Pick a Club: How Your Philly Fandom Determines Your English Premier League Soccer Allegiance (Bottom 10)

Pick a Club: How Your Philly Fandom Determines Your English Premier League Soccer Allegiance (Bottom 10)

Let's face it, Philly sports are in a bad place right now (except for the Union!). And things will only get worse in a few weeks when the Eagles' season kicks off (just admit it already).

But I'm here to help.

The English Premier League season begins Saturday at the bright-and-early time of 7:45 a.m. For the first time, EVERY single game will be available on NBC Sports Network, big-boy NBC, the NBC Sports Live Extra app or NBC Premier League Extra, a tier of channels that was provided to cable providers at no cost and SHOULD be available on most cable packages (I'm looking at you, FIOS!)

Games are played mostly on Saturday and Sunday mornings with one game saved for Monday afternoon (night in England -- yup, Monday Night Football). Amazingly, fans in the United States will have FAR more access to the English Premier League than fans who actually live in England. For soccer nerds like me, it's a wonderful thing.

"But I don't have a team to root for," you might be saying. No worries, I'm here to fix that, based solely on what type of Philly fan you are.

It's best to pick one club and stick with it. There's no reason too stupid to choose your favorite team (mine began with FIFA 02 on PlayStation). But if you choose a top team, it's perfectly fine to adopt a bottom-feeder to cheer on through the relegation fight. And if you choose a more obscure club (more power to you), it's fine to have a rooting interest in the title race.

Quick notes to remember:

  • The 20 teams all play each other twice -- once home and once away (38 games). The season runs into next May. Teams get three points for a win and one for a draw.
  • There are no playoffs. The top three teams earn a spot in the 2014-15 Champions League, a separate competition between Europe's best teams. The fourth-place team gets a chance at the Champions League, but must play an extra round to get there. The fifth-place team (and possibly more) will go to the Europa League, a similar competition you can think of as Europe's NIT.
  • The bottom three teams at the end of the season are "relegated" and spend next year in the second tier (think AAA). They will be replaced by the top three teams from this year's second tier.
  • EPL teams will play some games that are not part of league play (confusing, I know). Four will be in this year's Champions League, two in the Europa League, and all 20 will be part of two bracket-style competitions,: the FA Cup (all teams, including amateurs, are invited), and the Football League Cup (the top 92 teams in English soccer).

We'll start with the teams most likely to finish in the bottom half this season, beginning with the teams I think will be relegated. Tomorrow we'll discuss the favorites, again in reverse order to the top. Each includes the club's home jersey, in case you pick teams like my sister used to bet on football:

20. Hull City (Northeast England) - Orange and Black (Alternate: Red and Blue)

Cheer for the Tigers If: You're a self-loathing Flyers fan who wants an excuse to wear that Petr Svoboda jersey in the back of your closet.

Steer Clear If: You enjoy cheering for goals, winning, or not having people laugh at you.

 

19. Crystal Palace (London) - Red and Blue (Alternate: Black or Yellow) 

Cheer for the Eagles If: You're a Wings or Soul season ticket-holder, since clearly you enjoy going against the grain with the least-popular teams in town. Palace is one of a half-dozen London-based teams in the EPL this season, and is the least-popular of the six.

Steer Clear: Unless you as a fan enjoy getting kicked by the other team's best player.

18. Southampton (South coast) - Red and White (Alternate: Black and White)

Cheer for the Saints If: You're a Villanova fan who spends summers by the coast. Much like the Wildcats, Southampton has always been respectable at worst and above average at best. The Saints spent 27 straight seasons in England's top division before relegation in 2005. They've never won the top-division title, but finished second in 1984 and won the FA Cup in 1976. Like 'Nova, they also have religious ties, and are called the "Saints" due to their history as a church team (thanks, Wikipedia!). Like the Wildcats, they also have a bitter nearby rival who they don't consider worthy of their leftovers (St. Joe's = Portsmouth).

Steer Clear: If you'd rather not wear that weird sponsor logo on your shirt (which is apparently a global IT services provider).

17. Cardiff City (Cardiff, Wales) - Red and Black (Alternate: Yellow or Blue) 

Cheer for the Bluebirds If: You're an Adam Aron fan. Not only does one of their players share the name (Aron Gunnarsson) of the Sixers' Twitter-happy executive, but the Bluebirds' ownership seems to think style is more important than substance (much like Aron). New Malaysian owner Vincent Tan came in last year and took the blue out of the Bluebirds, completely changing their crest from a peaceful bluebird to a fire-breathing dragon, and switching the team colors from blue and white to red and black. Needless to say, many Cardiff fans were not happy.

Steer Clear: If you actually want to visit England to watch your new team play. Yes, in the English Premier League, there are now two teams not located in England: Cardiff and Swansea City, who are rivals in neighboring Wales, a country (I think it's a country?) that  somehow has its own league that neither team plays in.

16. Norwich City (Eastern England) - Yellow and Green (Alternate: Black and White)

Cheer for the Canaries If: You enjoy oddball historical traditions, like the throwing of the toast at the University of Pennsylvania. According to my extensive Internet research, Norwich fans sing a song -- "On the Ball, City" -- that is considered the oldest football song in the world.

Steer Clear If: You could barely watch when the Eagles wore those horrendous yellow and blue alternates a few years ago. Norwich's yellow and green combo looks especially garish in HD.

15. West Bromwich Albion (Central England) - Blue and White (Alternate: Red and Black)

Cheer for the Baggies If: You live in Philly but root for a college alma mater that no one has ever heard of. That's how nondescript and "blah" West Brom is.

Steer Clear If: You feel like you need to call them by their full name (think "THE Ohio State University). EPL-snobs get all annoyed if you say anything other than "West Brom."

14. West Ham United (London) - Claret and Blue (Alternate: Claret and White)

Cheer for the Hammers If: You are a St. Joseph's fan or enjoy having an inferiority complex (same thing). Much like the Hawks, the Hammers are the forgotten team in London, despite having a history that should help them stand out. They are one of eight English teams to never play below the second tier, but have never won a title. Manager Sam Allardyce is big, loud and not afraid to speak his mind. Much like this guy.

Steer Clear If: You hate the tourists who take pictures with the Rocky statue. West Ham is best known in the United States as the club Frodo (Elijah Wood) supported in the movie Green Street Hooligans. Also, the fans blow bubbles before most games. What's that about?

13. Sunderland (Northern England) - Red, White and Black (Alternate: Blue and Yellow)

Cheer for the Black Cats If: You love living in the cradle of liberty. Sunderland is the first team on our list with an American on the roster: New signing Jozy Altidore, who should feature prominently in his return to England (he played briefly for Hull a few years ago). Altidore, who had a hat trick on Wednesday against Bosnia and Herzegovina, He scored 24 goals last year for AZ Alkmaar in The Netherlands, the most ever by an American in Europe.

Steer Clear If: You enjoy being entertained. Sunderland are not always the most exciting team to watch, scoring  just 41 goals last season and barely avoiding relegation.

12. Aston Villa (Birmingham) - Claret and Blue (Alternate: Maroon and White or Green and Black)

Cheer for the Villains If: You're a Flyers fan living in the past. Aston Villa has history. It is one of just five clubs  to win the European championship and has more major trophies than any English team other than Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal. One major problem: The Villains' last trophy came in 2005 and they have been yo-yoing between respectability and mediocrity in recent seasons. Oh, they also have an American goalkeeper: Brad Guzan.

Steer Clear If: You don't want your replica jersey to be confused with another team. I'm always getting West Ham and Aston Villa confused when they appear on my TV.

11. Fulham (London) - Black and White (Alternate: Red and White)

Cheer for the Cottagers If: You're a Penn fan. If you're a Quaker supporter, your biggest claim to fame isn't really your team, it's the stadium/arena it plays in. Franklin Field and the Palestra are two of my favorite sports venues on Earth, and I have no connection at all to Penn. Fulham is much the same. The team is known as the Cottagers after its home of Craven Cottage, a tiny bandbox of a stadium that sits crammed into a London neighborhood. It was opened in 1896 and has a history going back hundreds of years before that, when it was the site of a royal hunting lodge.

Steer Clear If: You want to root for Americans. After years of being known as "Fulham-erica" with the likes of Brian McBride, Clint Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and others on the roster, the Cottagers are American-free in 2013.

Coming tomorrow: The top 10. In the meantime, enjoy this hilarious NBC Sports promo with SNL's Jason Sudekis.

[nbcsports_video src=//www.youtube.com/embed/6KeG_i8CWE8 service=youtube width=590 height=332]

Cuban ballplayers mourn loss of Jose Fernandez

Cuban ballplayers mourn loss of Jose Fernandez

CHICAGO — Chicago Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler played with Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez when the two were growing up in Cuba. They traveled together to Venezuela for a youth tournament.

Soler said Fernandez's ability was obvious, right from the start.

"Since he was a child, since we were kids, I knew he had something," Soler said through a translator. "He had a talent. It was very impressive."

Fernandez's death in a boating accident at the age of 24 cast a dark shadow over the major leagues on Sunday. Miami's home game against Atlanta was canceled, and several ballparks observed moments of silence. Wrigley Field's iconic hand-operated scoreboard displayed Fernandez's No. 16 in its pitching column next to Miami.

But the loss of Fernandez was felt most acutely in baseball's growing Cuban community.

"He was one of those guys that everybody loved," St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena said. "He was one of those guys that everybody knew exactly what he meant to our community. For us, it's a big, big loss. It's one of those things where our thoughts and prayers are obviously with his family, the Marlins' organization and the fans. But it gets a little bit closer because he was part of our Cuban family."

There were 23 Cubans on opening-day major league rosters this year, an increase of five over last season and the most since the commissioner's office began releasing data in 1995. Many of the players share similar stories when it comes to their perilous journey from the communist country to the majors, and the difficulty of adjusting to life in the United States.

A native of Santa Clara, Cuba, Fernandez was unsuccessful in his first three attempts to defect, and spent several months in prison. At 15, Fernandez and his mother finally made it to Mexico, and were reunited in Florida with his father, who had escaped from Cuba two years earlier.

He was drafted by the Marlins in 2011, and quickly turned into one of the majors' top pitchers.

"How he was on the mound was a reflection of him," Oakland first baseman Yonder Alonso said. "A guy who had a lot of fun, was himself. A very talkative guy, he would come into the room and you'd know he was in the room. Never big-leagued anyone, very professional. No matter what, he would talk to you about hitting, because he thought he was the best hitter, and he (would) talk to you about pitching, because he thought he was the best pitcher."

Alonso said Fernandez's death was "a big-time shock." Yasiel Puig used torn pieces of white athletic tape to display Fernandez's jersey on the wall in the home dugout at Dodger Stadium. Cardinals rookie Aledmys Diaz, who had known Fernandez since they were little kids, declined an interview request through a team spokeswoman.

"We Cuban players know each other well and all of us have a great relationship," Pena said. "For us, it's devastating news when we woke up. We were sending text messages to each other and we were showing support. It's something that obviously nobody expects."

Fernandez, who became a U.S. citizen last year, also was beloved for his stature in the Cuban community in Miami.

"He was a great humanitarian," Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman said through a translator. "He gave a lot to the community and I think that's why he got a lot of respect from the community in terms of what a great person he was and always giving, in terms of always willing to help out in whatever way he can to try to better and progress within the community someone that perhaps wasn't as fortunate as he was."

The 28-year-old Chapman lives in the Miami-area in the offseason. He said he spent some time with Fernandez while he was home.

"He would come by my house. I would go by his," Chapman said. "We would have long conversations. We would talk a lot. We spent a lot of good amount of time together. It was very special for me."

Pressure is on Flyers' fourth-liner Chris VandeVelde to fend off competition

Pressure is on Flyers' fourth-liner Chris VandeVelde to fend off competition

VOORHEES, N.J. — Even before Flyers training camp opened, Ron Hextall talked about a plenitude of internal competition for jobs.
 
It’s all over the ice, too.
 
Who starts in goal: Steve Mason or Michal Neuvirth, who came on strong at the end of last season? 
 
Does Ivan Provorov win a spot on the roster? And if he does, who gets sent packing?
 
Between Scott Laughton and Nick Cousins, who gets the lion's share of ice time? 
 
Can Travis Konecny or Roman Lyubimov force a veteran forward off the team?
 
Then there’s free-agent signee Boyd Gordon, a PK specialist who was second only to Claude Giroux in the league last season on winning defensive zone draws. More competition.
 
Well, one of the key battles in training camp for both roster space and minutes concerns how veteran fourth-liner Chris VandeVelde handles the competition from Lyubimov — the 24-year-old Russian who plays a heavy game and can handle special teams — and others.
 
VandeVelde saw a bit of an offensive drop-off last season with 14 points. Though just a point fewer than the year before, the bigger dip was going from nine goals to two.
 
With no real goal-scoring additions in the offseason, Hextall is expecting bigger outputs from returning players.
 
In VandeVelde’s case, two goals is something Lyubimov could easily match or exceed.
 
“You have to go out there and give it your all,” VandeVelde said. “Hopefully, work hard and kinda make an impression. There’s a lot of guys fighting for a fair amount of spots. It’s going to be interesting.
 
“I think I’ve felt pressure every year. Obviously, you want to make an impression and get noticed out there. Reassure [them] I can still do the job and add a few things to my offensive game.”
 
And his self-evaluation?
 
“I think I was solid,” he replied. “As a fourth line, we were very good at times. Individually, I can add a little more and chip in a little more.”
 
VandeVelde is not scheduled to play in either of Monday’s split-squad games in New Jersey or Brooklyn.
 
At stake here isn’t just his job on the fourth line but the penalty kill, as well. VandeVelde’s 2:17 shorthanded ice time per game was second only to linemate Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (2:35) among the forwards.
 
The 6-foot-2, 207-pound Lyubimov has played on the penalty kill in the KHL, and Gordon is a PK specialist. What was VandeVelde’s edge is now something up for grabs, especially given both Hextall and coach Dave Hakstol have vowed there will be improvement on the PK, which ranked 14th last season after being among the bottom 10 much of the year.
 
Hakstol has said he intends to tweak the PK with some structural changes. That sounds like personnel changes and Gordon could be a guy on the fourth unit and will certainly be in the mix on the penalty kill.
 
How to make the kill better remains at large.
 
“We have to start a little more aggressively,” VandeVelde said. “Kinda like we finished last couple games there against Washington (in the playoffs). We kinda got burnt there 6-1 (in Game 3). We switched styles a little too late.”
 
The Flyers gave up five power play goals in Game 3 to the Caps.
 
VandeVelde admits his penalty kill experience gives him a bit of an edge going into camp.
 
“If I can bring that extra edge and solidify a role, that is huge,” he said.
 
VandeVelde returned to his home in Moorhead, Minn., over the summer to focus on his skating, hoping to get a more explosive start on the ice that he could utilize better during the penalty kill.
 
One thing seems certain: VandeVelde says there’s a greater comfort level for returning players as to what to expect from Hakstol. Also, whereas last year’s camp was one of implementing systems, this year’s camp is one of expanding on them.
 
“Everyone knows what to expect,” VandeVelde said. “So do all three coaches. They are going to tweak some things, whether it's penalty kill or power play or other systems. We’ll learn that. That is what preseason is for. All the players know what to expect and are ready to go.”
 
VandeVelde said he’s already been informed what the team expects from him this season. The competition could push him in that direction.
 
“I know what they want,” he said. “Obviously, I can do more offensively and want to chip in a little more as a fourth line and as an individual. Maybe just work on that.”