EPL Season Starts Saturday

Football is back! What to watch for in the first weekend of English Premier League matches

Football is back! What to watch for in the first weekend of English Premier League matches

Austin Photo Set:Phil_chelsea wins_soccermay 2012_2
Courtesy of footbola
Austin Photo Set:Phil_chelsea wins_soccermay 2012_1
Courtesy of footbola
Austin Photo Set:Phil_chelsea wins_soccermay 2012_2
Austin Photo Set:Phil_chelsea wins_soccermay 2012_1

Can you believe football starts up again Saturday? 

Here, football means football in England and soccer in the U.S., specifically the English Premier League, which is arguably the most entertaining of the world’s professional soccer leagues. The 38-game season segues into the end what many fans call “the silly season” — the August transfer window in which players can move to other teams in the EPL or other leagues. During this time, rumors fly with alacrity and fans spend time in at least a mild level of suspense.

For American fans, the recommended way to watch EPL matches is among the company of others at bars, as day drinking and loudly celebrating goals just takes on a different, emptier veneer in one’s living room. Because EPL games are aired live on Fox’s mini-network of soccer channels (with select games making their way to ESPN), Austinites typically gather at 9 a.m. to watch, when the majority of games start. Some do kick off at 11:30 a.m., clearly better for Central Time Americans, but others kick-off at 6:30 a.m.

While a fair number of bars in Austin air EPL games on at least a semi-regular basis, Cuatros (1004 W. 24th) is home base to some of Austin’s most fervent soccer fans. Two passionate fan groups — Austin Blues, who back Chelsea, and Austin Gooners, who root for Arsenal — make Cuatros their clubhouse, complete with banners claiming it as their territory.

This Saturday, Cuatros is also home to The Free Beer Movement, an ambitious project headed by Austin’s own Dan Wieserma. The website, which includes feature articles on how local beers tie in with local soccer teams, promotes spreading the love of watching soccer through a simple formula: invite a friend out to watch soccer, buy him a beer and attempt to inspire that person to gain a deeper understanding, if not a lifelong relationship, with soccer.

Saturday’s watch party will include (thanks to The Free Beer Movement) the option of as much Live Oak Pils as you care to drink in exchange for a $10 donation to the MS Foundation, and a breakfast buffet to help revelers pace themselves.

Fox Soccer Channel will show West Brom vs. Liverpool on Saturday morning. Though perhaps not the most engaging match on Saturday’s schedule, Liverpool’s being highlighted for several reasons. The team has American ties (it's owned by John Henry, who also owns the Boston Red Sox) and is the subject of a soon-to-air documentary series on FSC that promises to give fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at players, coaches and fans.

Liverpool is also trying to shake off what, for them, was a disappointing 2011 - 2012 season, but despite bringing on new coach Brendan Rogers, they haven’t yet landed any of the potential new players that might bring about a sorely-needed transformation for the better.

That could be changing soon, though. The 9 a.m. game on Fox Soccer Plus, Fulham vs. Norwich City, just got far less engaging for American fans with an announcement that Clint Dempsey will be left off the Fulham roster as the team prepared for his inevitable departure. Dempsey, arguably the best active American soccer player among professional men’s leagues, anchored a Fulham team that finished a respectable ninth place in the EPL last year, but rumors have been swirling for months about him leaving for either Liverpool or Arsenal.

ESPN will show Arsenal vs. Sunderland at 9 a.m. (the game most likely to be on Cuatros flagship giant outdoor screen). Arsenal had a tumultuous summer: earlier this week, captain and last year’s EPL-leading goal scorer Robin van Persie was moved to Manchester United, six weeks after announcing on his website that he was breaking up with Arsenal.

Despite the van Persie departure, which led one fan to post this "How to remove felt lettering from an EPL jersey" guide on his blog, a trio of summer signings – German striker Lukas Podolski, French striker Olivier Giroud and Spanish midfielder Santi Cazorla, are sending Gooners into throes of perhaps irrational exuberance. There are, however, reports that key defensive midfielder Alex Song is on his way to Barcelona. Sunderland, meanwhile is a mid-table team, most recently making news by picking up French international and Tottenham Hotspur castoff Louis Saha.

There’s only one game in the 11:30 a.m. slot, and it’s maybe the best game of the weekend, featuring Newcastle and Tottenham Hotspur (better known by the Spurs nickname). Both teams narrowly missed out on Champions League play this year, but both will be in the Europa League. Newcastle has four of the EPL’s most exciting players: Senegalians Demba Ba and Pappas Cisse, plus French internationals Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye, but who are all battling injuries right now.

The Spurs have injury problems of their own, a new coach (Andres Villas-Boas, who was unceremoniously dumped at Chelsea manager last year) and a transfer distraction of their own, involving Real Madrid-bound Luka Modric. (Though Villas-Boas says, “Not a distraction.”) 

Chelsea fans must wait until Sunday to see their team start its 2012-2013 campaign with a game against sprightly Wigan, though they did play the high-profile Community Shield game last week, losing 3-2 to Manchester City. Chelsea also had a high-profile summer tour of the U.S., which included a surprising loss to the MLS All-Star team in Philadelphia, but showcased star-in-the-making Eden Hazard.

Manchester City, the defending league champion, starts its season on Sunday as well against just-promoted Southampton, in what very well could be a matchup of this year’s first place team vs. last place team. 

And the other major contender for EPL supremacy, Manchester United, doesn't get started until Monday afternoon with its opener at Everton, which will feature van Persie and new teammate Wayne Rooney (being touted as “Fatman and Robin” by some non-fans) taking shots on top American goalie Tim Howard.

Wherever your allegiance lies, this is going to be a good weekend to be — or become — an English football fan.