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And why should I become an Aston Villa supporter? – Part II

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BIRMINGHAM, England — Manchester United swing from strength to strength. Chelsea and Manchester City have the money to bring in marquee signings. Arsenal are classy and almost have a bit of an underdog feel about them. Liverpool have history. Southampton are suddenly the plucky side, Tottenham give you hope but allow you to say you’re not rooting for a certain winner, and Everton have a fun nickname. So if you’re in the United States and looking for a Premier League side to support, why on earth would you choose little Aston Villa?

When I visited Birmingham earlier in the week, the first question asked, upon finding out that I was an American Villa supporter, was, “Why?” Had my dad passed on his love of the Villa? Did I choose the club because owner Randy Lerner is an American? Was my boyfriend an Aston Villa fan?

No, no, and no. My dad imparted in me a love of baseball, my boyfriend at the time didn’t know how soccer worked, and I’d never heard of Randy Lerner. No, my criteria for choosing a Premier League club was this: I didn’t want one of the top four clubs, and I didn’t want a team set to slide into the Championship (mostly due to the difficulty in following such a club from across the Atlantic). I thought “Aston Villa” sounded like a lovely name, the claret-and-blue colors were awfully pretty, and no one I knew seemed to hate the team.

Those reasons seem awfully flimsy now and so, on a recent trip to Birmingham, I asked local Villa fans why an American should throw their support behind the team. Some of the answers were surprising. Some were…not.

source: Getty Images
Being a Villa fan is for life… hence this lovely hat. That’s true support.

A Storied Club

As the pub near Birmingham’s New Street continued to fill up with more Aston Villa fans, I sat down with four who’d managed to claim a table. After explaining my mission, to find out why fans in the U.S. should choose Villa as their club, Yasmin gave me a quick, succinct answer: “We’ve got history.” The others nodded their agreement.

Let’s clear something up straight out of the gate: Aston Villa aren’t “little.” History — and history counts for a lot in English football — dictates that the Villa be called a “big club,” and for fans of the sport to fret if it appears they may be relegated. Aston Villa director William McGregor led 12 clubs in establishing the Football League in 1888, and since that time, Villa have spent 107 of 125 seasons in the top flight. Only Everton has a better record. They’ve captured the top domestic title seven times and lifted the FA Cup seven times as well.

(READ MORE: The recent history of Aston Villa, and why supporters have hope once more – Part I)

But what Villa supporters really love to mention is 1982. Yes, it was over 20 years ago, but lifting the European Cup is still a huge deal — particularly when only four other English clubs have done so. And it’s not so much about the quality of the game. Almost every Villa fan can tell you that an inexperienced goalkeeper performed superbly and that Peter Withe converted Tony Morely’s cross for the only goal to beat Bayern Munich. But that’s not what matters. If you want a club that is a true winner, you need to choose Aston Villa.

And if that’s not enough, Villa even have it embroidered in their shirts: “Proud History. Bright Future.”

Brad Guzan

source: Getty Images
USMNT ‘keeper Brad Guzan is a fans favorite at Villa Park.

Aston Villa’s American goalkeeper was the quickest answer that came to most peoples’ mind in response to my question. James, a Villa fan who’s also a journalist and is so used to giving articulate responses, stated, “Guzan. Guzan is the number one reason.” James went on to explain that, although Tim Howard might be the current #1 for the USMNT, it’s really Brad Guzan who should start in goal for Brazil 2014. The Villa keeper was a saving (literally, with 116) grace for Villa last season and wound up scooping both the Supporters’ Player of the Year and the Players’ Player of the Year awards. Guzan remains immense in goal this year, having started each Premier League game and kept four clean sheets thus far, after achieving just five last season.

Built-in Support

I was lucky enough to hang out with the Kidderminster Lions, a supporters group from a town about 20 miles outside Birmingham, for a couple hours prior to the match against West Bromwich Albion. The Kiddy Lions are a boisterous bunch who love away days, but they also love the chance to take a newcomer under their wing — there’s no exclusion in these Villa supporters groups. At least two of their members, Ben and Paul, took a trip to the States in summer 2012 to watch their beloved Villa on a preseason tour. As both are fans of American sport, and became Washington Huskies fans thanks to their interaction with Chris, a Villa supporter in Washington who helped make their stay in the U.S. a fantastic one, I decided they’d be perfect people to ask about why Americans should become Aston Villa fans.

Ben’s answer surprised me. “The amount of Americans that support Villa already is unreal,” he said, and went on to describe the number of die-hard fans he’d encountered in his time in Chicago, for the Villa match against the Fire. Ben said he’d thought the crowd for the friendly would mostly consist of ex-pats, along with some Fire fans. Instead, Villa fans came from across the country, with supporters’ groups from New York, Philadelphia (who had their own friendly to attend) and Washington, DC all joining Chicago, which itself has a large and active group, to cheer on their club.

But even if you live on the West Coast, that’s no reason not to adopt Aston Villa as your club. California has a network of supporters clubs with various meeting locations throughout the state. The aforementioned Chris has established a relatively new club in Seattle to help promote the Villa in a city that loves soccer. But it’s Seattle’s rivals that have had the honor of hosting Aston Villa, with the Timbers playing a friendly against them that same summer. As Neil , founder of the Aston Villa Former Players Association, pointed out to me, Portland has quite a few connections with the Villa. Neil Rioch himself played for the Timbers from 1975-1976, and noted that there are still many with links to both Villa and the Timbers that are still living in Portland. In fact, he and Peter Brennan, editor of the Villa Times magazine, are both keen to bring the Aston Villa All-Stars to play in the city, and perhaps visit a few other places around the country.

Bromsgrove Lions, too, were all set to take care of a fan heading to her first derby match. After hearing about the wonder of supporters groups from the Kiddy Lions, Phil, the chairman, and Duncan, secretary for the Bromsgrove club, were able to fill me in on more of the details surrounding supporters’ groups. The Bromsgrove Lions started eight years ago with just 15 members, but now they’re the largest Villa supporters club in the world, with 560. These clubs are regionally based and, in addition with providing an almost instantaneous group of friends, are on hand to help members obtain tickets, sort out coach arrangements to and from games, and host special events to bring their members together.

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The author with a few members of the Bromsgrove Villa Lions

And just in case you’re yet to be convinced that it’s possible to truly support a club while living outside the country, Andy, one of the gentlemen who kindly escorted me safely to The Hawthorns, is currently living in Berlin and heads to England for about two-thirds of the Villa matches. He meets up with the Bromsgrove Lions for away dates and, at one point, flew into London in the morning, watched Villa lose to Spurs, and flew back to Berlin that night. Sure, it’s a bit longer of a flight between Birmingham and the USA, but if Andy can make 25 games a year, you could probably get over for a couple matches every now and then.

Family

But becoming a Villa fan is more than just joining up with a supporters group. Once you don the claret-and-blue, that’s it. You’re family now. Sometimes quite literally: on my last visit to the Midlands, I was taken in by my friend Jamie’s family, given a room and shuttled around, and became an adopted member of their clan!

As I continued on with my discussion with Ben, he made it clear that there’s a difference between fans of English football and fans of other sports. In addition to being a fan of the Huskies, Ben also follows the NFL, and has attended games both Stateside and at Wembley. While he has fun following American football and met many fans on his trip to the U.S., Ben insists the NFL doesn’t give same camaraderie. With English football, he says, once you support a club, that’s your “family for life.”

Sometimes even to the extent of separating blood relatives.

Ben was full of great stories, and my favorite was his tale of how he became a Villa supporter. You see, his family are actually fans of Wolverhampton Wanderers, yet another Midlands club. His dad took him to see Wolves play when he was six years old, and he hated it. He told his father that he didn’t like his football, and his dad said no son of his could hate the sport. So they tried an Aston Villa match. At six years old, Ben was picked up and passed from the back of the Holte End to the front, and that was it. At the end of the game, he said, “Dad, I’m Villa now.”

At the time, Ben’s dad was fine with his son’s choice, but the family may be a bit more put out these days. Now, when a Villa-Wolves game comes about (which doesn’t happen often), Ben doesn’t speak to his family for the week before, or in the week following. This was a sentiment I heard quite a bit, actually. With so many teams in such a small space, most Villa fans are likely to be friends with, work with, or even be related to Wolves, West Brom or Birmingham supporters. For the majority of the time it’s fine, but in the run-up prior to a derby, it can get intense.

But the conflicts are of little importance compared to what being a Villa fan means. Over and over again, I heard about the camaraderie amongst Villa supporters. As James explained, going to a Villa match is not simply about giving up a couple of hours to watch the game. It often can be a day long event, from the coach rides into town to time spent in the pub to singing on the metro (and yes, there was definitely singing on the way to the West Brom game).

source: Getty Images
Andi Weimann scores the winning goal against Manchester City and celebrates in front of the Holte End.

And if you meet someone new, they’re not a stranger for long. You’ve got football in common, so, as James said, you can sit and talk for hours with no problem.

His mate Phil added, “That’s what football does though: it brings people together.”

So why become an Aston Villa fan? Perhaps the best answer is: Be sucked in by Brad Guzan’s performances. Be lured by the history. And then, you’ll find it’s too late — you’ve gained more than a club, you’ve gained a family, one you’ll never be prepared to abandon.

Klinsmann: USMNT’s Pulisic earning respect with “no-fear” approach

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Christian Pulisic #17 of USA attempts to chip a pass past Guillermo Viscarra #23 of Bolivia late in the second half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Christian Pulisic, whose name was known to only the most ardent of U.S. national team supporters six short months ago, is the fastest rising star in American soccer these days, but you’d never know it just listening to him talk.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Speaking after the USMNT’s 4-0 victory over Bolivia here at Children’s Mercy Park on Saturday — having made a big bit of history of his own in the process (WATCH HERE) — Pulisic seemed to have just walked off the field following just another ordinary game — something you’d be easily tricked into thinking he’d done 500 times thus far in his career.

USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has something of a theory to explain Pulisic’s meteoric rise, from making his Borussia Dortmund debut three months ago, to scoring his first international goal on Saturday: the youngster is fearless — perhaps because he’s not been around the block enough to know any better, but without fear of conscience in the face of any challenge nonetheless.

“I think he is a wonderful kid. He’s grounded, he knows that he has a long way to go, but he has no fear, and this is very important — not having fear, especially when you play in our region (CONCACAF), where it becomes really physical. What you’re going to see next Friday will be very, very physical.”

[ MORE: Three things we learned — USA 4-0 Bolivia | Player ratings ]

On that lack of fear, Pulisic says it’s something that was instilled in him at a very young age, playing soccer and living an ordinary childhood in his hometown of Hershey, Penn., before it became clear that his future was to be anything but ordinary. Fear does seem a foreign concept to the now-three-times-capped USMNT starlet when asked how he’s made the transition from Dortmund Under-19s, to Dortmund first team, to USMNT impact-maker, so seamlessly.

“It’s just what I learned since I was a little kid. My dad taught me no matter what — I would play against these bigger players — to just be myself. I knew that I was good enough, that I had the ability, so I never shy away from any moment and I don’t think anyone should.”

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

The challenges for a 17-year-old earning his stripes on a team chock-full of established stars such as Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and on and on, are innumerable. From trying to impress Klinsmann and earn a share of first-team minutes, to “making friends” with the senior members of the squad, Pulisic is just doing his best to fit in and prove he can contribute at next week’s 2016 Copa America Centenario — the USMNT’s last major tournament before the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

“The guys have taken me in, they’re all really nice, and it’s helped me a lot that I’ve been with them a few weeks now. It’s getting more and more comfortable. I’m making more friends. Normally, you’d hang out with some of the younger guys — kind of work your way up. You really have to earn your respects on the field. Off the field, they’re all nice guys.”

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]

And yet, with all of that said, an air of naiveté hangs over Pulisic as he talks of becoming the youngest goalscorer in USMNT history (17 years, 253 days), the 17-year-old that he is. Does the magnitude of such an accomplishment register an hour after that record-breaking strike?

“Honestly, no. I’m just living life, living in the moment. It’s cool — stats and stuff are cool — but I want to win this tournament coming up. That’s the overall goal, so I don’t really care too much about being the [youngest] goalscorer.”

Player ratings from a historic, comfortable USMNT win over Bolivia

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Michael Bradley #4 of USA directs a header away from the Bolivia forwards in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
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Yes, the United States should beat Bolivia at home, and soundly, but that doesn’t make Saturday’s 4-0 win in Kansas City any less fun.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s men throttled Bolivia, picking up the biggest win over a South American foe in national team history while writing in the U.S. men’s record book from an individual standpoint as well.

[ MORE: Match recapThree things we learned ]

Christian Pulisic became the youngest goal scorer in USMNT history, and the Americans will be feeling pretty good after improving to 7-1-1 in their last nine games before the start of the Copa America Centenario on Friday in California.

So who showed well? See below:

Starting XI

Brad Guzan — 7 — Called on only once or twice, but made the saves. Always hard to know what to score a goalkeeper who doesn’t have much to do. We’ll go with 7.

Matt Besler (off HT) — 7 — Filling in at left back wasn’t a problem for Sporting KC’s center back, and he even pulled off a nifty attacking trick or two.

John Brooks — 6 — Made up for a horrible giveaway by charging into the play to score the Yanks’ second goal. Out of position on a late chance that Guzan handled well.

Geoff Cameron — 7 — This team is so much better when he is healthy. Have to wonder if the Confederations Cup berth would’ve been assured with him last summer.

Michael Orozco (off HT) — 6 — Wasn’t noticed much, and that’s good for him.

[ WATCH: USMNT’s first two goals | Pulisic makes history ]

Michael Bradley (off 73′) — 9 — Weird how he’s good in his best position, pinged balls around the field and keeping things moving like a Newton’s cradle.

Jermaine Jones — 6 — Was just fine. Hard as nails and set to make an impact in the Copa America, and made a great takeaway and pass on the Pulisic goal.

Alejandro Bedoya 9 — The Nantes man had two assists, and looked capable of pulling as many strings as he wanted against Bolivia. Showed a hard edge against a nasty Bolivia side, too.

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Alejandro Bedoya #11 of USA knocks down Alejandro Meleán #13 of Bolivia in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

Bobby Wood — Lively and active, even if his finish was off.

Gyasi Zardes (Off, 64′) — 7 — If he wasn’t fighting his first touch, might’ve scored 3 or 4. Two is pretty good, though, right? He’d be a center forward, but Klinsmann needs to know the man up top can handle his first touch better.

Clint Dempsey (Off, 73′) — 6 — By no means bad. Is it too far off to say he’s doing the American version of the waning years of Cuauthemoc Blanco’s Mexican prime?

Subs

Fabian Johnson (On, HT) — 6 — Slow to get back on Bolivia’s only scoring chance.

DeAndre Yedlin (On, HT) — 6 — Like Orozco, had very little to do on the right side.

Christian Pulisic (On, 64′) — 7 — He’s a mouth-watering prospect, and became the youngest goal scorer in USMNT history.

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]

Darlington Nagbe (On, 64′) — 7 — His work on Pulisic’s goal was everything MLS fans have been imagining while waiting for Nagbe to be USMNT eligible.

Graham Zusi (On, 73′) — 6 — Game was over when he entered, and did just fine. See below.

Chris Wondolowski (On, 73′) — 5 — Missed his only chance on a dynamite feed from Zusi in stoppage time.

Three things we learned from USMNT’s 4-0 victory over Bolivia

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: The USA soccer team poses for a group photo before taking on Bolivia in the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — For the most part, the U.S. national team systematically dismantled Bolivia, to the tune of a 4-0 victory (as it should have done), in its final pre-2016 Copa America Centenario tune-up Saturday night at Children’s Mercy Park. We learned a few things about Jurgen Klinsmann’s side ahead of Friday’s tournament opener…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Klinsmann settles on the right midfield … finally

Michael Bradley is the USMNT’s no. 6. End of story. His ability to play himself (and teammates) out of trouble at all times and hit (quick) long balls out to the wings changes the point of attack in an instant. The USMNT actually resembles a dangerous attacking side in these brief moments. (He’s also the quickest thinker in the player pool, doing things like this to set up goals.) Not to mention, he’s got the wheels to recover tons of space when a quick counter is inevitably launched the other way — something that Kyle Beckerman, for everything he’s been to the USMNT the last few years, simply doesn’t have anymore.

Alejandro Bedoya was easily the standout performer Saturday night, though, bagging a pair of first-half assists as the USMNT took a 2-0 lead into halftime. Speaking of circulating the ball quickly, Bedoya’s first-time chipped helper was the only ball that puts Gyasi Zardes into space with enough time to compose himself and beat the goalkeeper the way he did for the opener. With Bradley and Jermaine Jones capably waging the possession battle a bit deeper, Bedoya has the license — and ability — to flair out wide when a pocket of space presents itself (reference: USMNT goals scored in above links).

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]


At their best playing with width

Matt Besler and Michael Orozco, who are center backs by nature, started the game at left and right back respectively. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world defensively, but tasked with overlapping a pair of narrow-sitting wide players ahead of them, Zardes and Bobby Wood, much was left to be desired.

Klinsmann brought Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin, full back-winger hybrids by nature, on at halftime, and things opened up all over the field. Bolivia’s full backs had to stay wide, given their speed and (actual) ability to pick out a cross. Remember those long diagonals from Bradley that we talked about above? It was open season for “The General,” who played the decisive ball over the top to free Wood down the left, at which point his cross for Zardes was the final piece for a 3-0 lead.

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]


USMNT (finally) has impact subs … if they’re not going to start

Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic are the future — feel free to debate amongst yourselves whether or not they should instead be the present; I won’t stop you — but for now, they’re the impact substitutes the USMNT has been missing for so long. The dynamic duo came on after 63 minutes on Saturday, and immediately they looked to link up and run at opposition defenders every time they got on the ball.

Whether on the halfway line or the edge of the opposition penalty area, it’s quick one and two-touch passing and moving from these two, as was the case in the 69th minute, when Nagbe turned one defender inside the box before sliding a simple square ball to Pulisic. The 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund prodigy made no mistake on the finish and bagged his first senior international goal.

At this point, perhaps they’re best suited for 30 minutes of running at tired defenders with heavy legs. At some point, though — in the not-so-distant future — they need to be given the opportunity to prove themselves as 90-minute players.

USMNT 4-0 Bolivia: Bedoya one of many stars in final Copa America prep match

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Alejandro Bedoya #11 of USA knocks down Alejandro Meleán #13 of Bolivia in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
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  • Bedoya sets up two first half goals
  • Zardes gets brace
  • Pulisic becomes youngest U.S. scorer
  • Brooks scores, too.

Don’t look now, but the United States men’s national team is looking pretty darn good ahead of Friday’s Copa America Centenario opener against Colombia.

Gyasi Zardes scored twice, while John Brooks and Christian Pulisic also scored in a comfortable 4-0 win over Bolivia at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City on Saturday night.

[ MORE: Three things we learned ]

Pulisic became the youngest USMNT goal scorer in history with his second half goal, set up by Darlington Nagbe. Alejandro Bedoya had a hand in two goals as well for Jurgen Klinsmann’s Yanks, who open up Copa America play on Friday against Colombia.

Bolivia is no power, but the Yanks gave them little room to maneuver after 20 minutes of play.

The U.S. started Matt Besler and Michael Orozco at fullback thanks to Edgar Castillo not having arrived yet to replace Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson having played in Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Ecuador.

[ MORE: Real Madrid wins Champions League ]

Bolivia had moments early, specifically on a 15th minute set piece that saw New York Cosmos striker Yasmani Duk a split second offside in heading wide of goal.

Zardes put the Yanks ahead in the 26th minute on a cool bit of passing. Geoff Cameron found Clint Dempsey, who clipped the ball over to Alejandro Bedoya. The Nantes midfielder played a pretty ball through to Zardes, who calmly fired past a charging Guillermo Viscarra. 1-0.

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Gyasi Zardes #9 of USA celebrates after scoring the first goal against Bolivia in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

This game was very chippy, with Bolivia doing the little nasty things to go with big, card-worthy fouls. The Yanks kept their composure, though, and made it 2-0 when Bedoya slid to knock the ball outside the six for Brooks to pass home with his left foot.

Bobby Wood made a lightning quick cut while running onto a Clint Dempsey pass, only to see his shot saved Viscarra on the edge of stoppage time.

[ WATCH: USMNT’s first two goals | Pulisic makes history ]

The Yanks made a pair of changes at halftime, introducing DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson for Orozco and Besler.

There was a terrific build-up for the Yanks on goal No. 3, as Bradley played a gorgeous diagonal ball into the box for Wood. The Bundesliga striker worked his man and then fed Zardes for a left-footed, close-range goal. 3-0.

It took 67 minutes for Bolivia to really trouble Guzan, but the Aston Villa keeper rose to the challenge when Brooks and Fabian Johnson were a bit lax in returning to the back line.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

USMNT: Guzan; Besler (Johnson, HT), Brooks, Cameron, Orozco (Yedlin, HT); Bradley (Zusi, 73′), Jones, Bedoya (Nagbe, 64′); Wood, Zardes (Pulisic, 64′), Dempsey (Wondolowski, 73′).

Goals: Zardes (26′, 54′), Brooks (37′), Pulisic (69′)