I’m a big soccer fan, but as you can tell, I’ve stayed in my own lane regarding my thoughts on soccer. Usually my opinions are either totally unsupported by facts or already written by somebody who knows far more than me.
For a few years, I tried supporting Newcastle United, but it didn’t take. It’s just too hard for an American with basic cable to consistently follow a team across the pond, particularly when Newcastle was relegated to the Championship after the 2008-09 season. Instead, I decided it was far easier to follow leagues and simply appreciate good soccer.
Of course, there are teams I like more than others. For example, Man United and Chelsea are the Red Sox/Yankees of England. As a rule, even if you hate both of them, you have to pick one as the lesser of two evils, since one of the two is pretty much guaranteed to win the Premier League every year unless Arsenal gets lucky. I prefer Man United for reasons that are unclear to me…something about Chelsea rubs me the wrong way. I still like Newcastle and find it fun to root for the newly promoted teams that stand little chance (like Blackpool this year).
I also like certain teams because of their players. I started following Atlético Madrid in La Liga this year because Diego Forlán was such a badass in the World Cup. Same with pretty much any player on Barcelona and Real Madrid. But mostly this involves me following the American national team players playing abroad.
Which brings me to the fantastic news of the day: American midfielder Michael Bradley was loaned to Premier League side Aston Villa today from the German Bundesliga’s Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Mönchengladbach is stuck at the bottom of the Bundesliga table and, barring a late run, will probably be relegated following the season. Bradley was solid this year, but the squad is a bit of a mess. He has one year left on his contract, so this loan seems like a Premier League tryout for next season, when Mönchengladbach hopes to get paid a decent-sized transfer fee for Bradley to help with the squad’s inevitable rebuilding.
Aston Villa’s move is part of a flurry of late-season moves in an attempt to avoid relegation for the first time since the Premier League’s founding in 1992. Although Villa is traditionally one of the more successful teams outside the League’s top four, they have spent most of the season trying to avoid the relegation zone.
Villa refused to spend money in the offseason following a sixth place finish last year – the only “move” they made in the summer transfer window was getting midfielder Stephen Ireland from Man City as partial payment for sending James Millner to the Blues. Ireland lasted until October before he was benched.
With relegation a serious possibility after midseason, Villa suddenly found the money they refused to spend in the offseason. On January 18, they received striker Darren Bent from Sunderland for a club record transfer fee. Bent is significantly under-appreciated compared to higher-profile strikers Wayne Rooney and Didier Drogba, but he ranks just behind them with 81 goals scored since 2005 (Drogba has 83 and Rooney has 82).
Bent immediately provided a spark – he scored in his first game with the Villans in an upset victory over Man City. With a Premier League victory over Wigan four days later and an FA Cup victory over Blackburn Rovers today, Villa has won all three games since Bent arrived.
Then came the Bradley transfer news today. This is great news, and not just because I received an Aston Villa track jacket for Christmas. Bradley becomes the fourth American player on Villa’s squad, the most for any team in Europe.
Bradley joins former United States national goalkeeper Brad Friedel, backup goalie Brad Guzan, and right back Eric Lichaj. Guzan is currently out on loan to Championship side Hull City to get more playing time, because Villa is not expected to resign 39-year old Friedel after this season.
The United States expects a lot out of 22-year old Lichaj for the next World Cup cycle, particularly since the Americans struggled there during the last cycle. Lichaj was a backup most of the season before getting three straight starts just before Bent’s arrival. Unfortunately, he now finds himself back on the bench behind Kyle Walker (on loan from Tottenham Hotspur) after a 4-0 drubbing against Man City four weeks ago.
Bradley figures to get a fair amount of playing time, so that makes Villa significantly more intriguing for American soccer fans. It’s much easier to follow a Premier League team like Villa than it is to follow a bottom of the table Bundesliga team. Bradley may even make his debut on American TV this coming Tuesday afternoon, when the Villans make an appearance on ESPN2 against Manchester United.
Plus, the next several weeks are make-or-break time for Villa. After Tuesday’s game against Man U, Villa’s schedule gets significantly easier – of the club’s last 13 league opponents, only Arsenal is in the top six. Villa is six points clear of the relegation zone and ten points back of the last European spot. A late run towards the top half of the table is not out of the question, but a few losses to teams in the lower half brings relegation back into the picture. With the win in the FA Cup today, Villa also enters the final 16 of that competition.
So there’s a lot to be excited about in the near future for both Aston Villa and American soccer fans. Hopefully the Villans will continue their recent hot streak and the 23-year old Bradley gains important Premier League experience that will make him even more valuable in the next World Cup cycle.