After a long summer of virtually no soccer worth talking about at all, it's officially Premier League season! Soccer is back in America! "Tim-may How-ward! (Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap!)"
Wait, I feel like I'm forgetting something.
The World Cup, as it does in this country every four years, managed to once again turn general sports fans into soccer supporters, and casual soccer viewers—they'll put a game on every other Saturday morning just to see what all the fuss is about—into ardent footy fans.
Only, there's something a bit different about the post-World Cup buzz this year. It feels like this time—with the prevalence of the sport on American television across close to 10 different networks—a lot of those World Cup fans are heading into the fall looking for more.
Once every four years may be enough for most American soccer viewers, but more and more people seem to be hoping the World Cup can serve as an introduction to the beautiful game, with many new fans left searching for the right club team to support.
Staying just within America's most popular club football league, the Barclays Premier League, there are several fine choices for fans to show their support.
For U.S. Soccer fans looking for a different kind of American soccer experience, there is really only one answer: Everton. Everton should become America's Team of the EPL. There really is no second choice.
Contextually speaking, America is a nascent soccer nation, and while the MLS ratings have seen a slight bump off the 2014 FIFA World Cup, it's surely not what our domestic league had hoped for. It's the European leagues, namely the Premier League, that expect to reap the biggest post-Brazil buzz. With that, new fans will look to latch on to whatever, or whomever, they know.
(Cue the Tim Howard chant again. Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap.)
With the increased popularity of the Premier League in America over the last decade, a constant bidding war has developed for EPL television rights. The last round went to NBC, which plucked the package from Fox and ESPN, making a concerted effort to promote the game specifically to American soccer fans; this included putting Howard in the booth for marquee games in which Everton was not playing.
The plan has worked. Not only were the ratings up for EPL last season on NBC's family of networks (when compared to the previous year on Fox Sports and ESPN), but there's a palpable buzz around the early-morning weekend matches that just didn't happen before NBC took over.
Add in the afterglow of the World Cup, and NBC should expect the best ratings this side of the pond the EPL has ever seen. (Note: There have already been industry whispers that ESPN plans to go in hard on the next round of rights bidding, hoping to get the EPL back after losing the World Cup to Fox. This is a great thing for EPL fans in America, as more television interest means more money, which means a larger commitment, which means more matches and more promotion on television.)
So what does all this have to do with a cash-strapped mid-table club that's second fiddle in its own city and…OH MY GOD, did I just suggest that new soccer fans in America start rooting for the EPL equivalent of the New York Mets?
I wanted to convince new American footy fans to support Everton, not to expose the biggest reason not to. Forget I ever said anything about the Mets, and let's focus on a few reasons why Everton should be the de facto home team for America's new EPL fans.
Howard has been the top keeper in the United States for a generation. He is, by soccer standards in this country, one of the few household names in the game, and his performance in the World Cup did nothing but solidify his standing as a bona fide American soccer legend.
Howard signed a contract extension back in April to stay at Goodison Park through the 2018 season, when he will be 39 years old. After a stellar EPL campaign last season and a World Cup in which he showed how important he is to the success of U.S. Soccer, Howard is, by far, the most obvious reason for new American fans to choose Everton as their EPL team.
The way Howard played this summer, he shouldn't only be turning new fans into instant Evertonians; he might just be able to convert some existing American fans, too.
There aren't many Americans in the Premier League right now. Brad Friedel has been relegated to a backup keeper at this point in his career, serving more as an ambassador for Spurs to capture fans in America, while Brad Guzan—Howard's No. 2 at the World Cup—is the starter at Aston Villa. Good luck with that, new fans picking the claret and blue.
Geoff Cameron may be the highest-profile American field player in the EPL as a vital part of Stoke City, the same club that tried to turn Brek Shea into a viable contributor in Europe, an odd experiment that has thus far failed rather miserably.
There have been other Americans in the EPL over the years. American fans who hitched their wagons to Fulham when Clint Dempsey was filling the back of the nets at Craven Cottage a few years ago are probably lamenting that decision now that Fulham has been relegated.
Dempsey did move to Spurs before returning to MLS last year, the same EPL side that are hot on the trail of American wunderkind De'Andre Yedlin this summer. That wouldn't be a terrible choice for American fans, if you like rooting for a club that would fire Ted Lasso after six-and-a-half hours.
For now, if new fans are looking for the best option in terms of profile, playing time and opportunity to succeed in the league, the American to support in England is clearly Howard, thus making Everton the team to back.
Everton's History With Americans
While certainly the most tenured and high profile, Howard is not the only American player to suit up for the Toffees in his career. Both Brian McBride and Landon Donovan had loan stints at Everton in their time. McBride played eight games on loan for Everton in 2003, scoring four goals before officially leaving MLS on a transfer to Fulham.
Donovan's time at Everton was also short-lived, but he made a decent impact during his last loan spell that had many Evertonians, and U.S. Soccer fans, hoping he would leave MLS two years ago and return to Goodison Park.
Last, and most tenured outside of Howard, is former U.S. international Joe-Max Moore, who played in 52 matches for Everton between stints with the New England Revolution of MLS. He certainly wasn't having his jersey retired at Goodison by any stretch, but there admittedly aren't many better American connections beyond Howard. Besides, how great would "I've been a supporter since the Joe-Max Moore days" play at an Everton bar? (Answer: Do not try this.)
Sure, it's not like showing up in a Manchester City kit with Claudio Reyna on the back (I'm really grasping for EPL connections now, folks), but at least there is some small tie to Everton's storied history and America's international stars. (Cue Tim Howard chant, again.)
If You Can't Beat 'Em…
Belgium knocked the United States out of the 2014 World Cup, with Romelu Lukaku netting the eventual game-winner in a match that saw Howard make more World Cup saves than any keeper in history.
In what may have been Howard's finest match for the USMNT, he was bested twice in extra time, the second of which came from his club teammate. It was a bittersweet moment for Everton fans in America, made more bitter than sweet by the assumption at the time that Lukaku—on loan from Chelsea last season—would be sold to another club after the World Cup.
Instead, Lukaku returned to Everton this summer, on a full transfer from Chelsea, making him officially teammates with Howard after signing a long-term deal with the club.
Lukaku is everything American fans want in a target forward, with his ability to link up with midfielders, serve as an outlet for the defense, control the ball with his feet in space and score like mad. Simply put, Lukaku is what American fans wished Altidore could be.
While our target man in the EPL is floundering at Sunderland, with speculation Altidore could to potentially return to MLS after Sunderland inked a new partnership with D.C. United, Lukaku is the striker we dream about…and now we don't have to root against him anymore.
If you can't beat him—and the U.S. could not—why not root for him?
Oh, and Lukaku isn't the only Belgian at Everton either, as Kevin Mirallas torched the Americans as a late substitute in the World Cup, and now you can root for him, too!
And if that's not enough, Everton just secured a loan for Christian Atsu, the player who gave the USMNT fits during its World Cup tilt with Ghana. I suppose even if you can beat 'em…
America Loves Roberto Martinez
If there was one breakout star of ESPN's coverage over the last two World Cups, with apologies to any men currently wearing blazers for NBC, it was Roberto Martinez.
Martinez was fantastic in the studio, which endeared him to many USMNT fans so much that some want him to replace Jurgen Klinsmann after the 2018 World Cup. (Okay, I may have been the one floating that suggestion, but it's a great idea, you have to admit.)
For now, Martinez seems happy at Everton, and U.S. fans should be happy to watch him manage there. At the very least, it can provide a glimpse at what the U.S. should, and perhaps could, become.
This is funny, but for the last half-decade or so, Everton's style of play has mirrored that of the USMNT, even as managers changed for both teams.
David Moyes played a safe, defensive-minded brand of football that relied on crossing the ball to an in-the-box target while keeping enough players back to secure a draw before ever worrying about a win.
For fans of U.S. Soccer who remember the Bob Bradley era, the styles seemed similar. There was some success with that model, but there was a dourness that came with it.
With Martinez, that doesn't exist. Everton are fluid, aggressive and immensely offensive. The passing is more dynamic, the movement is with purpose and the formations are anything but dour. Possession is part of the plan, not a happy accident when it happens.
Isn't that exactly the way we want the USMNT to play?
Many of us thought it would be more open for the U.S. this go-around, but Klinsmann played things closer to the vest than anticipated, thanks to some injuries and a general lack of depth (read: trust) at key positions. Still, at times our collective eyes widened when Yedlin, Fabian Johnson or DaMarcus Beasley came banging down the wings, a scene that should feel eerily similar when Leighton Baines and Seamus Coleman do the same 40-odd times this season for the Toffees.
In many ways, the style employed by Martinez at Everton is exactly what Jurgen Klinsmann has promised U.S. Soccer fans and what we expect the German import to install moving forward into the next World Cup cycle.
America Loves an Underdog
America is the front-runner in everything. We have to be the most powerful country in the world. We have to dominate at the Olympics or the World Championships or whatever competition we enter. We are Americans, which, to some in this country, automatically makes us the best in the world at whatever we do.
Only, not in soccer.
In soccer—men's soccer, in particular—America is a perpetual underdog. We get by on guile and guts and teamwork and making sure the sum of our collective parts works far better than each could ever do alone.
Donovan is widely regarded as the best American player in history, and he may not even be a top-100 player of his generation. That, for better or worse, is U.S. Soccer.
In some ways, it's also Everton. There are no big-ticket signings like Liverpool can routinely make from down the street. Sure, Lukaku was a big signing, but that money came from selling off Marouane Fellaini or Jack Rodwell or Mikel Arteta, or whoever over the last however many years was sold in order to pay the bills that led up to one team-record signing that would barely create a stir with the power clubs in England.
That said, Lukaku's signing was a message to Evertonians that they're serious. Leighton Baines said recently, via the Daily Mail's Richard Arrowsmith, that the move signifies Everton are done being a selling club for now.
It was a big statement. Rom was linked to loads of clubs and I think the Chelsea fans would have liked to have him back there as well. So it was a brilliant signing for us.
Everyone is back now and I think the gaffer will be working on another couple of things he wants to do, but it's great to have Rom back and Gaz (Barry) as well.
They signed Gareth Barry to a new deal after he proved his mettle on loan last season. They extended the contract of young stars like Ross Barkley and John Stones this offseason and have so far resisted temptation to sell Baines or Seamus Coleman. Add that to the likes of James McCarthy's deal last year, and maybe Everton is serious about contending.
And yet, they're still an underdog. Those players combined don't equal the money going in or out of the power clubs. Chelsea spent more on Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, each, than what Everton paid for Lukaku. Liverpool jettisoned Luis Suarez for a heaping pile of cash, then spent much of that money on the likes of Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren that, combined, make the Lukaku deal look like nothing big at all.
It's the cost of doing business for the power clubs, but for Everton, it's a once-in-a-generation deal. And yet, amidst all the headline grabbing from the big clubs that Everton simply can't keep up with, the Toffees are in great shape to compete. The little engine that can—there's something oddly American, in a soccer sense, about that.
Everton Can Actually Win
For new fans of the power clubs in the EPL—Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, both Manchester clubs and perhaps even Tottenham—many of which try to buy their way to the top of the table each season, it must feel a bit like a new fan of Major League Baseball in America deciding to root for the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or Los Angeles Dodgers because it gives them the best chance to celebrate a title the fastest.
There is no shame in that, truly. If you're going to invest the time in a Premier League side, why not pick one that has a chance to actually win…which leads directly to the next point.
Everton can actually win. Sure, they're not in line for an EPL title this season, but with the young talent like Lukaku, Stones and Barkley that combines with the likes of Howard, Barry, McCarthy, Baines, Coleman, Phil Jagielka, Steven Pienaar, Sylvain Distin and Leon Osman—seriously, is there a more "American-style" underdog in the entire EPL than Osman?—and a host of other solid, but unspectacular, veterans, Everton should be able to legitimately compete for a top-four spot and challenge the power clubs all season long.
Everton are most certainly better than the sum of their parts. If you're going to pick a club to follow, you want to back a team that can win, but it's more American (kind of) to root for a team that can win "against all odds." Everton can do that.
You Can Watch Every Match
With NBC's current EPL deal, fans can watch every match either on television or online. Last season, Everton's early success and American connection with Howard had them on television a fair amount, with the other games available through NBC's Live Extra app.
This year, even more Everton games are on television, with a clear effort by NBC to use Howard as a means to grow more of an audience.
Two of the Toffees' first three matches are on NBC this season, and seven of the first 13 matches are on either NBC or NBCSN, with the rest available on additional networks or online.
If you pick a team outside of Manchester United or Arsenal or Liverpool or Chelsea, it's not like it was 10 years ago, or really even three years ago. Gone are the days of buying a jersey and being stuck reading game recaps or finding illegal online streams in order to raise your fan credibility. You can actually watch all the games. That's as good a reason as any for new fans to pay more attention this season, no matter which club you choose.
Only, it's pretty clear what team American fans should choose—certainly the new ones.