Tuesday Morning Tea: Week 1 Overreactions

Author’s Note: This is the first of what I hope to turn into a weekly series that recaps the weekend Premier League Action. Growing up in St. Louis, I didn’t have much exposure to European football when I was younger, so I’m almost brand new to the scene. I hope to bring a unique American perspective and analysis to this world that I’ve come to love so much while not sounding like too much of an idiot.

$1 billion.

Think about just how much money that is. It’s more than you or I will ever have combined between us in 12 lifetimes. It’s more money than the total GDP of 14 countries. It’s a mind boggling number.

$1 billion is a spending threshold that Premier League clubs flew past during the summer transfer window. Exorbitant transfer fees were tossed around like nobody’s business and Premier League clubs were most consistently involved.

Highlights include Manchester City breaking their own record for most expensive defender ever by purchasing fullback Kyle Walker from Tottenham for 50 million pounds. Then, a mere week later, City broke that record by signing fullback Benjamin Mendy for 52 million pounds from French champions AS Monaco.

Normally stingy Arsenal splashed a club record 52 million pounds on French goal machine Alexandre Lacazette from Lyon. Manchester United brought Everton striker Romelu Lukaku over the Toffees for an initial 75 million pound fee. Even middle and lower end clubs like Watford, Huddersfield, Everton and West Brom splurged club records on transfer fees.

This is probably me being new to football, but the relentless stream of rumors has made this summer seem particularly long. So after a long summer full of Premier League headlines, the league finally returned on August 11th.

New boys Huddersfield Town are currently in Champions League position, defending champs Chelsea were embarrassed at Stamford Bridge, and goals abounded throughout week 1’s fixtures. Here are some overreactions.

Huddersfield are Here to Stay

First off, congratulations to Huddersfield Town. Making their debut in England’s first division, the Terriers stormed their way to a 3-0 win over Crystal Palace. In a season that was completely unexpected, a debut win is an incredible moment that club supporters will never forget.

That being said, I still believe it’s an overreaction to immediately believe that Huddersfield will be able to breeze their way to relegation survival.

There is definite quality in this side, though. Aaron Mooy is class on the ball and can boss a midfield in the mold of someone like Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic. Huddersfield does play a distinct style that can catch underprepared squads by surprise, as evidenced by what happened to Palace on Saturday.

The Terriers press high up the field and rely on relentless pace and athleticism to make up for a lack of ball control and consistent structure. Against Palace, Huddersfield’s speed was on full display, and striker Steve Mounie had a day, scoring his first Premier League brace.

Huddersfield
Photo Courtesy of Reuter

The positives from this win are obvious. It’s an incredible moment for a long-suffering fanbase that never thought they would witness this day. But against teams that can match their athleticism, Huddersfield will be sliced open at the back.

This was fun, but reality will set in eventually.

Everything About Chelsea

To put it kindly, Stamford Bridge has never been known as a patient place and Chelsea’s traditional lack of patience is already being tested just one week into another title defense.

Seeing parallels to the disaster that was Chelsea’s last Premier League title defense, it seems easy to understand why the club and its supporters should panic. But knee jerk reactions are exactly what isn’t needed in this situation.

Yes, an opening 3-2 home defeat to Burnley is incredibly embarrassing. But that scoreline doesn’t reflect what happened.

Down 3-0 at half, Chelsea were booed off by the home fans. Captain Gary Cahill was sent off in the 13th minute for a rash challenge and the Blues never seemed to recover from that shock.

Chelsea 1.jpg
Gary Cahill sees red (Photo Courtesy of Reuters)

Burnley, to their credit, took full advantage of a Chelsea side in disarray and bagged 3 tallies before the halftime whistle, including a Stephen Ward thunderbolt that has my vote for goal of the weekend.

However, a 10 man Chelsea side controlled the 2nd half. Alvaro Morata’s substitution completely changed the game and culminated in him netting his first Premier League goal minutes after entering.

It’s easy to see this game and immediately assume that Chelsea will be well out of the title picture by November and in shambles by Christmas, but that’s just not the case.

In reality, this is a team that was missing it’s best player, a key cog in its midfield, and only got 30 minutes out of its best striker. Burnley caught the champions by surprise, but put Eden Hazard, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Morata on the pitch for a full 90 minutes and Chelsea are just fine.

For once, Stamford Bridge needs to have some patience.

Arsenal and Liverpool are Doomed

File this one under the same category as “the sky is falling at Stamford Bridge.”

Behind Chelsea’s defeat, Liverpool’s scintillating 3-3 draw at Vicarage Road was the most surprising result of the weekend. The fact that a Watford side, without club record signing Andre Gray in the squad, was able to bag 3 goals and generally have their way with the Liverpool defense is startling. But it’s not as startling if you consider how the side would look with Virgil Van Dijk in the middle.

Yes, that’s a massive if, but the Dutch center back would bring much needed stability and size to a Liverpool defense lacking in both. 2 of Watford’s 3 goals were scored off of set pieces, with the Reds appearing helpless on both occasions. Van Dijk defends set pieces as well as any center back in the world and could almost single handedly solve this problem.

Again, this is all a massive if, but Liverpool’s attack was electric even without Philippe Coutinho. All Jurgen Klopp’s side needs is some stability at the back and you can bank on another top 4 finish.

Liverpool
Photo Courtesy of PA

As for Arsenal, I would be more encouraged by the fact that the Gunnars actually won an opening weekend match than by the scoreline they needed to do it.

Leicester consistently looked dangerous going forward, as they should all season, and the goals scored by the Foxes were mostly born by taking advantage of an Arsenal defense in disarray.

Yet, even while giving up 3 disheartening goals, Arsenal scored twice after the 80th minute to snatch a rare opening weekend victory. Olivier Giroud is the Premier League’s best super sub, Lacazette is the real deal, and Schalke transfer Sead Kolasinac was an absolute beast.

Arsenal
Photo Courtesy of ESPNFC

Arsene Wenger can worry about the holes his side showed later, Arsenal grabbing the 3 points is the most important part of this match and should ease nerves over the club’s future in its first year without Champions League football in over 2 decades.

……….

Team of the Weekend: Huddersfield Town

This one was pretty obvious. The Terriers won their first ever Premier League game by a 3-0 scoreline. It was a result for the ages and seeing Huddersfield at the top of the table, even if for less than a day, is a moment that club supporters will never forget.

Runners Up: Manchester United, Manchester City, Burnley

Player of the Weekend: Romelu Lukaku

On the heels of an excellent preseason, 2 goals on his Old Trafford debut continues Romelu Lukaku’s ascension through the Premier League ranks. The Belgian relished the opportunity to play for what he called “the biggest club in the world” and he’s wasted no time delivering on his immense promise. I don’t have a farm, but if I did, I would be betting it on Lukaku for the Golden Boot.

Runners Up: Steve Mounie, Sam Vokes, Kyle Walker, Sead Kolasinac

Moment of the Weekend: Wayne Rooney’s Return

After 13 seasons away, the Premier League’s all time second leading scorer returned to his boyhood club and marked the occasion with a match winning goal. The ovation was thunderous and the moment will go down in Everton’s long history. After spending a club record during the summer transfer window in a desperate attempt to break through to the top 6, Rooney’s goal provided a bright opening act in what club supporters hope to be a special season.

Runners Up: Giroud’s winner, Watford’s stoppage time equalizer, the final whistle at Selhurst Park

10 Thoughts I Have

1. Manchester City’s defense spending will pay off. Kyle Walker was the Man of the Match during City’s opener at Brighton, and the Seagulls hardly appeared to pose anything that could be considered a scoring threat. Yes, it’s Brighton, but City pressed high, was excellently organized at the back and looked a world different from the disarrayed side that took the field most of last year. Add in Benjamin Mendy when he’s fit and Pep Guardiola has a scary looking squad.

2. Yes, I said that Burnley’s Stephen Ward scored the goal of the weekend, but Sadio Mane’s opener for Liverpool was incredible. Losing Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona would be a huge bane on Liverpool’s title hopes, but if Saturday was any indication of the type of player Mane can turn into, the Reds have something special. (start watching at 0:33 for Mane’s goal). 

3. STEPHEN WARD SCORED THE GOAL OF THE WEEKEND. (start at 1:12)

4. Wayne Rooney made all the headlines for Everton, but goalie Jordan Pickford will stand out as the club’s best transfer. Pickford had a fantastic summer, playing a huge part in the England’s 3rd place finish at the 2017 U21 European Championships. Pickford made a fantastic save in Everton’s opener against Bournemouth and already appears worth the club record fee that the Toffees paid for him.

5. Nemanja Matic is just what the doctor ordered for Manchester United. He absolutely bossed the game against West Ham, controlling possession, passing accurately, and creating valuable space for the likes of Paul Pogba and Juan Mata to work. Last season, Pogba struggled with defensive responsibilities and was limited in his ability to create going forward. Matic is exactly the kind of player that Pogba needs in behind him and will be a godsend for Jose Mourinho’s squad this season.

6. Sead Kolasinac will be overlooked, beaten out by the higher profile likes of Lukaku, Morata, Lacazette and Salah, but he’ll have a legitimate case as the best Premier League transfer of the summer. Kolasinac was a beast going forward for the Gunnars, easily the best player on the pitch at any given time. Combine that with the fact that he’s only 24 years old and came over on a free transfer from Schalke and Arsenal have an incredible bargain on their hands.

7. Crystal Palace might be the most talented team ever relegated. With an attack featuring Wilfried Zaha, Christian Benteke, Yohan Cabaye and Manchester United signee Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Palace have the quality of a team that should comfortably avoid relegation. However, every major flaw that Palace have was put on full display while they got thrashed by Huddersfield and it looks to be a struggle for the Eagles to avoid relegation.

8. Sean Dyche is magic. The man on the touchline that expertly and surprisingly guided Burnley to safety in 2016-17 was back at it again this weekend. Dyche lost his best striker, Andre Gray, yet still managed to pick apart the defending champions. His Burnley side were well prepared for a raucous atmosphere and appeared the calmer and more poised of the two sides, pouncing all over a disarrayed Chelsea side to generate a shocking 3-2 win. All hail the Premier League’s best manager.

9. With a transfer window where they have literally brought in 0 players, Tottenham have seemingly been forgotten about in the July frenzy. Their 2-0 win over Newcastle, while pedestrian, was imperative. Spurs have watched quietly all summer as every club around them has gotten better and questions still surround the club. But a convincing opening weekend result was exactly what Mauricio Pochettino’s side needed. Next week’s massive tilt against a desperate Chelsea side will go a long way in telling us just what kind of team Tottenham are.

Tottenham.jpg

10. Manchester City’s depth will win them the league. Struggling for a breakthrough against Brighton 60 minutes into the game, City manager Pep Guardiola turned to his substitutes. Would he bring on the savvy of Yaya Toure, the pace of Leroy Sane, creativity of Bernardo Silva, or 17 year old starlet Phil Foden? Guardiola chose Sane, and City opened the scoring 5 minutes later, never looking back. The bench options that Pep Guardiola has at his disposal are incredible when you consider the 4 that I mentioned above combined with Raheem Sterling, a soon returning Ilkay Gundogan, and record signing Benjamin Mendy. City’s depth especially stands out when compared to other title contenders. In the grind of a Premier League season, Manchester City have built a squad with quality coming out of its ears and that will be the ultimate difference in 2017-18’s title chase.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan

Tuesday Morning Tea: Week 1 Overreactions

Neymar to PSG: The Transfer of a Generation

I was far too young to remember Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid.

In the summer of 2009, I was an 11 year old boy focused on my hometown St. Louis Cardinals and the first sports team I ever loved, the St. Louis Rams. International football couldn’t have been further out of my mind and I don’t think I even knew Ronaldo’s name. 

Cristiano’s world record transfer shattered a world I didn’t yet know existed.

For 94 million euros, the world’s best player was moving on from the club and manager that had nurtured him into a worldwide superstar in order to take on the world at Real Madrid. While that fee now seems somewhat tame compared to what we’ve seen recently, his 1 billion euro buy-out clause remains mind blowing.

More than 80,000 fans packed Real’s Santiago Bernebeu in order to greet the next heir to the Madrid throne. The football world stopped for one day in order to try and wrap its collective mind around the biggest transfer spectacle ever seen.

Nearly 10 years later, the football world has been shaken again, in a way that even the groundbreaking transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo could not do. With the announcement made official today, FC Barcelona’s Brazilian starlet, Neymar Jr, is transferring away to join Paris Saint Germain.

Earth shattering does not even begin to do this justice.

At 25 years old and already easily one of the very best players in the world, Neymar still conceivably has yet to truly enter his prime. His best years of football could still be ahead of him and he will now truly have his own stage on which to display his otherworldly talents.

For the past 4 years, Neymar has played on a Barcelona team that belonged to Lionel Messi. As brilliant as Neymar could be at times, he was living and playing in Messi’s shadow, and as much as we all wanted to anoint him as Messi’s heir, he was always going to be second fiddle.

However, playing at a club as big as Barcelona, there never was much speculation about Neymar potentially moving away. In Ronaldo’s case, he always seemed destined to move away from Manchester and the Real Madrid rumors followed him all throughout his final 2 years at United.

Up until about 3 weeks ago, Neymar was a Barcelona player, the sky was blue, and we all had bigger things to focus on. The timing and swift nature of this whole saga plays a huge role in the reason why this is not just the most expensive transfer of all time but also the most significant.

On July 17th, things started as a rumor that PSG could and would trigger Neymar’s outlandish 222 million euro release clause. That got us talking, but it didn’t seem to be anything serious. Then, that rumor quickly snowballed into more rumors about training bust ups involving Neymar, his desire to leave, PSG’s continued seriousness about triggering the clause, and suddenly this wasn’t just a rumor.

Over the course of nearly 3 weeks, the world’s 3rd best player moved away from the world’s second biggest club in the world’s biggest league to play for a 2nd place team in the smallest of Europe’s big 5 leagues.

Setting aside the fact that this will absolutely shatter Paul Pogba’s previous transfer fee record, the significance of Neymar’s move to Paris is generation defining.

The greatest attack of our generation – Messi, Suarez, Neymar – is no more. The heir to Lionel Messi’s Barcelona throne has moved his talents to Paris. PSG have just purchased easily the biggest and best player in their club’s history. And, in the most expensive and significant transfer of all time, the player has chosen to move from FC Barcelona, one of the most historic and prestigious clubs in the world, to a second place Ligue 1 team.

That last part, the fact that Neymar chose PSG over Barcelona asserts a fact that we can’t ignore anymore. Much like what we’re seeing in the NBA, international football is run by the players now.

As Kyrie Irving’s whining and complaining has shown, executives in the NBA aren’t truly in charge anymore. The players get what they want, and the transcendent talents of the game – LeBron, Kyrie, Steph, Durant, many others – are able to extort executives and manipulate situations however they please.

Neymar, one of the transcendent players in today’s football landscape, manipulated this situation how he wanted. Barcelona’s Brazilian wanted a move away from the Camp Nou and was determined to make that happen. To drive that point home, Neymar and his representatives informed Barcelona executives this morning that they would be paying the release clause after PSG’s bid was blocked by La Liga.

Neymar made up his mind on Paris, and nothing was going to stop him. Setting aside the money, what kind of precedent does this set for a generation of footballers to come?

With Roma legend Francesco Totti now retired, the era of players spending a long, loyal career with one club is over and Neymar’s transfer is the final nail in a coffin that was carefully and efficiently built this summer.

After a poor 2016-17 season, Arsenal have missed out on Champions League football for the first time in over 20 years. Gunners’ superstar Alexis Sanchez has publicly made it clear that he isn’t interested in playing on a team without Champions League football. Although they publicly insist Sanchez isn’t going anywhere, Arsenal’s hands are tied and Alexis is in control of the situation.

Juventus legend Leonardo Bonucci, at 30 years old and having spent the last 8 years with the Italian kings, shockingly and suddenly moved to AC Milan this summer. Having seemingly spurned transfer attempt after transfer attempt over the course of the past year or so in favor of staying at Juve, Bonucci apparently decided that he’d had enough and forced a move away.

As much as prominent managers like Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, or Arsene Wenger like to paint the picture that they are in charge and call the shots, Neymar’s transfer proves that the business of football is truly a players’ game now.

When we look back on the state of football 5 or 10 years from now, this day will be the first that we study. A precedent has been set by one of the world’s best players, and you can expect dozens to follow in his footsteps and make their demands known. Players like Eden Hazard, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele are already beginning to clamor for a move to Barcelona because they see an opening.

What happens in the near future will shape our generation of football as we know it, Neymar has made sure of it.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan

Neymar to PSG: The Transfer of a Generation

Top 5 Most Intriguing Champions League Group Stage Matches

Dortmund vs. Real, anyone? No? How about Bayern Munich-Atletico Madrid? Barcelona-Man City?

The annual contesting of the UEFA Champions League is always something to look forward to on the football calendar, and after some lackluster – and, frankly, unnecessary – play in games, the group stage is all set. The 8 pools were set up today, and there are some seriously good fixtures on the slate.

Now, I just want to point something out really quickly. How weird is it to not see Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea or Wolfsburg in the Champions League draw? It’s pretty weird for me. Anyway, let’s get straight into the most interesting group stage matches.

Group F: Borussia Dortmund vs Real Madrid

Starting off with a bang, the reigning champions draw German powerhouse, Borussia Dortmund in an opening matchup that should be filled with enough fireworks to go around.

Real Madrid UCL
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Real need no introduction. They sport a front line that includes the best player in the world and Cristiano Ronaldo. Luka Modric – as if he needed any more of an introduction – made some noise at the European Championships with his sparkling play on the Croatian national team alongside Ivan Perisic.

Madrid’s squad last season was as deep and strong as we have ever seen, and the addition of Alvaro Morata and a presumably much stronger and reinvigorated James Rodriguez will make them just as dangerous.

On the other side are my dark horses in this tournament. Dortmund gave traditional juggernaut, Bayern Munich, all they would handle all the way through the Bundesliga season in 2015-16. And, sensing a potential changing of the guard, Dortmund went out and spent over $110 million on 8 transfers.

Highlighting the group is former Dortmund star, Mario Gotze – who was swiped away from the aforementioned Bayern Munich. Alongside Gotze is another German national, Andre Schurrle, and a couple of 19 year old prodigies, Ousmane Dembele and Emre Mor. The new stable of strikers will join Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and form an incredibly formidable attack.

Borussia Dortmund Squad
Dortmund Squad. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Now, all of those glamorous transfers were mostly made out of necessity, as Dortmund lost Ilkay Gundogan, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mats Hummels, but I believe the strong attack will make them an incredibly dangerous team that could potentially make huge waves with an upset here.

Also, remember the last time these two teams matched up in the Champions League with Los Blancos as a heavy favorite? Yeah, watch out for Dortmund.

Group A: Arsenal vs. Paris Saint Germain

On the surface, this matchup seems like a very even matchup between French and English powerhouses, but, unfortunately, this is probably the most predictable of the fixtures i’m going to be highlighting. Does that mean it’s not going to be entertaining? Absolutely not.

Make no mistake, this is an offensive GEM of a match. Brilliant players are all over the pitch from both sides. Theo Walcott, Angel di Maria, Granit Xhaka, Adrian Rabiot, Marco Verratti, David Luiz, Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Calum Chambers; the quality on the pitch – with regards to strictly offense – is remarkable.

Now, if this match had taken place a year ago, PSG would run away with it. The French champions were firing on all cylinders with Zlatan Ibrahimovic heading up the attack, but now that he’s gone? I still favor PSG, but the Gunners do have a shot in both legs.

Both clubs will advance to the knockout round – considering that FC Basel and FC Ludogorets round out group A – and that could be the only way this matchup isn’t a spectacular scoring fest. But I’m going to pretend that both clubs go full bore and we get some lovely, high scoring football.

Group E: Bayer Leverkusen vs Tottenham Hotspur

Here’s the one you disagree with. You can’t agree with me on everything, but I really like this matchup.

Chicharito vs Alderwierld? Yes, please.

I really don’t care what you say, this game is worth watching just to see what kind of magic Chicharito pulls out of his hat against Mauricio Ponchettinho’s bunch.

Chicharito
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Also, who knows, maybe Tottenham regains the form that made them the Premier League runners up from just a season ago and put on an offensive clinic led by Harry Kane and Dele Alli.

Maybe not, but still, the offensive potential in this game is too good to ignore. All hail Chicharito.

Group D: Bayern Munich vs Atletico Madrid

Holy nuts, whoever put this matchup together clearly wants to cut the riffraff and get straight down to the business of separating the best football clubs in Europe.

A rematch of one of the two semifinals from last year’s Champions League, both teams remain mostly unchanged, with the only significant transfer between the two being Bayern’s heist of Mats Hummels from their German rivals, Borussia Dortmund.

The fact that both of these clubs remain mostly unchanged is reason for excitement because holy wow what a matchup this is.

Antoine Griezemann and Yannick Carrasco have had their coming out parties, and they join Fernando Torres on a club that has silently competed in two of the last three Champions League finals. And guess what, Atletico is set to be just as good as they’ve ever been.

Griezmann and Carrasco
Photo courtesy of ESPN FC

On the other side are the German champions and their stable of ridiculous talent. From Manuel Neuer to Robert Lewandowski, Bayern is almost stupid stacked with talent. Kingsley Coman, Renato Sanches, Arjen Robben (forget about him?), Arturo Vidal, David Alaba, Thomas Muller, Julian Green; it’s almost unfair how talented this Bayern side are.

FC Bayern Munich v FC Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League Round of 16
Photo by Lukas Barth for Getty Images

I didn’t need to hype this match up any more than it already was, but Bayern-Atletico twice in the group stage? Thank you, God.

Group C: FC Barcelona vs Manchester City

And now, your main event of the group stage.

Pep Guardiola’s main task at Manchester City has been made crystal clear: win the Champions League. He’s been given all of the money the clubs has to offer, and completely free reign to go get any player his heart desires in the name of winning the Champions League.

Following two squash matches against clearly overmatched Romanian side Steaua Bucuresti, City are through to the group stage where they draw the title favorites, Barcelona.

Nolito and Delph
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Barca return to the Champions League with a vengeance following their failed pursuit of the first back-to-back title win in UCL history. But, while Barca stood pat this summer and didn’t really get any better – in their defense, it’s hard to get better when your attacking trio is Neymar, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi – Manchester City went out and just about owned the transfer market.

In total, City brought in 9 transfers for just over $240 million, highlighted by Everton defender John Stones, Barcelona starting keeper Claudio Bravo, and Shalke wonder boy Leroy Sane. The talent on the field will be evident, and this will be an extremely tightly contested matchup, but let’s get to the off-field storylines that really make this a game worth watching.

The aforementioned Pep Guardiola has been clear that his ultimate goal at City is to win the Champions League, and to do that he has to go through his former club. The City boss made his name at Barcelona, and knocked them out of the Champions League last season while with Bayern Munich. Revenge will be in the air and Pep will be hungry to prove his side belongs in the upper echelon of elite football powerhouses.

As I mentioned in the transfers section of this blurb, Claudio Bravo is Manchester City’s new keeper, and the former Barcelona #1 will be making his homecoming during the leg of this matchup contested at the home of the Spanish champions. Also, the last time Bravo and Lionel Messi squared off, the Argentinian fired a now infamous penalty shot high over the bar of Bravo’s Chilean goal to give Chile their 2nd straight Copa America title over Argentina.

Soccer: 2016 Copa America Centenario-Argentina at Chile
Photo by Adam Hunger for USA Today Sports

So, on top of the fact that this is as good of a football matchup as you can possibly get, the extra storylines make this fixture as much of a ‘can’t miss’ as the Champions League group stage has to offer.

……….

Considering the madness that football has provided us with lately, we could be staring down the barrel of a Benfica-Leicester City Champions League final. Would you rather see something like a Bayern-City final? Of course you would, but for the first time in a while, I can’t confidently guarantee that we’ll see traditional powerhouses in the semifinals and final. Strap in, this could get wild.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan

Top 5 Most Intriguing Champions League Group Stage Matches

Ryan Riffs: The Premier League

It’s been a while since I ventured into ‘Ryan Riffs’ territory, but I’m back, and we’re venturing into even more new territory with this venture. This, I’m hoping, will be the first of many articles diving into British Premier League soccer, among other soccer. So, let’s do it.

Traditionally, the Premier League has been a hierarchy, with a certain few teams running a monopoly at the top of the table with only a brief interruption from a random club here and there. Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool have been the traditional big boys in the British schoolyard. Usually, you would pick one of those teams, and 100% of the time you would be right.

Then, along came Manchester City.

Man City Title Win
Photo by Getty Images

In 2011-12, the Citizens became the first club outside the ‘Big Four’ listed above to win the Premier League title since 1994. The very same season, Tottenham broke into the top 4, and a chain of chaos was set in motion capped off by Leicester City winning the Prem this past season.

The Foxes were listed at 5000-1 in the oddsmakers book before the season, but they took those odds rode them all the way to the most improbable title run in the history of sports. Leicester City confirmed, last season, what everyone now knows; the Premier League will be absolute chaos.

Leicester City Title Win
Photo by Getty Images

Seriously, any number of 6 teams have a legitimate shot to win the title, with clubs like West Ham and Everton having an outside shot. Never before have traditionally bottom feeding clubs been able to look themselves in the mirror and say, “Hey, we actually have a shot.” It’s beautifully hectic and impossible to predict.

So, now that we’re on the same page – ha ha ha, writing puns….please love me – let’s get into my Premier League thoughts, just two weeks into the season.

……….

Manchester United are back. Following their 2012-13 title win, United have fallen down the table, eventually finishing outside of Champions League contention for the first time since 1995 – along with Chelsea, coincidentally. But, unfortunately, the empire of Old Trafford is back, and in a big way.

Last season, United were a mess of a team. Full of underachieving attackers, old, slow midfielders, a shoddy defense, and a whack-job of a manager, it’s pretty amazing that they even were able to end the season in 5th.

United has addressed all of those concerns during this offseason in astounding ways, and they are as dangerous as ever. Beginning with the signing of manager Jose Mourinho to helm the team, you could make the argument that Man U replaced the incompetent Louis Van Gall with the most brilliant manager in the world – I prefer Pep Guardiola, but that’s a different argument for a different time. And Mourinho immediately went to work hauling in droves of talent.

Mourinho’s first signing was designed to address the Red Devils’ poor 2015-16 defense, and what a signing it was. Eric Bailly has come in and immediately impressed, with some calling him “the perfect Mourinho defender.” Needless to say, Jose really likes him, and he has certainly contributed during the early part of the season.

Next up was the casual entrance of one, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And when I say casual, I mean not at all. In typical Zlatan fashion, he made a grand entrance to Old Trafford and brought all of his traditional style and flair. So far, Ibra has scored 3 Premier League goals in his first two games, as well as the winning goal in the Community Shield final. Not too shabby.

Mourinho’s cap to the summer was literally the biggest transfer of all time; Paul Pogba. The former United academy star turned Juventus star returned home to the tune of just over $118 million, breaking the world record transfer fee held by Real Madrid for Gareth Bale. Pogba returned to the club that brought him up and, in the eyes of many, catapulted Manchester United to the assumed top of the Premier League’s predicted final standings.

So, in short, United needed better defense, a creative midfielder, a proven scorer, and a capable manager. What they got was Eric Bailly, Paul Pogba – only the most creative midfielder I’ve ever seen – Zlatan freaking Ibrahimovic and Jose Mourinho. Yeah, I’d say the Red Devils are back to being the football powerhouse we all know them as.

Zlatan and Pogba
Photo courtesy of Zlatan’s Instagram, God bless that man.

So far, United has beaten Bournemouth and Southampton by a combined tally of 5-1, with their next fixture being another away game against upstarts Hull City – we’ll get into them soon.

They will presumably squash Hull and now have 3 dominant Premier League wins to open the Mourinho era. But don’t get too excited, the first major test – and boy, what a test it is – for the new look Red Devils comes in the Manchester Darby at Old Trafford on September 10th. What a clash that should be.

……….

And speaking of the early season Manchester Darby, that game is between the two clear Premier League title favorites. As wide open as I made things sound in my opening riff, the signing of Pogba to United and the impending signing of Claudio Bravo to Manchester City – combined with the new arrival of John Stones – have separated these two from the rest of the pack.

Chelsea have looked good so far, with Antonio Conte’s defensive structure making them look very hard to crack combined with Eden Hazard and Diego Costa’s early season brilliance. But Chelsea just don’t seem to have the extra gear of talent that United and City can press out onto the field on a consistent basis.

The same goes for Liverpool, who’s opening fixture with Arsenal was a brilliant offensive display that coincided with Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane announcing their arrival with authority, but their offensive arsenal – we’ll get to them in just a second – is limited, and they can’t defend for their lives. Jurgen Klopp’s bunch will be fun to watch, but don’t count on them finishing atop the table.

And Arsenal, what do we even say about them. Another silent summer of Arsene Wenger apparently forgetting that his defense is absolute trash and not making any transfers. That has resulted in a confusing 0-1-1 start, including a thrilling 4-3 loss to Liverpool that exposed every defensive fault you could ever think of, and a 0-0 draw with Tottenham that showed every offensive flaw you could ever think of.

Arsenal, as much as their seemingly star studded roster would have you believe, is not a serious title threat. In fact, they are legitimately in danger of finishing outside of a Europa League spot.

Yeah, this is a strange time in football.

Because I feel inclined to touch on the reigning runner ups, Tottenham aren’t title contenders either. As exciting as their offensive talent seemed last season – with Harry Kane’s 25 goal season and Dele Alli’s breakout – Tottenham’s lack of consistency and inexperience will doom them. The top 4 is not in their future, but they should still be a fun offensive club. When Spurs and Liverpool face off? Tune in.

All of that was basically a really long way of me undermining my entire first riff on how unpredictable the Premier League is. Manchester City and Manchester United have separated themselves as legitimate title favorites.

I talked about United at length, and City’s depth and offensive firepower are incredible. Between Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Nolito, Kelechi Iheanacho, David Silva and a suddenly remarkable Raheem Sterling, City can and will put up lots of scoring this season.

Man City Squad
Photo courtesy of BBC

The question has always been defense.

New manager Pep Guardiola’s late pre-season addition of John Stones has seemed to fix some of those questions, with Stones playing a very sturdy fullback position. And, to boot, it is expected that former Barcelona #1 Claudio Bravo will join the team on a transfer tomorrow.

If that happens, it would be a huge boost as one could argue that Bravo is the ‘sweeper keeper’ in Europe – an aspect that Guardiola relies on, and is the thing that is resulting in Joe Hart’s saddening and impending exit.

September 10th will be the first day that really gives us an idea of what the Premier League landscape will look like, with the top two title contenders facing off at Old Trafford in a power shifting matchup that will have a lot of eyes on it.

Regardless of the result of that one match, it should be a wild Prem season. Buckle up.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan

Ryan Riffs: The Premier League

A Celebration of Principia Soccer’s First Ever State Championship

All Carson Hussey could do was put his hands on his head and stand there with a blank look and a bit of a sheepish smile on his face. “I just didn’t know what to do” he told me today, “It was just almost too much to take in.”

For Principia’s senior captain and center back – who was also part of teams in 2013 and 2014 that were upset horribly in the district final – the feeling of coming up short was all too well known.

But this year was different.

I remember talking with Hussey back in early October about a fundraising event we were planning. Discussing potential weekends that we could put our event on, I suggested the weekend of November 7th – this past weekend. Hussey’s response was typical of the attitude among every player on this year’s team.

“Oh no we can’t do that weekend. That’s the weekend of state, we have to find a different one” Hussey said to me. I looked at him funny and responded, “Carson, come on. Let’s be real here, you guys aren’t going to do that.” He looked back at me and said, “We’ve got a shot, just you wait on it.”

I sit behind the keys of my computer today and proudly say to you, I was dead wrong.

Following a breezy district win, a 7-0 sectional domination, and a nail-biting win in PK’s in the state semifinal, the Panthers had a shot at winning their first soccer state title in school history – and the first state title in any team sport since 1990.

105 minutes into a game deadlocked at 1, senior captain and midfielder Cameron Sellers found himself with the ball on his right foot and junior forward Kaleb Keller making a run towards the opposing goal.

“…we both knew he was going to make a run through their defenders and I tried to give him the best ball I could” Sellers told me when I asked him what he saw on the play.

Turns out, the “best ball” that could be delivered was an absolutely perfect through ball right on Keller’s magic left foot. On two bounces, Principia’s leading scorer cut loose with the same left footed strike that he’s made thousands of times.

This one just happened to have a state title attached to it. And you had better believe Keller didn’t miss.

As soon as the ball slipped past Lutheran St. Paul goalie Harrison Boynton’s outstretched left hand and hit the back of the net, complete euphoria broke loose.

Kaleb Keller celebrates after his state title clinching goal. Photo by Paul Kopsky for St. Louis Post Dispatch
Kaleb Keller celebrates after his state title clinching goal. Photo by Paul Kopsky for St. Louis Post Dispatch
Keller hits a celebratory backflip following his goal. Photo by Paul Kopsky for St. Louis Post Dispatch
Keller hits a celebratory backflip following his goal. Photo by Paul Kopsky for St. Louis Post Dispatch
The Panthers celebrate around Keller after clinching the title. Photo by Paul Kopsky for St. Louis Post Dispatch
The Panthers celebrate around Keller after clinching the title. Photo by Paul Kopsky for St. Louis Post Dispatch

Keller hit a celebratory back flip and jumped into Sellers’ arms with the rest of the team mobbing the two of them shortly after. The Principia student section, including just about everyone with any remote affiliation with the school, was louder than just about anything I’ve ever heard.

And among all of the chaos and excitement was Hussey, standing with his hands on his head and a sheepish smile on his face, just in complete disbelief of what had just happened. As the rest of the team sprinted over to jump into the student section to celebrate, Hussey simply walked over calmly, before opening his arms up to accept a big bear hug from myself, former Principia center back Nick Klusmeyer, and former Principia midfielder Kaden Keller.

“I was in total shock” Hussey told me later, “I’m still in shock; it just seems too good to be true. It’s still a blur to me.”

Being in the crowd Saturday, I can attest to the description of the game winning goal as a blur. One second I was contemplating our chances in penalty kicks, and the next minute I was bear hugging senior forward George Agai, who looked at me beaming, and said, “We just won a state title.”

To say the least, this title has been in the making for a long, long time.

3 years ago, an extremely talented Panther team won the school’s very first district title, and looked poised to make a deep state run and possibly go all the way. Their state hopes ended in a heartbreaking 1-0 overtime loss to Canton High School; a game in which Principia dominated, only giving up 1 shot on the night, which Canton buried in extra time for the win.

And as I referenced earlier, the past two years have featured talented teams that have been upset in brutal fashion in the district final. So to try and sum up the magnitude that this state title carries – not just for the soccer program, but for the entire school – would be doing a disservice to the team that accomplished it because no words I could ever say will do it justice.

So since I can’t do it, I’ll let Coach Kipp Keller try to do it for me. When asked about his son Kaleb’s state winning goal, Kipp stated, “Whether it’s my son or not, [that was] the greatest goal of my life. It was awesome, and I’ve been around soccer a lot of years. To pull that shot at that time, it was spectacular.”

I’ve been to a lot of sporting events in my young life. A lot of them have been very important sporting events. I sit before you today and will put my hand on the bible in saying that never, in my life, have I ever been a part of something so special and so incredible.

I’m almost at a loss for words trying to describe it all; there were just so many images that moved and inspired me and captured the essence of what had just been accomplished.

There was Hussey, walking slowly over towards the bleachers, a big smile on his face and his eyes close to tears before being buried by the hug of myself, Klusmeyer and the eldest Keller brother.

There was Sellers – along with his fellow captains, Hussey, and Kaleb Keller – lifting the state trophy; a moment Sellers described as, “a special feeling that I will always remember.”

From left to right. Kaleb Keller, Cameron Sellers and Carson Hussey lift the state title. Photo by Paul Kopsky for St. Louis Post Dispatch
From left to right. Kaleb Keller, Cameron Sellers and Carson Hussey lift the state title. Photo by Paul Kopsky for St. Louis Post Dispatch

There was school principal and former head soccer Coach Travis Brantingham, standing on the bleachers with both arms raised in the air in a triumphant victory pose, his mouth emitting a lion-like roar of euphoria. Brantingham flew in 2 days early from a conference in Milwaukee Friday morning so as not to miss the state tournament; and I feel safe in telling you he won’t be regretting that decision anytime soon.

As I walked out, there was Heather Keller – wife of head coach Kipp, and mother of Kaleb and freshman midfielder Kippy – wrapped in a blanket, tears filling her eyes as she walked over towards where the team was celebrating to hug her boys.

There was Chris Arens – father of sophomore forward Seth Arens – who was talking with my dad when I came up and put two hands on his shoulders, asking him, “how about that?” He put an arm around my shoulders and gave me a pat on the back, completely speechless with a big smile on his face, his heart clearly enveloped in total jubilation.

There was sophomore defender Caleb Grow jumping into the arms of his older brothers Corbitt and Sawyer, screaming with joy as they pounded him on the back in joyous celebration.

Saturday afternoon was a day that will live on forever in the minds of all Principia fans in attendance, and I just can’t truly quantify the astronomical historical significance of this event in the school’s history. Quite simply, as Kaleb Keller said following his game winning goal, “It was just crazy.”

So far this year, a lot of talk around the school has been about how students can make a lasting impact upon Principia. I can safely say that the soccer team has made a tremendous impact that none of us will ever forget.

Enjoy this moment, because something like this may never happen ever again.

Thanks for reading…

-Ryan

A Celebration of Principia Soccer’s First Ever State Championship