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.

Top PL Storylines: Merseyside Derby, relegation special

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The international break is over and the Premier League is back.

[ MORE: What’s left for each PL club? ]

This stretch run begins now, as teams have around eight more matches left in league play with which to move up or down. Who will climb the table, and who will lose spots? The best picks are below:


Merseyside clubs clinging to European places

Liverpool vs. Everton — 7:30 a.m. EDT Saturday online via NBCSports.com

Everton and Liverpool doesn’t need any sideshows to hype up the heated rivalry, but a little added spice won’t hurt anything. Spice is what we have as the two teams clash at Anfield Saturday as both teams are battling for European places.

Liverpool comes into the game in fourth, four points ahead of Manchester United for the final Champions League spot. A return to Europe’s top competition is overdue for Jurgen Klopp and the Reds, having made the tournament just once since 2010. It’s been a dogfight all year at the top of the table (aside from Chelsea, of course), and Liverpool is right in the mix. A misstep here would give Manchester United the chance to climb just one point back, really putting on the pressure. For Everton, they sit in seventh, level with Arsenal on points and just two behind Manchester United. They still have a good shot at Europa League play, and any spot in a European competition is a welcome moment for an Everton team that has appeared just once since 2010.

Both teams have to contend with injuries suffered over the international break. Everton’s Seamus Coleman is out at least for the rest of the season after his nasty leg break, while Liverpool will miss Adam Lallana who aggravated a muscle injury while on duty with England and will likely be out a month.

Will Arsenal or City turn their season around?

Arsenal vs. Manchester City — 11:00 a.m. EDT Sunday online via NBCSports.com

Arsene Wenger continues to find himself under more and more pressure. It seems Pep Guardiola takes one step back for every one step forward. As the two managers meet at the Emirates on Sunday, will either man manage to get a high-profile win to boost its season’s fortunes?

The Gunners are in serious peril. Wenger has never missed the Champions League in his 20 seasons in charge, but that could all change this year as Arsenal sits in 6th on 50 points, six back of fourth position. There is little to no room for error the rest of the way, and even against a strong opponent, the Gunners cannot afford to drop more points. For Pep Guardiola, City still sits in an envious position in third place and five points clear of dropping off the top four, but it’s not been without bumps and bruises. City is without a win in its last three matches, having dumped out of the Champions League and drawn a pair in league play over that time. Both managers are struggling. Will either turn things around?

A relegation special

Swansea City vs. Middlesbrough — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday online via NBCSports.com

Middlesbrough is in the relegation zone. Swansea City isn’t out of the weeds yet. Premier League status could be on the line.

As the two teams meet at the Liberty Stadium, Middlesbrough can go a long way towards climbing out of the bottom 3, while Swansea City can build space from it. Boro sits in 19th place, on 22 points, five back of safety. In that final safe spot is Swansea, on 27 points, and depending on the results of this match, things could get hairy for the loser. A draw helps nobody, so expect both sides to go all out.

Spurs with a tough road test

Burnley vs. Tottenham — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday online via NBCSports.com

Spurs sit in second, 10 points off the top but in control of the tight Champions League battle. Yet, they face a difficult challenge on Sunday. Burnley has lost just twice all season long at home, the latest coming January 2nd. Their away form has been miserable, but at home, they’re a completely different team.

Enter Tottenham, who has won three Premier League games in a row, but it’s not all rosy for the title contenders. They’re still without Harry Kane, who has returned to light training but still remains sidelined with his ankle injury. Sean Dyche can coach with the best of them in the English top flight, and it remains to be seen if Mauricio Pochettino can break down a strong Clarets defense. Spurs managed a 2-1 home win over Burnley, but a similar performance won’t get it done at the fortress of Turf Moor.

Former DC United keeper sues club plus Espindola, Olsen

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Former DC United goalkeeper Charlie Horton has filed a lawsuit naming D.C. United and Major League Soccer defendants along with Fabian Espindola and manager Ben Olsen.

The lawsuit alleges assault by Espindola which left Horton with career-ending concussion symptoms which he claims still haunt him today. Horton, born in London, was on D.C. United’s roster in 2016, but never saw the field as he failed to crack the pecking order which boasted Bill Hamid, Tally Hall, and Andrew Worra. Eventually, Horton was sent on loan to the Richmond Kickers to gain playing time.

According to the lawsuit, Espindola attacked Horton at the team training facility in late March of 2016 after an argument involving an incident in training weeks earlier. Horton did indeed officially miss seven weeks with a concussion that season, the first of two injuries he suffered that year (a broken hand ended his season).

However, the lawsuit states that Horton was not entered into MLS concussion protocol immediately, instead allowed to practice that day and only entering protocol and missing time when he reported his symptoms the following day. Horton was cleared to play in May, and was then sent on loan to Richmond.

The lawsuit states that the lingering concussion symptoms caused the end of Horton’s career. “Due to the severity of his ongoing post-concussive neurological symptoms, which directly inhibited his ability to perform at a level necessary to continue his professional career, Mr. Horton was forced to officially retire from professional soccer.”

Horton claims that Espindola’s attack was a blindsided attack, an elbow to the temple after Horton had turned to walk away from the altercation.

Manuel Neuer injured, will miss two games

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A long streak will come to an end on Saturday when Bayern Munich hosts Augsburg at Allianz Arena.

Manuel Neuer, who has started 65 straight Bundesliga matches for Bayern, will be forced to the bench after injuring his foot in training on Wednesday. That means a streak of 5,850 straight minutes played will be snapped.

The injury required minor surgery, which was performed by club doctor Markus Walther, and a club release said it “went optimally.”

The injury will see Neuer miss at least the Augsburg match plus the midweek visit to Hoffenheim. That leaves the two big matches up in the air, with Bayern set to travel to Westfalenstadion to take on Borussia Dortmund on April 8th, followed closely by the first leg against Real Madrid in the Champions League quarterfinals the following Tuesday. There was no mention of either game in the club release.

The last time Neuer missed minutes in a Bundesliga game was a home game against Eintract Frankfurt on April 11, 2015. The last time the 31-year-old missed more than three league games in a season was 2008/09 when he played for Schalke and missed the first six games of the year with a broken foot.

With the club 13 points clear at the top of the Bundesliga table, the injury is likely to have little effect on the final league standings, but should Neuer end up out for either the Dortmund game or, more importantly, the match against Real Madrid, it could affect the club’s position in the Champions League.

World Cup expansion will destroy regional qualifying

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On Thursday, FIFA announced a preliminary plan to expand the World Cup to a whopping 48 teams, starting in 2026 if the approval process goes as planned.

Every continental region is gaining slots, with CONCACAF nearly doubling its allotment, Africa adding four teams, and Europe gaining three. 46 teams would make the tournament outright, while another two would come from a six-team playoff.

The early outlook was met with cautious optimism across the soccer community, and there’s no doubt that the World Cup itself would benefit from expansion, with not only a significantly increased revenue stream for the FIFA brass to gawk at, but also viewers will gain from added entertainment, a la March Madness as smaller countries gain access to opportunities to shock larger nations in front of a grander audience.

[ MORE: FIFA announces World Cup expansion details ]

Despite the obvious gains, what gets completely and utterly dismantled is the qualification stage. In exchange for a month of tournament-style wackiness, not only does making the World Cup completely lose any remaining pedigree, but the qualification stage becomes an afterthought for continental powerhouses.

This particularly applies to CONCACAF, where currently the final round of qualification features a six-team round-robin. The way it stands currently, the usual bunch can often overcome minor slips to qualify on a regular basis, but as we’re seeing with the United States, at least things are interesting for the opening few rounds and questions often remain throughout the entire process. Just last cycle, we saw Mexico qualify thanks to the United States’ generosity with a last-second goal against Panama to send their southern neighbors through. Bottom line: it’s not always easy.

Now, with the new system, a massive total of six teams will make the finals, leaving almost no doubt about the fates of those at the top. Mexico and the United States will be shoo-ins, leaving the qualification process a near-afterthought. Sure, countries that don’t always see the final rounds will now have an increased shot, and that’s a great development for the growth of the game worldwide, but it comes at a great price. Now, instead of the ability to lure casual World Cup-only fans with meaningful games between tournaments, national teams will be left with a shell of the old qualification process to slog through.

Looking to Europe, already teams like France, Spain, and Germany are running away with their groups in the current format. Add three more slots to the mix, and even the next tier of countries like England, Poland, and Italy will be given near-automatic spots. Group G currently sees Spain and Italy battling for the automatic berth, with the runner-up left with a chance at disappointment in a one-game playoff. Now, with the new system, the life is sucked from the process, and teams are left with glorified friendlies.

In South America, four (usually five) teams make the tournament. That often leaves a top team sweating it out near the end of the cycle, with Argentina currently tugging at its collar having slipped in recent qualifiers. Add two more automatic slots, and you can kiss the drama goodbye. As it stands, Argentina – despite three losses in its last five matches – would still be four points clear of danger.

tl;dr version: It’s no fun anymore.

Nobody is surprised by FIFA’s pursuit of yet another way to increase revenue; we’ve seen it countless times before. Unfortunately, the price is high, as the 3-1/2 years between would entirely fall apart.