"Come On Fulham!"
Craven Cottage, 2006
The Barclay's Premier League/EPL. Probably second to the NFL, the Premiership is the best that sports has to offer. Tomorrow is exactly why.
At the top of the league, Chelsea is tied with Manchester United atop the lead. The regular season is the thing in soccer, and it is simple and just. 20 teams, play every team home and away, then add up the points for wins (3 pts) and ties (1 pt). Subtract the goals you score vs those you give up and you have the goal differential for the season. Man U is ahead of Chelsea on goal differential by 17 goals, so Chelsea must have a superior result to this weekend to take the title. They host Bolton Sunday, and Man U will travel to mid-tier Wigan.
It's the bottom of the table that makes soccer leagues around the world exciting until the last day (except for the US). Fulham, owned by Harrod's mogul Mohamed al-Fayad, dropped to the bottom three of the twenty teams at the first of the year and have been down there ever since. Now if you were the Royals or Knicks or Raiders, that would be an unfortunate situation but hardly desperate. But this is the EPL, where the bottom three teams drop out of the Premiership. With the loss goes the estimated $35mil in revenue and the prestige of the Premiership. And what happens if you drop from the Premiership? Look no further than Leicester. They played in the UEFA Cup in 2001, the tournament for top European teams who do not qualify for the Champions League. This season, their record in the League Championship division (Triple-A) pushes them down to League One (Double-A) next season.
With three wins in the last four games, Fulham has clawed their way up to 17th place with 33 pts and a goal differential of -23. 18th place Reading (33pts/-29) and 19th place Birmingham (32pts/-19) both need a result to escape the drop. Reading has the easiest path, traveling to 20th place Derby County (11pts/-65). Birmingham hosts 7th place Blackburn (58pts/+5) and their stingy keeper, American Brad Friedel.
Fulham travels to 8th place Portsmouth (57pts/+9). Known as Pompey, Portsmouth could be faulted for overlooking this game. They play Cardiff next Saturday in the FA Cup final, England's most prestigious soccer tournament. The FA Cup hearkens to the Indiana High School basketball tournament of old, made famous by the movie Hoosiers. In the FA Cup, literally every professional and semi-pro team in England play in the tournament, so Cardiff (in the League Championship division) has a chance to play in Wembley Stadium and take home the hardware of the FA Cup.
Fulham's future will be intertwined with three of their five Americans. Kasey Keller signed up with Fulham earlier this season, a seemingly over-the-hill goalkeeper unclaimed by any other team around the world. He may not be automatic in the back, but he is certainly solid. Clint Dempsey also signed with the club in the middle of the season. The former Furman All-American leads the team in goals and is now a mainstay in the starting XI.
Brian McBride, now the team's captain, is the heart of the team. Last year's leading scorer for the squad had a catastrophic dislocation of his kneecap at the beginning of the season. He's the epitome of workmanship; we'd call it leaving it all on the field if we were talking about football here. No one will outwork him on Sunday, probably no one in the EPL. And he may have his own blood all over him by the end of the afternoon.
Fulham has a tough task in front of them, lessened by Pompey's looming FA Cup match next weekend. I like Reading leapfrogging the other two tomorrow and snatching the final berth in the Premiership next season, but I'll be pulling for McBride and the Cottagers. No one will be tanking tomorrow to move up in draft position, that you can guarantee.