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.

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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

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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).

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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.

10-man Red Bulls hold off Atlanta United at home

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Atlanta United’s five-game winning streak went up in smoke as the New York Red Bulls pulled off an incredible 1-0 victory.

Playing down a man for around 65 minutes, the Red Bulls shutout Atlanta United’s high powered offense in front of 18,495 fans at Red Bull Arena. Tom Barlow, in just his second appearance with the Red Bulls, scored the game-winning goal in the 65th minute off a header at the far post, one that left U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper Brad Guzan rooted to his line.

[READ: Pep: Domestic Treble harder than UCL]

Tim Parker was shown a straight red card in controversial fashion, after grabbing Josef Martinez’s left arm with Martinez in front of him just outside the box. Martinez was clearly pulled back but continued running and eventually got a shot off that Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles parried away.

Referee Robert Sbiga then decided to call the play back and award Atlanta United a free kick outside the box. After what seemed to be consultation with his assistants, Sbiga then showed Parker a straight red card, likely for denial of a clear goal scoring opportunity (DOGSO) while Martinez was through on goal.

The outcome is a massive one for the Red Bulls. It’s been a rough season, with the loss of both Jesse Marsch and Tyler Adams and the poor form of Bradley Wright-Phillips up top. Wright-Phillips was out on Sunday and another attacker Andreas Ivan, went off with an injury in the first half as he was about to be substituted off anyways following the red card.

Alejandro Romero Gamarra, Kaku, has made his feelings known that he wants (or wanted) to leave the club. His form hasn’t been stellar this season either.

Meanwhile, Atlanta’s finally found its way back into the win column and is looking more like the juggernaut from last season, especially with five-straight shutout wins. It’s all back to zero today though, with the defeat at the Red Bulls on a perfect grass pitch up a man.

Mbappe hints he could leave PSG

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Kylian Mbappe accepted his award as the Ligue 1 MVP, dedicated it to Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, and then mentioned he could be off soon to another club.

Wait, what?

Yes, following Mbappe accepting his award, the French star and World Cup winner stated he hoped he could continue his career at PSG but left open the possibility of moving to another club that allows him to take the next steps in his career.

[READ: Kompany to join Anderlecht as player-manager]

“This is a very important moment for me, I arrive at a first or second turn of my career,” Mbappe said, via L’equipe. “I’ve discovered a lot of things here, I feel that maybe it’s time to have more responsibility. I hope it may be at Paris Saint-Germain, it would be with great pleasure, or perhaps elsewhere for a new project.”

Mbappe later clarified his comments, stating he was looking for more responsibility. “If it’s at PSG, that’s good. If it is elsewhere, it will be elsewhere for a new challenge.

“For me, it was time to say it. I am someone whole: when I say something, I think it. For me, it was the right time to say it. That’s it, I said it!”

It’s unclear why exactly Mbappe used this moment to put some pressure on PSG. Perhaps its to remind them that the club needs to be successful in its transfer endeavors this summer, so it can compete deep into the UEFA Champions League. With Neymar injured and a central midfield ravaged by injuries, PSG capitulated and somehow fell to Manchester United in the Champions League Round of 16, grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory.

There’s no reason why PSG can’t dominate the Champions League like it does Ligue 1, especially with the attacking trident of Mbappe, Neymar and Edinson Cavani. But of course, against better competition, the inferiority in mentality and in talent along the backline has started to show.

So, where could Mbappe go? There’s very few places that could effectively match both his salary and his competitive goals. It’s the usual suspects, Real Madrid, Barcelona, and perhaps Manchester City, should they be interested in it. More recently, while Man City has spent big, it’s been on signing multiple players on $50 million transfers, as opposed to one player on a $200 million transfer, for example.

It’s unlikely, but an intriguing option would be Liverpool. If the club somehow came up with the funds, imagine Mbappe playing alongside Sadio Mane and Mo Salah, with Roberto Firmino coming in to spell either of the three over the course of the season. Mbappe would likely make up that one-point difference between Liverpool and Man City, and if that’s what it takes for Liverpool to finally win the title, it could be worth the initial massive investment.

Messi finishes season leading La Liga in goals, assists, and more

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Lionel Messi turns 32 this summer, and after more than a dozen years of first team soccer, playing more than 50 games a season, the old man’s still got it.

The Argentine star, playing his first season in almost a decade without direct competition from Cristiano Ronaldo, scored twice as Barcelona tied Eibar, 2-2. The two goals gave him 34 for the season, by far the most by any player in the league, and his 50th in all competitions.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Messi also led La Liga this season with 13 assists, 136 shots, 85 shots on target and 70 through balls. In terms of successful dribbles, Messi’s 132 fell seven short of Celta Vigo’s Sofiane Boufal.

Messi’s 34 goals gave him his sixth Pichichi, the trophy given to the league’s leading scorer. Messi is now tied with legendary Telmo Zarra for the all-time record of most Pichichi’s, and Messi is now three ahead of Ronaldo.

As if Messi wasn’t already a legendary player, the man seems to be showing no signs of slowing down. It may have helped that he skipped matches with Argentina after the 2018 World Cup this past fall, keeping him fresh for Barcelona. Even so, the man looks as good, if not better, with age.

Messi already holds the record for most goals in league history, and at this rate, he’ll set it to a level that will be almost impossible to reach. While he’s going to be remembered for his incredible control on the ball, it doesn’t hurt that he’s been incredibly productive during his career, including in 2018-2019. Barcelona won the league title with ease and the club made the UEFA Champions League semifinal. If for some better defending, Messi could be contesting for another Champions League title.

Nani scores twice as Orlando City thrashes FC Cincinnati

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Nani may not be the star he once was while he played for Manchester United, but he’s still making a powerful impact in MLS.

The Portuguese international scored his sixth and seventh goals of the season as Orlando City ran circles expansion side FC Cincinnati, winning 5-1. Along with Nani, Tesho Akindele scored a brace and Dom Dwyer came off the bench and scored a header in the win.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Aside from having a chance to record a big win over a struggling side, Orlando City may have been ultra motivated on Sunday. Orlando City manager James O’Connor has history with FC Cincinnati from his time at Louisville City, with intense rivalry matches taking place as well as arguments between O’Connor and former FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch on the sidelines.

FC Cincinnati actually went up early with a Darren Mattocks finish past Brian Rowe, but it didn’t take long for Orlando City to respond. Akindele fired home from 20-yards out in the 37th minute to make it 1-1. Early in the second half, Nani scored on a penalty kick rebound to make it 2-1 to the hosts, and then he added a second off a cross from the right to blast the game wide open.

With the win, Orlando City moved just one point outside of a playoff place, while Cincinnati remains in the basement of the Eastern Conference. However, Orlando City has a difficult road ahead, with matches against the LA Galaxy, Montreal Impact and D.C. United to come.