The World Cup is over, and the quadrennial outbreak of American soccer fever is slowly subsiding. In the aftermath of the most-popular soccer tournament in U.S. history, though, there are signs that some are sticking with the sport. There’s been a post–World Cup spike in Major League Soccer viewership, according to ESPN, and MLS streaming packages are reportedly up 300 percent. If you’re still feeling that soccer itch but don’t how to scratch it, here are the many ways to keep up on the sport between now and 2018.
The obvious place to start is the already-underway MLS season. There are 15 American metropolises with teams, and new franchises are coming to Orlando and New York next season and to Atlanta in 2017. If your city doesn’t have a team, or you’re more into fair-weather fandom, we suggest you get behind the league-leading Seattle Sounders, who drew 64,000 fans to their first post–World Cup match. The Sounders feature two of the best American players in Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin, along with former Inter Milan and Nigeria striker Obafemi Martins. Several of their upcoming games are on ESPN2, NBC, and NBC Sports Network, but outside of Seattle you’ll need an MLS Direct Kick or MLS Live package to get more of the team's games.
MLS features 10 players from the U.S. World Cup squad, plus stars like Landon Donovan (L.A. Galaxy), former England and Tottenham striker Jermain Defoe (Toronto F.C.), France and Arsenal legend Thierry Henry (New York Red Bulls), Ireland’s Robbie Keane (L.A. Galaxy), and the guy who scored the best goal of this last World Cup, Australia’s Tim Cahill (New York Red Bulls). Expansion franchise New York City FC has already signed Spain’s David Villa and is about to sign England’s Frank Lampard. Orlando F.C., meanwhile, signed Kaka—the last Ballon d'Or winner who’s not Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo—and is reportedly on the verge of signing his former Brazil teammate Robinho.
All of these players have something in common: They’re over the hill. Aside from the Americans, these guys either didn’t play at the World Cup, or their teams were non-factors—the talent level just doesn’t come close to what you will see at a World Cup. But you already knew that.
The good news is that the World Cup isn’t the highest-quality soccer competition in the world. Though nothing can match the World Cup in terms of sheer spectacle, you’ll find better skill and teamwork in the Champions League, which pits Europe’s best clubs against one another. Some of the best players in the world who didn’t make the World Cup, like Wales and Real Madrid speed demon Gareth Bale and Sweden great Zlatan Ibrahimović (Paris Saint-Germain), do play in the Champions League. And unlike the World Cup, it happens every year.
Similar to the World Cup, the Champions League has a points-ranked group phase followed by an elimination tournament. The schedule for this year’s group stage matches will be announced on Aug. 28, and the games begin on Sept. 16. That’s followed by the round of 16, quarterfinals, and semifinals, and then the final on June 6, 2015 in Berlin. (Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid won the Champions League title last season in a thrilling all-Madrid final against Atlético.) Unfortunately, Champions League games generally happen on Tuesday and Wednesday evening, which means Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon for U.S.-based fans. Fortunately, they typically air on Fox Sports 1, are easily recorded, and it’s a lot easier to avoid spoilers during Champions League than during the World Cup.
Europe’s best teams are now busy bolstering their rosters during the summer transfer window, which is like NBA free agency on steroids. Some of the top players from the World Cup have already moved to different clubs. Those transactions include Chile’s Alexis Sanchez joining Arsenal from Barcelona, Spain’s Cesc Fàbregas and Diego Costa joining Chelsea from Barcelona and Atlético Madrid respectively, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez moving to Barcelona from Liverpool, Brazil’s David Luiz moving from Chelsea to Paris Saint-Germain, Colombia’s golden boot winner James Rodríguez set to complete a move from Monaco to Real Madrid, and Germany’s Toni Kroos having joined Real Madrid from Bayern Munich. And there are still some huge names that are likely to move including Chile’s Arturo Vidal (Juventus), Germany’s Sami Khedira (Real Madrid), Argentina’s Ángel di María (Real Madrid), and Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani (Paris Saint-Germain).
The teams in the Champions League come from all over Europe, but the last 10 finals have exclusively featured clubs from Spain, England, Italy, and Germany, the four best domestic leagues in the world. Those domestic competitions—which take place simultaneous to the Champions League—feature between 34-and 38-game seasons. The team with the highest points total at the end of the season is the champion. Because there are no playoffs, the results can be anti-climactic. Last season, Bayern Munich won the German title with seven games left to play and Juventus won the Italian title with three matches left to play—but the Spanish and English championships both came down to the final match-day. (If you love playoffs, MLS has got them. And the format is very confusing.)
There are plenty of ways to pick a favorite club, none of them wrong for an American. If you liked World Cup champions Germany or American wunderkind Julian Green, you should root for Bayern Munich. If you like New York Yankees-style teams of superstars assembled by the mega-wealthy, then Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, and Chelsea are the way to go (Chelsea is also managed by the most interesting man in soccer). Arsenal is coming off of its first trophy in nine years, and has a recent reputation of playing the most open, exciting soccer in England under manager Arsène Wenger. Manchester United and Liverpool are the two teams with the richest history in the English game. Real Madrid with Ronaldo, Bale, and eventually James Rodríguez, and Barcelona with Messi, Neymar, and Suarez will have the most collective attacking talent in the world next season.
You can watch the Premier League on Saturday and Sunday mornings on NBC Sports Network and NBC, the German Bundesliga on GolTV, and the Spanish, Italian, and French leagues on beIN Sports.
If you don’t care about club soccer and just want international rivalries, there are plenty of those in store. The Women’s World Cup kicks off in Canada next summer with the U.S. qualifying campaign scheduled to begin this October. The Americans came achingly close to winning the title in 2011. They haven’t won the tournament since 1999, but should be among the favorites.
Euro 2016 in France will feature many of the best teams from the World Cup, including reigning world champion Germany. The past three World Cup champions have come from Europe, and that’s where the most concentrated international talent is. Qualifying for that tournament begins this September.
What’s next for the U.S. men? The team’s next international friendly is Sept. 3 against the Czech Republic and the Gold Cup—a competition among teams in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean—begins just 10 months after that. In 2016, the Copa America—usually a South American competition—will be contested on U.S. soil for the first time ever. The Americans could face Suarez’s Uruguay, Messi’s Argentina, Rodríguez’s Colombia, and Neymar’s Brazil. That tournament is the region’s most prestigious event, and the chance to win at home could make for World Cup levels of excitement. CONCACAF isn’t releasing the schedule for 2018 World Cup qualifiers until the end of August. But in the last cycle the U.S. campaign didn’t kick off until the third round of qualifying between June and October of 2012, which would mean their World Cup 2018 campaign probably wouldn’t get started until after Copa America. The next men's World Cup is supposed to begin on June 8, 2018 in Russia, but a lot of people are not happy about that.
That wraps up our World Cup coverage this year on The Spot. Until next time, thank you for reading!
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