With a new English Premier League season starting in a few days comes another way to root for your favorite players—by having them help your fantasy team.
In this slideshow, we'll look at which online game is the best fit for you, as well as some players who deserve your attention.
Unlike most American online fantasy games in which players can only be owned by one player in a league, the most common soccer (European football) games in the fantasy sports realm are better known as salary cap games in the States.
As we evaluate each position, we won't necessarily get into a debate over who are the best players. You don't need me to tell you that the likes of Wayne Rooney and Petr Cech are elite selections. The difference between a good team and a great team in fantasy is finding the undervalued players or so-called sleepers.
While there are dozens of fantasy setups, almost all fit within the following three realms:
Fantasy Premier League
Administered by Barclays, this is the official game of the EPL. It has the simplest interface of the three games that we'll examine—and is the most classic. Of the three, this is the easiest one to manage on a mobile device.
ESPN Soccernet Premier Fantasy
This game is similar to the Barclays, but is a tad easier in terms of player selection since players are cheaper. Its season is divided into two segments, offering a chance to overhaul your team if you have a poor first half.
Yahoo! Eurosport Fantasy Football
In some respects, this is the purest fantasy game of the three because you can select a brand new XI each week. Unlike the other two games, there are no restrictions on the number of players you can have from one Premiership side and there is no bench (the other two have a four-man reserve).
In terms of scoring, ESPN has the most basic scoring. Barclays has almost identical categories, but also awards bonus points for notable performances. Yahoo! arguably has the most complete scoring format, as it takes into account things as crosses, tackles and fouls.
Yahoo! has an unlimited transfer policy, so picking as many players who are at home is especially key for what should be obvious reasons. Barclays and ESPN each offer a limited number of transfers, but ESPN allows you to reinvent your team with unlimited transfers before the start of the second segment as well as being able to use multiple ones in a gameweek without a possible penalty like in the Barclays.
Players' price fluctuations for Yahoo! are based on performance; Barclays's rise and fall based on whether that player is transferred in or out. Frankly ESPN disappoints on this note, as it does not address that issue specifically in its rules section or FAQ.
No matter which of the three games you choose, Shay Given looks to be the best value.
Because the Aston Villa goalkeeper did not play at all last season for Manchester City, his salary is deflated by Yahoo!, which has him as merely the 18th-most expensive keeper, and by the Barclays, where he is tied for 11th-most pricey. Only in the ESPN game is the Ireland international given some due, as he is tied for eighth in market value.
Given Given's quality and new Villa manager Alex McLeish's tendency to have his teams defend well, there's a good chance that Given could be a top-five fantasy keeper.
A good strategy to employ with keepers in the the Barclays and ESPN leagues, because there is automatic substitution if your starter does not play, is to carry your No. 1's backup. Instead of paying full price for another No. 1, you can take that extra million or so and spend it on another position.
Honorable mention: Ali Al-Habsi
If you're the type of owner to place a low priority on your goalkeeper, the Wigan No. 1 might be a good choice. The Latics are not a side that are fantasy-friendly to keepers and defenders because of their tendency to attack, but last season points-wise Al-Habsi managed to finish fifth in the ESPN game, sixth in the Barclays game and 10th in Yahoo!.
Al-Habsi is a particular bargain in the Barclays game, as he is only tied as the 19th-most expensive keeper. Not surprisingly, he is the third-most popular pick in the Barclays; Given is No. 1.
David Luiz of Chelsea looks to be an excellent buy in the Yahoo! game. His half-season worth of points makes a supremely cheap buy at 8.24 million, which is exactly 50th among defenders.
The other two games are tipping him to have a good season, as the Brazilian ranks as the fourth-most expensive defender in the ESPN game and is tied as the ninth-most expensive back in the Barclays. Luiz's propensity for picking up cards on rash challenges is worth noting.
All three games reward defenders for clean sheets, so it's wise to pick among the stoutest defenses.
While Fulham's Brede Hangeland might cost you too much, consider teammate John Arne Riise, who was a stud fantasy player when he was with Liverpool. Similarly if you can't afford Leighton Baines, try Everton mates Phil Jagielka or Sylvain Distin.
Here's where the discrepancies in the games might steer you to playing one or another. In all three of the games, one has 100 million to spend. An owner has to buy 15 players in both the Barclays and ESPN games, except it's easier to own more elite players in the ESPN game.
For example, Chelsea's Florent Malouda is the most expensive ESPN midfielder at 8.7. Barclay's most expensive midfielders, Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas and Chelsea's Frank Lampard, each cost 12 million.
The 10 most expensive midfielders in the Yahoo! game each cost more than 16 million, though remember that Yahoo! owners need to spend on only 11 players.
Fulham's Clint Dempsey was one of the Premiership's top fantasy midfielders last year, but is reasonably priced to start this season.
The American was tied for fourth in ESPN midfield scoring, yet, at 6.3, is nearly two million cheaper than Nani and Rafael Van der Vaart, the third and fourth midfielders. In the Barclays game, Dempsey and Stewart Downing each ranked in the top eight in scoring, yet are each priced at 8.5, which ties them for 15th in price.
One of the best buys across the board is Manchester United's Park Ji-Sung. His points per game relative to his price makes him good value. For example in the ESPN game, the Korean was fifth in PPG last year, but is 41st in price. Of course the big question with Park is his playing time.
In the same vein as with the midfielders, the cheaper valuations will likely influence which game you choose and whether you choose to build your core around midfielders or forwards.
All three fantasy games are apparently not banking on West Brom's Peter Odemwingie repeating his 2010/11 form, which makes him an unusual sleeper.
The Nigerian ranked among the top seven in points per game in all three formats, but is supremely affordable. Odemwingie's 7.5 valuation in the Barclays is tied for 19th; by comparison, there are nine forwards who are rated at 10.0 or higher (with only Robin van Persie and Didier Drogba outscoring him). His 7.1 price tag by ESPN is about a million and a half cheaper than the likes of van Persie and Carlos Tevez.
Among the big-name forwards, Luis Suarez might provide the best bang for the buck. His half season with Liverpool has him undervalued in the Yahoo! game, as his 159 points translated to a market price of 14.49. His 12.23 points per game, however, ranked second only to van Persie, who cost a whopping 7.5 more.
Given the problem with small sample sizes, we'll post advice and tips after a month or so.
One of the great things about fantasy sports is that you get to put your money where your mouth is. If you're convinced that Everton are doomed to start slow as usual, then stay away from the Toffees. If you feel one of the promoted sides is going to catch lightning in a bottle and enjoy a fast start, try to find some gems. If you feel that players changing teams or are new to the Premier League are riskier bets than those who return to familiar roles, avoid those newbies.
If you feel like you don't want to root for any players from a certain Premiership side, then by all means stay away from their players. However I've found that fantasy sports helps me learn more about players whom I otherwise would not feel compelled to read up on.
Feel free to share your best fantasy picks, particularly sleepers, in the comments section.
If you'd like to join my Barclays league (GateHouse United), the code is 309444-90209.
My ESPN league group name is Bleacher Report. It's a public league that requires no password to join.
My Yahoo! Eurosport group name is Bleacher Report. The group ID that you'll need to join is 11593; the password is slideshow.
If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments section or on my bulletin board.
Look forward to matching wits with you.