Premier League 2022-23: Soccer’s Calling

My love of soccer goes back to a time when my high school hadn’t even yet sponsored it as a varsity sport. That was likely because soccer was still in the process of trying to get any kind of foothold at all in the United States on the professional level. I wound up playing goal one season for our school’s club team, playing other schools who had yet to formally sponsor soccer squads.

In that season, I learned a pretty cool life lesson during one match when I spectacularly stopped a penalty shot…only to relax a bit, not control the rebound, and the other squad scored a goal anyway. Lesson learned – never take anything for granted and don’t celebrate too soon. Well, maybe that was two life lessons…

My interest in what the rest of Planet Earth calls football did not start more recently with the popular TV series Ted Lasso, as I suspect was the case for some Americans…although I think that’s an excellent show and anything that helps people in the States connect with soccer is great.

By the way, did you know the genesis of Ted Lasso came about when star Jason Sudeikis did a couple of sketch-length commercials for the Premier League’s broadcast coverage in the US? The basis for the series about an American football coach using his skill set to embark on a career as an English club soccer coach came about from two promos Sudeikis did. By the way, I think NBC Sports does a really fine job covering the PL. Watching matches on Saturday and Sunday mornings has become a tradition for a lot of folks in the States, with many gathering at their favorite watering holes to enjoy the action with fellow fans.

As for how the Premier League may shake out in its upcoming season, the pre-season rankings below are from analytics site FiveThirtyEight. They use a number of metrics to determine each squad’s soccer power rating (SPI), and then refines them throughout the season as results accumulate. With the kickoff of the new campaign less than two weeks away, here is how they have each of the 20 clubs ranked:

Manchester City (92.3)

Liverpool (90.5)

Chelsea (85.7)

Tottenham Hotspur (81.9)

Arsenal (78.5)

Manchester United (75.2)

Aston Villa (74.1)

Brighton & Hove Albion (73.7)

Crystal Palace (71.4)

Leicester City (71.2)

West Ham United (70.6)

Brentford (68.6)

Newcastle United (68.6)

Wolverhampton Wanderers (67.7)

Everton (63.8)

Leeds United (62.2)

Southampton (61.3)

Fulham (58.7)

Bournemouth (57.9)

Nottingham Forest (57.3)

The site ultimately feels defending champ Manchester City has a 46% probability to win the league, with Liverpool given a 30% chance and Chelsea 11%. Last season, a thrilling final day of the campaign saw Manchester City score three goals in under six minutes to snatch victory from Aston Villa and claim their fourth championship in five seasons. They finished a lone one point ahead of second-place Liverpool. Chelsea was third, Tottenham Hotspur fourth, Arsenal fifth, and Manchester United sixth.

So…in comparing last season’s results to those pre-season rankings it looks like nothing is expected to change in terms of the squads at the top. More on that in a moment. Of course, there is always the question of Premier League relegation, which is I feel one of the coolest aspects of many soccer leagues. It often presents as much drama as who all may be fighting it out for first. For those unfamiliar with relegation, the teams that finish in the bottom three positions in the Premier League standings each season leave the league and are relegated one level/tier down to what is known as the EFL Championship. The EFL Championship in turn promotes three teams up to the PL for the following campaign. Burnley, Watford, and Norwich City were the Premier League clubs sent down last season…replaced this year by Fulham, Bournemouth, and Nottingham Forest. There is always a fair amount of stress among the lesser squads each year with the potential to be relegated. Residence in the Premier League each season provides a cash windfall for its participants.

There has always been debate about whether or not dynasties are good for a sport. In the Premier League, there certainly are the haves and have-nots based on cash to spend, the quality of their facilities, historical prestige, etc. It’s no accident the same teams that finished at the top of last season are the ones favored at the top this year. Manchester City certainly is in dynasty-mode right now with those four titles in the past five seasons. Yet, I still recall the incredible run of Leicester City in the 2015-16 campaign, considered by many to be one of the greatest team sporting stories of all time. Rated at 5000-1 to win the Premier League at the beginning of that year, they did just that. Indeed, it is unlikely a club will pull of a miracle like Leicester City did that season, but it is great fun each year watching lesser squads sometimes give the big boys all they can handle in a match…potentially denying them what they thought going in would be an easy victory and three points in the standings.

What I like most about the Premier League is the passion of the fans. They are devoted to their clubs, and it is fantastic to see the joy in their faces when their squads do well. These clubs have been at it for a long time now, and the love they have for their teams has been passed down from generation to generation.

Other PL likes…I am ok with ties, which probably puts me in a very small minority. I know it may sound strange, but I honestly never had a problem with ties in either the NFL or NHL regular seasons before they moved to overtime periods. In the Premier League, where there is an acknowledged uneven amount of resources among the membership, I like the fact those have-nots have the ability to forge a tie and take away something against the favorites. I also think it is neat the PL, like many other leagues in world soccer, has no post-season. The season IS the season. A true champion, not diluted by an over-abundance of playoff teams like we allow in American sports. I find that refreshing. Each August, fans of the Premier League heed the call back to their club’s pitch knowing every match means so much.

One additional note about the Premier League for this season. There will be an unusual interruption to the schedule in November-December as players are allowed to compete for their national teams at the World Cup in Qatar. If interested, you’ll be able to find information online about how Qatar was selected to host this championship in the first place, as well as troubling reports of poor safety conditions there while construction of stadiums and facilities was going on. The positioning of this World Cup in Qatar also means not just the Premier League, but leagues around the world, have to suspend their seasons. To have the Cup played at its usual time, in the middle of the calendar year, would have been the equivalent of playing soccer on the sun. The whole planet seems to be heating up these days, but Qatar always features scorching summertime temps, so the decision was made to move the World Cup to the fall. Hopefully, all players who compete there come out of the competition in good health and ready to resume their seasons.

The most powerful, most watched soccer league in the world begins its new season on August 5th.

The I In Team

The first thing that comes to mind when I consider what I would be like as a head coach in a team sport is…I would work hard to ensure every player got to see at least some action in every game.

That concept was forged when I was just thirteen years old. At that age, I was a 7th grade, third-string quarterback on my junior high football team, which consisted of players from 7th-9th grade.

The starting quarterback was a 9th grader, a son of one of our senior high school team’s coaches. Mind you, he did not become a starter on that pedigree alone. He was an excellent player who went on to play some college ball as well. The back-up quarterback was also older and more experienced than I…not nearly as good as our starter…but definitely better than me.

Our school enjoyed a healthy advantage when it came to student enrollment, and as such were dominant against most schools who had a lower number of students to draw from. In this particular season, our team won all six of its games. I believe the “closest” any team got to us all year may have been 21 points. We overwhelmed all of our opponents that year.

The head coach of our junior high team (who was a coach on the senior high team also) visibly enjoyed not only defeating opponents, but annihilating them. In that spirit, our starting players played almost every play of every game.

In our last game of the season, we went up by 30-0 fairly quickly and maintained that score to the final whistle. I did not play in that game.

I did not play in any of our games that year.

Even though we dominated the opposition in every one of our games, with outcomes never in doubt, I did not play one single play.

As I recall, the second-string QB did get into one game that year…but at another position. Our stellar, super-star quarterback – for whatever reason – had to take every snap from center that season. We not only had to win, but had to win by as much as possible.

Football is a challenging game to play. Practice for upcoming seasons often begins in relentless heat and humidity…and I grew up in a time when water breaks were still considered quite the luxury rather than mandatory. And then of course…there’s all those repetitive collisions with other people to consider. It’s a brutal sport at any age.

I knew I’d have a big adjustment at my new school, and I will admit things between my parents could have been better at that time, but I really wanted to play football and was determined to do so. I kept my grades up, made some new friends, and showed up for football practice every single day.

Yet, practice football was all I was accorded. I did not get to actually play football.

I was devastated.

After that season, I focused on basketball and baseball. I also played a year of soccer…but football was over for me. Yes, in those other sports there were still times when I was the guy not playing so much, and other times when others were most often watching me play. It just wasn’t as severe as that 7th grade football season.

I think back…what if I had played just one play that year…played in any of those games at all? Would I have stuck with football? I just could not reconcile returning to it after sitting on the sidelines the whole season. For sure, being better at those other sports certainly factored into the decision to step away from it as well.

Next month, the Little League Baseball International World Series will once again return to Williamsport PA. It’s not that far from where I live, and I have attended a couple of them. This season marks the 75th anniversary of the World Series, and it once again will be a late Summer ritual for fans young and old alike. Several years ago, there was a new category of rules added to Little League Baseball called Mandatory Play. It is as it sounds, making sure all players on a team actually get to play in actual games…not just practice. I think it’s a great thing.

I fully recognize the priority of a head coach, especially at “business” levels, is to win. It’s just my feeling to help ensure an entire team stays actively engaged throughout the year, what better way to do so than to have each player alert to the fact they’re going to be called upon to contribute at any moment? Seasons are long. I think a no-brainer way to keep your players motivated is to assure them they aren’t just going to practice…but play…all year.

I hear high school, college and professional head coaches lament the fact they don’t have enough depth on their teams, are lacking at certain positions, etc. These are often the same coaches who never use their benches no matter what. Maybe their substitutes would be better if they let them into competition once in a while? Who knows, they might find out one or more can contribute more than first thought? Some athletes shine brightest when the bright lights are on…and the minutes actually count for something.

If my team’s substitutes were clearly a couple notches down in ability below my starters, I would still work hard to find a way to get them onto the field, onto the court, etc. I’d be rotating them into play with the majority of starters still playing. I would find ways to not compromise the team’s chances of winning, but still making sure everyone truly felt like a part of the team’s fortunes.

I acknowledge there are team sports where getting everyone onto the playing surface each time out isn’t feasible. I also get the tremendous amount of pressure on head coaches at any level…to just win.

Still, I’d like to think even if it sounds naïve or idealistic on the surface, deep down I’d aspire for my teams to always play together…not just practice together.