The Premier League, 2013-14, and America

US soccer player Clint Dempsey (right) scores for Spurs against defending champions Manchester City. Credit: Joe Toth - ISIPhotos.com

By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (May 7, 2013) US Soccer Players – Last season's Premier League finish went down to the final day, provided the neutral spectator with the sight of Manchester United waiting and watching while the title went to their nearest rivals. It was a vibrant soccer moment, the kind of standout evidence for the Premier League as the best league in the world. Against the stagnation of big clubs at the top of the table outspending the rest of the league happy to operate in their shadow, the Premier League told a different story. Sure, it took tons of money to turn City around, but that's not the point. That it happened is important, showing once again that outsider clubs can find a way forward.

For all the complaints about how City went from struggling lower division club to champion, their story was engaging. The team on the field was fun to watch in a way that separated the 2011-12 season from Premier League business as usual. City looked a lot like Chelsea, the other club that used benefactor millions to turn things around and break the hegemony at the top of the English table. That's good for any league, but especially the elite leagues of Europe. Otherwise, what happens is stagnation.

We all know that too many of the bigger leagues in Europe only serve as launching points for the more lucrative Champions League for the biggest clubs. Spain is only the latest example of that issue, with the bigger clubs spending at a rate that's simply not likely to happen with the rest of their leagues. Well, except in England where we've seen that happen twice.

That's what makes the 2012-13 Premier League season a disappointment. In the biggest picture, we're right back where we were. Manchester United are champions with weeks left to play. The real struggle is seeing who gets the rest of the European spots. Two of the three clubs at the bottom of the table now belong to the Championship, with a race among disappointing teams to see who can squander chances and join them in the drop. Yet, there's something more.

Earlier this season, we saw a Manchester United team that seemed to care as much about entertaining as goal difference. They played to their offensive strengths, treated wins as the only point, and allowed a freer flowing game than what we normally see from an elite Premier League club. That was duly punished in Europe, and the Champions League failure chased by a bizarre exit from the Europa League had United slamming the door on entertainment and returning to the kind of conservative soccer that not only wins championships in England, but games in Europe.

If only United's early form worked. Then we might've seen other Premier League teams taking chances, opening games up, and putting on the kind of soccer that draws in the neutral and the general sports fan. Instead, we got the Premier League as usual. The better games were lower in the table as teams did whatever they could to try to preserve their Premier League status. It's desperation soccer, but it's also entertaining soccer.

This season across Europe, entertainment is the problem. For every shocking second-leg comeback in European competition, there have been numerous high profile league games that should rightly leave the viewer wondering what else they could've done with those two hours. At domestic level, whatever promise the 2012-13 seasons held in the beginning turned into what we’ve seen before. In England especially, that meant playing safe.

Ok, and? Well, here’s the thing. We’re watching from the other side of the Atlantic as two transformative moments happen for the Premier League. One is Financial Fair Play, UEFA’s economic decrees that probably should cause most fans’ eyes to glaze over at this point. The goal of some limited version of parity is very European, the solution ignoring what builds leagues in North America. The other is the Premier League’s new status in the US sports landscape courtesy of the deal with NBC Sports. The 2013-14 season is now categorically different for the Premier League when it comes to the US market. Whether or not that has any impact on how the Premier League operates next season is an open question. The EPL can choose to focus on another season not unlike the last, putting it on their American broadcaster to make the most with what they’re given.

It would be an interesting choice. The Premier League stands on the brink in the United States. It’s familiar enough that most sports fans could probably name a few clubs , but there’s still a gap between awareness and ratings. ESPN and Fox have tried to bridge that with limited success. NBC’s attempt focuses on putting games on network television and trying to make their Premier League coverage all but unavoidable for the mainstream sports fan. If it works, they’ve established a property that up to this point is more hype than substance here.

What can severely hamper that effort is a mundane season. NBC, and by extension the Premier League since breaking the American market should be hugely important, need the Fall of 2012-13, not the Spring. They need teams taking chances, big clubs surprising, and the occasional missed opportunity. What they don’t need is a season-long exercise in conservative soccer.


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 jhutcherson@usnstpa.com.

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