The college football season itself ends on Monday. The Big Ten football season ended on Tuesday. Now, while there will be plenty of college basketball for us to watch on Saturdays through the spring, there's still a void left in the sports television schedule on Saturdays.
One that can be filled with soccer. Yes, that's right, that dirty socialist sport from Europe.
Personally I'm somewhat of a recent convert to the sport. I began watching it in 1994 when the World Cup was in the United States and Chicago in particular. Since then, though, the only time I'd really pay any attention to the sport was during the World Cup. However, in 2010 the World Cup and a big change in my life would take place at the same time, leading me to become a genuine fan of the game.
It was just after the 2010 World Cup had come to an end that I was hired to blog about college football full-time for CBSSports.com. I had been blogging for places like FanHouse part-time for years, but I did all of it while also maintaining a regular 40-hour a week full-time job.
The Eye On College Football blog would become my new full-time job, which meant that I'd be spending the majority of my time working from home. In my pajamas. Like a boss.
Obviously, this led to me having a lot more time available throughout the day to watch television, and when I watch television I'm looking for sports to watch. Particularly during the day when the only other options are soap operas, talk shows or the endless parade of court shows.
So, coming off a World Cup in which I was devouring soccer and starting to develop a real affection for the game, I began watching a lot of soccer during the day. Fox Soccer was always replaying Premier League games during the day, and while the results were known to all soccer fans, they were new to me, so it may as well have been live television.
And thus a soccer fan was born. Instead of just watching the game I actually started to figure it out. I bought a copy of the latest FIFA to play and learned even more. Seriously, there is no better way to learn the intricacies of a sport these days than through video games. They are just that thorough.
After spending a year just watching whatever soccer was on, I figured it was time for me to choose a team. Without going into a ton of detail, I settled on Aston Villa. I have regretted it ever since, as there is a lot in common between Aston Villa and Illinois football these days.
Which leads to this post. I know many of you do not like soccer, and that's fine. However, I cannot recommend it enough. It seems boring if you don't understand it, but believe me that it's more entertaining when you get it. And now that the football season is coming to an end, this would be a good time to figure it out.
The best thing about the soccer season is that it pretty much lasts all year. England's Premier League season begins in August and ends in May. The offseason lasts only two months, and believe me, the offseason is not an offseason. There's a ton that happens.
So if you're looking for a new way to spend your Saturday mornings, soccer is the best way to go. Now, while I could sit here and tell you that Italy's Serie A is a superior league to Englands EPL because it's filled with Italians, I would recommend following the EPL. It's just easier to do so here in the states, and more Americans do. And part of sports is relating to your fellow fans.
As for picking a team to root for, I feel that instead of just arbitrarily picking a team you should just watch games and let a team choose you. However, to give you a better idea of what you're dealing with, I've decided to compare the 12 football teams of the Big Ten to their most similar English football clubs.
OHIO STATE - This is pretty easy to figure out. Ohio State is a team that has dominated the Big Ten football landscape for a very long time, much like Manchester United has done to the Premier League. Plus they both like to wear red and their fans can be extremely obnoxious. But that's what happens when you win all the damn time. Now, Manchester United has had more struggles in its history than Ohio State has, but since Alex Ferguson took over the club in the 90s, they've pretty much been the show.
So if you do end up rooting for the Red Devils, know that people are going to consider you a front-runner. Also know that you will be one of many people to have done the same thing.
MICHIGAN - Like Ohio State, Michigan has been one of the Big Ten's powerhouses for a very long time. Unlike Ohio State, Michigan does not wear red, but blue. Kind of like Chelsea. Like Manchester United, Chelsea is one of the more decorated clubs in the Premier League, and is fresh off a Champions League title -- the Champions League is like another World Cup held annually, but with Europe's best teams instead of countries -- last summer.
Like Manchester United, choosing Chelsea would make you a bit of a front-runner, but you'd be a front-runner with a team that is owned by a Russian gazillionaire without much patience. So the insanity factor can be both a bonus and a penalty.
PENN STATE - Penn State is a historic program that had a lot of success as an independent before joining the Big Ten in 1993. However, while the program has still been successful in the Big Ten, it's taken somewhat of a back seat to bigger programs like Ohio State, Michigan, and to a lesser extent, Wisconsin. Which sounds a lot like a soccer club from London named Arsenal.
Arsenal won numerous honors as part of England's First Division, but following the birth of the Premier League in, you guessed it, 1993, the club has still been successful but not nearly as successful as before. And while it's still considered one of the big clubs, it's fallen behind teams like Man U, Chelsea and Manchester City.
NEBRASKA - A powerhouse that played a sometimes unpopular and ancient style of offense that loves the color red, has a loyal fan base that follows it all over the country and hasn't had any major success since the 90s. Am I describing the Nebraska Cornhuskers or Liverpool?
I'm actually describing both. Liverpool was once considered a major club in England, and is still one of the most popular clubs in the country and the world, but just hasn't had the same kind of success the last 20 years that helped bring it such popularity. Still, the possibility of a rebirth always seems to be just around the corner.
WISCONSIN - I compare Wisconsin to Manchester City. On the surface the similarities may not be as obvious, but give me a chance. For most of City's history the team has not been very good. It's only won three league titles since being founded in 1880, but after being purchased by an Arabian Shiekh in 2008, the new money club has found plenty of success recently, winning the EPL last season.
Well just think of Barry Alvarez as an Arabian shiekh. Wisconsin's program was nothing fancy before he showed up, but since then it's become a power in the Big Ten and has won the last three conference titles. Also, Manchester City has had plenty of success in the EPL, but has gone down in flames in the Champions League the last two seasons. Much like Wisconsin keeps going to the Rose Bowl and failing.
NORTHWESTERN- Northwestern doesn't have a lot of football success, but over the last few years, even if Northwestern hasn't been a major factor nationally, it's been a pain in the ass for plenty in the Big Ten. Not coincidentally a lot of this started when Pat Fitzgerald came to Evanston.
Which is why Northwestern reminds me of Everton. Everton is mostly known in the States as the team US goaltender Tim Howard plays for and the club that Landon Donovan sometimes plays for, but in England it's known as the little club from Liverpool that doesn't have the money or the talent of the bigger teams in the league, but is always respectable and capable of beating anybody on any given day thanks to its manager, David Moyes.
MICHIGAN STATE - After trying to figure out who Michigan State would be for a while the answer came to me and actually angered me because it should have been obvious from the very start. Michigan State is Tottenham Hotspur. The Spurs are consistently a good team, but haven't won a league title since the 1960s. Michigan State has been a consistently good program but hasn't won a national title since 1966 and has won only 4 Big Ten titles since then.
There's also the factor of Michigan State always seeming to be in the shadow of in-state rival Michigan. Much like Spurs have to deal with being a good team in the same city -- London -- as Chelsea and Arsenal.
PURDUE -- Purdue was one of the hardest teams to figure out, but in the end I went with Fulham. Fulham is the smallest club from the city of London, and I generally feel like of all the schools in the Big Ten, Purdue is the little guy. However, that doesn't stop it from having a fervent fan base that truly cares about the program, even though it hasn't won much of anything lately.
Also, kind of like Purdue, Fulham almost always seems to end up in the middle of the standings at the end of the season, even when things looked absolutely hopeless earlier in the year.
INDIANA -- The hardest thing about finding a team to compare to Indiana was that if Indiana were an English soccer team it would have been relegated long ago. You see, in the EPL, if you finish in the bottom three of the standings -- called the table -- you get sent down to a lower league. So if college football worked like soccer, Indiana would have been sent to the MAC long ago, never to return.
In the end I went with Wigan Athletic, because Wigan is a team that always seems destined to be relegated but somehow manages to stick around for another season. Oh, and Wigan fans would rather be watching basketball. Probably. I don't know.
IOWA -- Iowa has always been a program that's been pretty middle of the road in the Big Ten, but once in a while it jumps up to win a conference title. The same cannot be said about Stoke City, which spent a while in England's lower divisions before being promoted back to the Premier League in 2007.
However, since coming back, Stoke has employed a style of play that is very much the antithesis of sexy or fun. In fact, it's downright boring, but while you want to hate Stoke for it, you can't blame them. The Potters have managed to remain in the Premier League by boring opponents to death since then. Which I'm pretty sure is the same strategy Kirk Ferentz tries to use.
MINNESOTA -- For Minnesota I'm going with Newcastle United. There are a few reasons for this. One is that they sell beer at TCF Bank Stadium now, and Newcastle is known for having some unruly fans. There's also the fact that Newcastle seems to be a bit bi-polar when it comes to success. It recently came back to the EPL after being relegated and last season found itself only a few points shy of qualifying for a spot in the Champions League. Then this year came along and it looks like Newcastle will be fighting to avoid relegation.
Now, the swings at Minnesota have not been as manic as Newcastle's lately, but it's still a program that had a lot of success in the past and has been up and down in recent years. Plus, Newcastle is way the hell off in the far northeast corner of England when compared to its Big Ten counterparts, and it always seems to be cold and rainy. Minnesota is pretty much our northwest equivalent of that in the Big Ten.
ILLINOIS -- In all reality, there are probably other teams that make more sense to compare to Aston Villa, but I'm giving the Villans to Illinois because both make me hurt. Aston Villa is my team, and while it has had success in the past, the Aston Villa I know is nothing but pain.
They can't play offense, they can't play defense all that well, and they're constantly getting their ass kicked by everybody lately. Sound familiar?
So there you go. Now, keep in mind that there are 20 teams in the Premier League and every season there are three new teams as clubs get sent down and three new ones come up to replace them. So if you do start following the league you may settle for another club not mentioned, and there's nothing wrong with that. I did this only so you would have an idea of which team is what going in.
I still recommend that you watch as many games as possible and let your team choose you. Just as long as that team isn't Aston Villa. Just trust me on this one.