The long and glorious English Premier League season began Saturday. We may never see an EPL season as surprising as last year’s, when frequent mid-and-lower-table resident Leicester City powered themselves to the championship, with the remarkable seasons of N’golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez, Wes Morgan, and Jamie Vardy.
Early in the 2016 Major League Soccer season, the surprising performance of the Colorado Rapids was compared favorably to the successful run of Leicester that nobody expected. Now, I’m turning the tables. Which EPL team is most like this year’s Colorado Rapids? Which team will be the biggest EPL surprise this season? Here are my suggestions:
West Bromwich Albion
West Brom are the team that I never tune in on a Saturday morning. That’s because they have a reputation for playing a particularly boring brand of defensive, safe soccer. I watched them once last year. The reputation was well earned.
Still, Saido Berahinho and James Morrison provided just enough offense magic, and Johnny Evans was stalwart enough in defense to keep West Brom safely in mid-table. Rumors are swirling that, with three weeks to go in the transfer window, Berahinho and Evans are likely to be moved.
West Brom are a good doppelganger for the Rapids because of their defense. They surrendered only 48 goals last year, 7th in the EPL. If they can squeeze it a little tighter, find those goals on the set piece or the counter, and if Venezuelan international Salomon Rondon can step into Berahinho’s shoes, this team can be a surprise for a Europa League spot (5th, 6th, and 7th place) or better.
Sunderland looked like relegation fodder all last year, bumping along at the bottom of the table, nicking the occasional point here and there. Virtually their entire lineup are castoffs from EPL, Bundesliga, and even MLS: GK Vito Mannone, Patrick Van Aanholt, Younes Kaboul, DeAndre Yedlin, Jack Rodwell, Jan Kirchoff, and Jermaine Defoe. If I’m being blunt, Sunderland is where you go when you fail somewhere else.
Of course, Sunderland also put together the great escape of 2016, going on a six-game unbeaten streak, including wins over Chelsea and Everton in the final weeks of the season in order to find themselves back in the Premiership for one more season, while watching fellow Tyne-Wear derby side Newcastle plummet into the Championship.
In the offseason, Sunderland didn’t add any memorable names: Adnan Januzaj is on loan from Manchester United, but the young Belgian only played in 7 matches last year. And last years talented attacker Lamine Kone is likely to be moved before the window closes. The Black Cats look like they plan to get it done with what they have, plus a raft of promoted kids from the U23 team.
Sunderland are a team to root for, in this Americans opinion, for two reasons: DeAndre Yedlin and Lyndon Gooch, both Americans. Yedlin is the USMNT’s talented, but not quite finished, right back. Gooch is currently on the U23s and unlike to see much time in the Premiership.
None of this makes them much like the Rapids except for the obvious: nobody expects anything at all from Sunderland except relegation. Even picking them for mid-table would be considered a huge EPL surprise. I’ll root for it to happen, but I sure as hell won’t bet 50 quid on it.
Young, promising coach.
Smaller market team.
Low or no expectations at all in 2015.
The Cherries tick a lot of the same boxes as the Rapids. Eddie Howe is the wunderkind 38-year-old coach of a team that has no business being in the Premiership to begin with (note: that video is long, but it’s really fantastic.) Bournemouth were in bankruptcy and buried in the fourth tier of English soccer back as recently as 2008.
All I knew about Bournemouth going into 2015 was that they had a talented fullback named Tyrone Mings. He blew his ACL on week 2. The rest of these guys were a bunch of Championship veterans like Simon Francis and Steve Cook and Matt Ritchie along with Premiership castoffs like Glenn Murray and Artur Boruc and Adam Smith.
But a funny thing happened: they were pretty good. Youngsters Callum Wilson and Joshua King got goals. The team played mostly attractive, sometimes risky football (OK, so not totally like our Rapids). And despite a late season swoon in which Bournemouth collected only 4 points from their last 8 games, the Cherries finished comfortably above the drop by 5 points.
Bournemouth pick up two notable names going into 2016-17: American Emerson Hyndman, a USMNT hopeful of the first order; and Liverpool’s Jordan Ibe, a big £15 million expenditure. It should be another good year for the Cherries up in the big show, and maybe they can even make an FA Cup run or grow themselves into a perennial top-tier side, instead of just a neat Cinderella story.
Swansea are the Rapids in the sense that they start the year with the whiff of desperation upon them. Nobody thinks this team is going to survive the drop next May.
Swansea finished 12th last season, but looking at their roster, I can’t exactly figure out how they did that. Andre Ayew and Gylfi Siggurosson scored a lot of the goals, and Ashley Williams did a capable job defending the midfield. They had bald bad-boy Jonjo Shelvey, until they sold him in January. Other than that, this team is entirely anonymous and unimpressive, which is worrisome. But they are from a lot of different countries. So that’s cool.
Siggurosson and Eder both starred for their respective nations of Iceland and Portugal in the Euros this year, so that’s cool, too.
For 2016-17, Williams is gone, and they added Athletico Madrid’s Borja Gonzalez along with Leroy Fer from QPR. Maybe they mature and shock the world. Francesco Guidolin took over after they fired Garry Monk, but most folks think he’s the odds-on favorite to be fired mid-season. So, they sound a lot like the Rapids. Maybe we’ll all be shocked.
The first and most direct connection between Burnley and Colorado is geographic - and before you get snarky, no, there are no mountains in Lancashire. Both Denver and Burley are flyover country to their respective populaces: a place you pass through on the way to somewhere else. And before you protest, fair Coloradans, I love it here and love this state and think people on the coasts are missing out. But before I moved here, Denver was a place to change planes, or rent a car before going to Vail.
Burnley is like that, but worse. It is bounded to the south by Manchester and Liverpool, and to the east by Leeds. It had historical relevance in the 19th century as a textile manufacturing powerhouse during the industrial revolution. That ended around 1910. Since then, the only thing of note they have ever produced was Dave Fishwick’s minibus company, and Sir Ian McKellen. OK, that last thing is pretty cool. Being both Gandalf and Magneto makes you, essentially, the God of the Nerd world. If Sir Ian came to a ComiCon, total and utter bedlam would ensue.
In football, Burnley are old (full stop) school (full stop). They moved to Turf Moor in 1883, and were a founding member of the Football League in 1888. They won the FA Cup in 1914 and top trophy in English league football in 1920-21 and 1959-60.
Now for a case of the sads: they were relegated to the second tier in 1976, and have only returned to the top flight recently, in 2009-10 and 2014-15. The yo-yo is back at the top of the parabola for 2016-17. Parachute payments are a helluva drug.
The team finished top of the English Championship in 2016 with a team led by midfielder Joey Barton, defender Ben Mee, strikers Andre Gray and Sam Vokes. Barton left for Scottish powerhouse Rangers. But he was also 33, so maybe (?) he was beginning to near his expiration date. The Clarets will replace him with 26 year-old Icelandic viking Johann Berg Gudmundsson, fresh off the sacking of England in the 2016 Euros. They also just bought Belgian international Steven Defour for £8 million. Those look like solid upgrades.
What might not work is that this team was in the Premiership just 18 months ago, and bombed out pretty spectacularly. In 2014-15, they won just 7 games, and most of those were against other EPL bottom-feeders. This roster may look too much like the roster of ‘14-15 to get this team out of the drop-zone. But then, surprises are a big reason why we tune in to watch football. If they won a lot of games and finished in the top half, it would be just the kind of surprise that the Colorado Rapids have pulled on MLS in this 2016 season.