuse. It's that disparity driving European club soccer right now, but it's not the only story worth your attention. Courtesy of cable and especially streaming services, it's easy enough to get past the obvious. Not that the obvious isn't worth your time. It's just not the only things worth your time this season in European soccer.
7th-place in the Premier League
The plight of the midtable in England's Premier League isn't news. Those clubs play for an unofficial title, trying to grab that final Europa League place by finishing 7th. Since the ridiculous change to the Champions League allocations, the top four Premier League finishers are automatically in the group stage. There are enough super clubs left to grab the two Europa League group stage places. That's what creates the fight for 7th in the Premier League.
Last season, Arsenal finished 5th four points ahead of 6th-place Manchester United. It was Wolves raising the banner for the midtable clubs with aspirations. They finished 7th, taking the final Europa League spot and entering in the qualifying stages. That means extra games for Wolves, playing their second set of qualifiers later this week. Is that a benefit or a problem? For Burnley coming off of a 7th-place finish in 2017-18 it meant six Europa League qualifiers and missing the group stage. They finished 15th in the Premier League.
For this season's midtable clubs targeting that Europa League qualifying spot, the game will likely be keeping out Everton. It's hard to argue for Everton as one of the Premier League's elite, but they're certainly the most likely club to be in the hunt for a 7th-place finish. They're also the best example of what's happened in the Premier League with Manchester City and Spurs joining Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool in the ranks of the super clubs.
Is the battle of everybody else really worth your time? Certainly over the first-half of the season where these clubs can do as much as the favorites in deciding the legit title contenders. There's a confidence with the midtable teams that's lacking with the clubs in real danger of relegation. Those teams will try anything to avoid the drop. The midtable is more likely to be building either for this season or next. What they're building for is the big picture existential question for European soccer right now.
How to watch: Though you can certainly get by with any cable package that has the NBC Sports channels, NBC Gold is the streaming service with access to all Premier League games.
If Lille is known to Americans, it's likely for being the place to change trains coming from or going to London. Considering there's a shopping mall across from the station and a casino next to that, there might not be much of a reason to go exploring. Should you want to take their automated subway line all the way out, you'll have a nice walk through a college before coming across a stadium next to a highway. Welcome to the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, the home of Lille Olympique Sporting Club aka LOSC aka Les Dogues. Though there's something very America in the 1970s about a stadium off a highway at the edges of a city and across from a mall, this is the modern version of LOSC. The stadium opened in 2012 and the whole area has a newness. So does the club.
Two seasons ago, Lille avoided relegation by a point. Last season, they finished 2nd and qualified for the group stage of the Champions League. Earlier this summer, they completed a deal for USMNT player Timothy Weah. That should be all boxes checked for the American fan looking for a new allegiance.
It's not fair to the job Lille did last season to start piling on about the dominance of PSG or the rest of the league being there to fill out their schedule. There's more to Ligue 1 than that. The pressure isn't on Lille to show that they really are the best of the rest over the longterm. At least no more than a handful of other Ligue 1 clubs that do enough to keep up the league's UEFA coefficient. Ligue 1 is just above the Russian Premier League with no realistic way to go but down. They need results from their Champions League and Europa League clubs or risk having less Europa League places. That's where the pressure is for Lille and Lyon alongside PSG in the Champions League group stage. It should make for an interesting season.
How to watch: Choosing which Champions League games to watch means subscribing to BR/Live or taking your chances with what TNT and Univision show. Ligue 1 is on beIN Sport, but they normally stick to games involving PSG. You'll need their streaming service.
Good and bad in the Championship
If you'd like a season-long project, try figuring out good from bad in the Championship. There's normally a dividing line between the teams legitimately playing for Premier League promotion, teams fooling themselves, and the bulk of the league in a fight that may or may not be about relegation. To call the Championship a physical league is a bit of an understatement. This is a competition with more teams than the Premier League and a greater willingness to let elbows do the talking. There's no Video Assistant Replay in the Championship, and part of the project is deciding for yourself whether or not that's a good thing.
The easiest entry point is the relegated Premier League teams. Cardiff City, Fulham, and Huddersfield made the drop and it's a safe assumption that at most one of them will have a real chance at promotion. How far the others fall is an interesting way to look at the level of competition in the second division. Is it the other teams in the league or the situation that sees relegated Premier League clubs stall or worse? What you probably won't see is an obvious class distinction. There's an established Championship mentality that may or may not pay off in promotion but should keep a good team in contention. Norwich City won the Championship last season with 94 points. Aston Villa finished 5th on 76 points and won the promotion playoff. It's Villa the team most people are picking to stay up.
How to watch: ESPN+ carries the Championship.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- The Champions League asks too much
- The new MLS playoff problem
- Concacaf's next move
- The Europa League problem
Photo by James Marsh - ISIPhotos.com