Identity and the Premier League: Connecting England’s top clubs to teams in North America

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Identity may be the most important part of a professional team, but only when you stop to think about it. How we view a club is a concept so mundanely accessible — the facet of the team we start to grasp the moment we become aware of them — we never talk about the concept’s significance. We do discuss how the images of the Dallas Cowboys, Los Angeles Lakers, and New York Yankees affect those teams’ perceptions, but we rarely debate the nature of those images. We just know what the Cowboys are, just like we know the nature of the Lakers. Or Yankees. Or Canadiens, Red Sox, Celtics – everybody.

But consider, for a moment, being an NFL fan in London, seeing a Dallas Cowboys and Washington game on your television, and having no clue as to the significance of those two teams. Imagine knowing nothing about their histories, legacies – their context in the broader culture of American football. If all you had to go on were standings and statistics, how could you ever grasp the weight of that game, let alone the unique nature of that matchup.

That’s why exercises like this one can be helpful. If you’re giving the Premier League a try this weekend, parallels between North American sports franchises and Premier League clubs can be a useful baby step, giving you some minimal, accessible context for your first games. When Liverpool host Stoke City to open the season on Saturday (7:45 a.m. Eastern NBCSN), these examples become a short-hand, one that tells you a well-established, historically immense club is facing a team with a smaller, more specific identity.

And if you’re already a Premier League expert, somebody who doesn’t need to have lines drawn across the Atlantic Ocean, consider providing some alternate examples, below. Many Premier League clubs have histories that extend back to the 19th century, making any one-to-one comparison to a North American sports inherently narrow: reductive. Perhaps we focused on history when we could have looked at the present, or looked at perception when a more nuanced story would have created a better parallel? If the goal of this exercise is to provide a bridge for new fans to access the Premier League, your examples (sure to be detailed in the comments, right?) are bound to be as good as mine.

That caveat out of the way, consider this an elaborate decoder ring – a way to translate a sliver of identity from one culture to another. We’ll start with Arsenal and work our way to West Ham United, giving you some idea of how each Premier League club would see seen through the lens of North American sports:

PREMIER LEAGUE CLUB N.A. SPORTS FRANCHISE CONNECTION
Arsenal Atlanta Braves
Arsenal and Atlanta are both considered elite teams that compete near the top of their respective leagues, but their true periods of dominance expired about a decade ago. Still each team, driven by their distinct philosophy, is on the cusp of returning to the top of the game despite not being able to spend with the richest teams in their league. Atlanta has always favored developing young, tools-driven players, while Arsenal’s tendency to buy young and look for bargains has helped them through recent seasons of financial constraint.
Aston Villa Miami Dolphins
While each teams’ recent history has contained both near misses and huge disappointments, both clubs’ glory days lie more than three decades ago. Miami’s 1972 squad remains the only NFL team to complete a perfect season, with Don Shula’s team going on to win two straight Super Bowls. In 1981-82, Aston Villa became one of five English clubs to win the European Cup. While neither organization has ascended to those heights in recent times, both remain historic, well-respected members of their leagues.
Cardiff City New Orleans Pelicans
As you’ll figure while making your way through all 20 teams (and God bless you if you do), we’re trying to zero-in on one, maybe two prominent features of each club. It’s  a very narrow way of doing things, but let’s not take this exercise too seriously.

If we did, we couldn’t justify this parallel between two curiously re-branded teams. Cardiff City, known as the Bluebirds throughout their history, changed their colors to red at the insistence of Vincent Tan, who bought the club last year. Like New Orleans, who discarded Hornets for Pelicans this summer, Cardiff will look for a few players to carry them up the league, with Andreas Cornelius, Gary Medel, and Steven Caulker serving as fuzzy analogs for Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, and Tyreke Evans.

Chelsea Dallas Mavericks
Before Roman Abramovich (Chelsea) and Mark Cuban (Dallas) bought their teams, both organizations were sleeping giants, albeit for different reasons. Chelsea were a London-based club with its own, large venue and a unique history, while Dallas were a fledgling team in a huge sports market playing in a league ripe to leveraged by an ambitious investor (which made a number of NBA teams sleeping giants, but stay with us).

Since Abramovich brought Chelsea in 2003, the club has won three league titles and a European Cup. And since Cuban took over the Mavs, Dallas have claimed their first NBA championship. Along the way, both organizations became one of the most fashionable in their sports.

Crystal Palace New York Islanders
The New York Islanders grabbed the eighth spot in last year’s NHL Eastern Conference playoffs, but for many years they were an underfunded team overshadowed in their own market. That description’s a perfect fit for recently promoted Crystal Palace. And just as the Islanders grabbed their league’s final playoff spot, Palace’s route through last year’s Championship playoffs casts them as team number 20 in this year’s Premier League.

Still, whereas the Islanders had a minor, Mike Bossy-fueled mini-dynasty 30 years ago, Crystal Palace have never won anything of note. Apologies for not noting this at the top, but none of these matches are going to be perfect.

Everton Chicago Bears
Both Everton and Chicago are among the oldest and most storied franchises in their leagues, but unfortunately, each team has gone about 25 years since their last title. Chicago’s last championship was in 1985, while Everton claimed England’s top division in 1987. Both teams have, for the most part, been competitive during the last quarter-century, and while it will be easier for the Bears to end their drought, both teams are seen as historic clubs that have rarely been true title contenders since the 1980s.
Fulham Edmonton Oilers
London, which Fulham calls home, is by far the biggest market in the Premier League. Conversely, Edmonton is the third-smallest city by population in North American professional sports.

Despite that obvious difference, the perceptions of the Cottagers and Oilers are remarkably similar. Both clubs are viewed as limited teams who, whenever they win, are punching above their weight, leaving their coaches and players to be patronized when they make runs to Europa League or Stanley Cup finals. Realizing their team will rarely compete for big things, the teams’ fan bases have a different perspective on their teams’ successes.

Hull City Tigers Miami Marlins
Like Cardiff City and New Orleans, both of these teams have undergone recent re-brands, albeit minor ones. Hull recently changed their name from “Hull City AFC” to “Hull City Tigers” (it’s simpler, the owner claims). Miami came up with a new color scheme to mark the end of the Florida Marlins. In both cases, however, the teams aren’t expected to be competitive. Miami’s last in the National League East while Hull City are being picked for relegation.
Liverpool Boston Red Sox
Some of these connections are cumbersome to the point of reaching. Others are obvious. There was a large crossover between Liverpool and Boston Red Sox fans before John W. Henry bought the Merseyside club. Now that both teams fall under the same umbrella, the link is undeniable. Both are historic if slightly hard-luck sides, albeit in different ways. Boston just recently exorcised their Curse of the Bambino (in no way are they a hard-luck team anymore) while Liverpool has yet to claim a title in the Premier League era.
Manchester City Los Angeles Dodgers
Manchester City and the L.A. Dodgers are both iconic in their own ways, but it’s taken new investors to return these teams to prominence. For City, that return is complete, their huge spending allowing them to claim the Premier League two years ago. This year, adding four significant players over the summer, they’re stocked for another run. The Dodgers have Major League Baseball’s second-highest payroll and, thanks to a recent run, find themselves on top of the National League West. Both clubs, embodying so much of their local community’s sporting identity, have changed drastically, yet each have returned to contention.
Manchester United New York Yankees
Like Liverpool’s link, this is a lay-up, even if the New York Yankees have entered a relationship with United’s chief rivals, Manchester City, to own and run Major League Soccer’s next team (New York FC). Commercially, Manchester United is the only English club that can rival Spain’s big two (Barcelona, Real Madrid), a stature that’s allowed them to finish no lower than third in every season since the Premier League’s 1992 debut. While they don’t get linked with the “evil empire” label as often as the Yankees, United are an empire, nonetheless.
Newcastle United Atlanta Hawks
For people who knew (and enjoyed) the Dominique Wilkins-led Hawks teams of the 1980s, this comparison will make sense, as Newcastle always seem to have more talent than their results produce. The Magpies haven’t won a first division title since the 1920s, even though they had their own Wilkins in Alan Shearer from 1996-2006.

Atlanta’s only championship came in 1958, and while recent teams have featured players like Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford, they’ve failed to mount a significant playoff threat. The futility was reminiscent of the under-achieving Toon squad that featured an attack of Micheal Owen, Mark Viduka, and Obafemi Martins. Or last year’s nearly-relegated team.

Norwich City St. Louis Blues
Norwich aren’t the most glamorous of entities, but they’re an established, well-respected club with a strong group of supporters. Like the Blues, they’ve never claimed a first division title, but they have won two League Cups. St. Louis has won a Presidents’ Trophy and two Campbell Bowls. Both teams going into their upcoming seasons with modest expectations, and because they’re outside their country’s major media markets, they often tend to be overlooked.
Southampton Minnesota Twins
Two small market teams on the edge of their countries, neither Southampton nor Minnesota are known for winning titles. The Twins have won three World Series, the last 22 years ago, while Southampton’s only major honor is the 1976 FA Cup. What each team’s really known for is developing talent. The Twins have a remarkable knack of getting value from their farm system. But just like the Saints (the team responsible for current stars Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott), the Twins rarely have the resources to hold on to their products.
Stoke City Memphis Grizzlies
Fair or not, the Grizzlies have become know as a physical team whose recent, relative successes are built on their style’s ability to match up well against particular opponents. And fair or not, Stoke is seen the same way. This season at the Brittania, that may change, with Mark Hughes brought in to move the Potters away from the Tony Pulis era. And with Dave Joerger taking over for Lionel Hollins in Memphis, the same might happen at the FedExForum. But until we see these teams actually start playing differently, they’ll carry their physical reputations.
Sunderland Philadelphia Eagles
Both England’s northeast and Philadelphia live with a sporting chip on their shoulder, each regions casting sideways glances toward London and New York. Beyond geography, both the Black Cats and Eagles have renown fan bases and a limited, distant history of success. Despite spending considerably in recent years, Sunderland hasn’t won a title since 1935-36 (though they claimed the FA Cup in 1973). Philadelphia’s own recent expenditures haven’t cured a title drought that extends back to 1960.
Swansea City Golden State Warriors
It’s hard to see a clear connection between Michu, Swansea’s sharp-shooter who led the team to last year’s League Cup, and Stephen Curry, the Warriors’ long-range sniper who’s returned the Oakland-based team to relevance. Yet like Golden State, Swansea’s seen as a new, “fresh,” exciting team on the Premier League landscape, one whose success has been built on an attractive style of play. And like Swans, guided from the sidelines by legendary player Micheal Laudrup, the Warriors are also coached by a prominent ex-player: former Knicks and Pacers point guard Mark Jackson.
Tottenham Hotspur Los Angeles Clippers
Despite their franchise being resurrected after the acquisition of all-star point guard Chris Paul, the Clippers’ brand is so bad that no Spurs fan will be happy with this link, yet if you look at the states of the current teams, the comparison is irresistible. Both are second teams in their regions, living in the shadows of Arsenal and the Lakers. Both are on the verge of overtaking their rivals, and both are fueled by players among the best in their leagues (Bale, Paul). And, if either get a couple of breaks, they could prove unexpected title contenders in 2013-14.
West Bromwich Albion Cincinnati Reds
West Brom were one of the founding members of the Football League in 1888. Though now considered a modest club by the Premier League’s financially-enhanced standards, they’re one of the more prominent in the Midlands. In Major League Baseball, the Reds are also considered a modest (mid-market, if you will), though they have an extensive history. The current version of the team dates back to 1881, with the club’s predecessor was an original member of the National League before being kicked out for selling beer and playing games on Sundays.
West Ham United Kansas City Royals
Unlike the Reds, the Royals don’t have an extensive history to match West Ham, a club that’s 118 years old (the Royals began play in 1969). The commonality here is the role player development plays in the club’s legacy.

The Royals quickly went from expansion fodder to division-winning relevance the only way you could before free agency: scouting and player development. By their third season, they had a winning record, and from 1976 to 1985, the Royals won six AL West titles.

West Ham’s development legacy rests in England 1966, with the Hammers providing Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, and Martin Peters to England’s only World Cup winner. Today, players like Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick carry on that tradition of development, though like the Royals, West Ham are struggling to be more of a factor in the actual standings.

Mourinho: Mkhitaryan “disappeared” during games, got dropped

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It would appear that Henrikh Mkhitaryan has become the new Luke Shaw, who not so long ago became the new Juan Mata, who had become the new Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Pepe, who all previously become the new Kaka and Mesut Ozil — players previously perceived to be undroppable, only to fall out of favor and be dropped from Mourinho’s side.

[ MORE: Carrick back in training after operation to fix irregular heartbeat ]

Similarly to many of the aforementioned stars of Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid sides of the not-so-distant past, Mourinho recently singled out Mkhitaryan for not working hard enough for the team and failing to meet expectations with his performances.

Mkhitaryan last featured in Man United’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea on Nov. 5, prior to the most recent international break. He played just 62 minutes, to follow an UEFA Champions League appearance of just 45 minutes against Benfica. Mkhitaryan was then absent from the substitute’s bench for a victory over Newcastle United and a defeat to Basel.

[ MORE: Pochettino sees Sanchez as one of world’s best defenders already ]

In Mourinho’s mind, Mkhitaryan hasn’t merited a place in the team — quotes from the Guardian:

“I was not happy with his last performances. I’m not speaking about one or two, I’m speaking about three, four or five. He started the season very well and after that, step by step, he was disappearing. His performance levels in terms of goalscoring and assists, pressing, recovering the ball high up the pitch, bringing the team with him as a no. 10, were decreasing.

“That was enough [to drop him] because the others worked to have a chance. Everybody works to have a chance. It’s as simple as that.”

“I don’t know if Mkhitaryan will start but, for sure, he will be back in the group. For him to be back to the group, it means that somebody is going to leave the group.”

Davinson delights Pochettino, who predicts “massive” strides

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It’s still very early days for Davinson Sanchez as a Tottenham Hotspur player, but the early returns are extremely positive as the Colombian center back has featured in 14 of the club’s 17 games in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League this season.

[ MORE: Spurs beat Dortmund again to win group with Real Madrid ]

What’s more encouraging than Sanchez’s initial performances? The 21-year-old’s “massive” room for improvement and the expectation he’ll one day soon be one of the world’s best defenders, according to manager Mauricio Pochettino.

After signing for Spurs in August, Sanchez went straight into Pochettino’s starting lineup, slotted in between stalwarts Toby Aldeweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who together last season led the defense with the PL’s best record (26 goals conceded in 38 games), as part of a back-three. Sanchez has taken to Tottenham like a duck to water, in Pochettino’s estimation — quotes from ESPN FC:

“You saw against against Dortmund how many times he was with [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang one-versus-one. How many central defenders can play one-versus-one and escape and go, be tight and press? If you run, I run because I am so confident when running. I think not many center backs in the world can do this.

“Or against Swansea against Tammy Abraham: how many times he was one vs. one and the ball was behind him, he was on the halfway line and running was not a problem? And against Cristiano Ronaldo, too?”

“We expect more from him, but I am so happy with him. He is doing well, very well. He’s only 21 years old, but he shows more maturity [than that], and he’s so aggressive when he’s marking, his concentration [is good] and then with the ball he’s good, but I think he can improve.

“There is massive scope to improve potentially, it’s massive for him. In only a few months, he’s showing he’s doing a fantastic job for us. [He can improve in] every single aspect, tactic, physical condition, technique.

“We need with him one and a half months or two months preseason every day, and then I’m sure he’s going to show a different level. I think he’s one of the best today, but has potential to improve a lot more.

“Because he’s so clever, and he’s very humble, and he’s very open to learn, he’s a player when you tell something his reaction is to be open, and be critical with himself, and that is a massive skill from a player, when he’s so open to improve, and then the conditions he has are amazing to be one of the best center halves in the world.”

To state the completely obvious, Pochettino was wise to utilize Aldeweireld and Vertonghen as training wheels for Sanchez, if you will, upon his arrival. His athleticism and pace make him 1) the ideal complement to a pair of players who read the game so well; and, 2) perfectly positioned to operate as the last-man, emergency defender on the rare occasion either Belgian is breached.

[ MORE: Liverpool host Chelsea in massive top-four clash ]

For the first time all season, Sanchez started out wide in Alderweireld’s absence (hamstring) against Arsenal last weekend, and for the first time since his arrival, he appeared a flawed — which is to say, human — defender. To his credit, Sanchez gave a quality account of himself on the whole, and finished the game much stronger than he’d started.

No one was more aware of this than Pochettino, though, as he slid Eric Dier into Aldeweireld’s spot for Tuesday’s Champions League triumph over Borusia Dortmund, again deploying Sanchez in the middle. With Aldeweireld expected to miss a couple more weeks at minimum, the Tottenham teamsheet should routinely read Vertonghen-Sanchez-Dier from left to right until he returns.

Lille appoint four interim managers to replace Bielsa

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LILLE, France (AP) A four-man coaching team will take provisional charge of French soccer club Lille in the wake of Marcelo Bielsa’s dismissal.

Lille says Fernando Da Cruz, Joao Sacramento, Benoit Delaval and Franck Mantaux will be in charge of the team until further notice.

Lille announced earlier this week that Bielsa had been suspended “as part of a procedure started by the club” following a 3-0 loss at Amiens.

The northern side is in 19th place and next travels Saturday to Montpellier, which has the best defense in the league.

Bielsa joined Lille this season but failed to make the club competitive. After finishing a disappointing 11th last season, Lille hired the coach – affectionately known as El Loco Bielsa (Crazy Bielsa) – with the aim of returning to the Champions League.

Irregular heartbeat the cause of Carrick’s recent absence

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Manchester United captain Michael Carrick hasn’t played for his club since Sept. 20, a confounding period of more than two months now, and the reason for the 36-year-old midfielder’s absence has finally come to light: an irregular heartbeat.

[ MORE: Mourinho slams critics (again), gives injury updates ]

The condition, which Carrick announced himself on Friday, was first detected after Man United’s League Cup victory over Burton Albion. He has since undergone a cardiac ablation, a procedure to scar or destroy tissue in your heart that’s allowing incorrect electrical signals to cause an abnormal heart rhythm, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Carrick was named the new United captain this summer following the departure of Wayne Rooney. As told in the above statement, he is working toward full fitness and once again being available for selection in Jose Mourinho’s side.

Hooray for modern technology and medicine, which allow otherwise baffling medical conditions to be diagnosed, treated and recovered from in a matter of weeks or months.