The Premier League's cool middle class
College Contributor Network
One of the most important things to know about international professional soccer is that none of the best leagues in the world have a salary cap, which is as important to soccer as it is to basketball.
Of the major four U.S. sports, only baseball doesn't have a salary cap. Instead, the MLB has a luxury tax, which does not really serve its original purpose of dissuading large market teams from spending big. But baseball is a sport where dishing out the most cash on players -- that is, having the best players that money can buy according the market -- does not make a franchise dominant. This can be seen with the likes of the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers on one end of the spending spectrum and the Florida Marlins and Oakland Athletics on the other.
So, a hard salary cap in baseball wouldn't make much of a difference in terms of competition and even success. But soccer is not like baseball.
In terms of the impact high level stars can have on a team, soccer is much more like basketball, where a couple of elite players can transform a team into an annual automatic contender.
Imagine the NBA without a salary cap -- it would be nuts. The big market franchises would probably create three or four super-teams with All-Star lineups from top to bottom. You might get LeBron, KD, and Kobe all on the same team, throw in Dwight Howard for fun.
That's essentially what the Barclays Premier League has looked like for the last decade, at least. In the past 15 years, only five teams have finished in the BPL champion and runner-up slots by season's end. For comparison's sake, the salary-capped NBA has had six teams that have finished 1-2 in the league in only the last five years.
In recent BPL news, after beginning the season with a loss and two draws, Manchester United decided to pull out its thick wallet and spent about $250 million in the span of a just a few weeks. Lose a couple of games, buy a few of the best soccer players in the world. No problem. The lack of salary cap means the richest teams can never be bad.
And yet, the Premier League is widely considered to be one of the most competitive soccer leagues in the world and the deepest by a mile, or a kilometer, I suppose. So what's the deal? Are the only matches worth watching "Big 5" clashes? Are Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester United the only teams worth paying attention to in the league?
There are teams outside of the Big 5 for whom such questions are insulting, not only because they play in the same league as the Big 5 but also because they are good and, perhaps more importantly, they play good soccer. These "second-tier" teams attack with abandon, play together as cohesive units, and fear nobody.
They may struggle to crack the top four until an oil-rich sheikh from the Middle East or an oil-rich political ally of Vladimir Putin decide to make pet projects of them, which is what happened with the previously middle-of-the-pack Chelsea and Manchester City. But some of the teams who aren't spending insane amounts of money may be able to crack the top four this year, with the modest payroll and current crop of homegrown players they have. Okay, in reality, only Everton has a shot at cracking the top four, and a very slight shot at that, but one can dream.
These teams are worth knowing because many of their players are homegrown rather than bought, because they play exciting soccer, and because winning isn't always expected of them. Winning for each of these clubs is treated as it should always be: An incredible performance, the perfect ending to an undetermined contest, an occasion for celebration. These are the teams you can root for without kind of hating yourself inside. These are the teams to keep an eye on.
So here it is, the cool middle class of the BPL:
Who are they?
The Toffees are the 2nd team of their own city, Liverpool, but they have been competitive in the BPL for the last few years despite their low payroll. Last season they finished fifth, a big achievement and a ticket to play in the UEFA Europa League, Europe's 2nd club competition after the Champions League.
In their most recent league match, Everton got rocked by Chelsea, 6-3, but that was an anomaly. The Toffees are led by wise and personable manager Roberto Martinez and Mr. Zen himself, American goalie Tim Howard.
Players to know:
Besides Howard, keep your eye on Steven Naismith, a fiery, bald Scotsman who is always ready to give an opposing player or the referee a piece of his mind. He scores goals too. The young English international Ross Barkely, who returns from injury soon, is a budding star and two Belgians -- the electric Kevin Mirallas and the man who put the nails in the U.S. national team's World Cup coffin, Romelu Lukaku -- are also fun to watch.
U.S. Team Comparison: Golden State Warriors
Everyone likes Everton. The Toffees have some good young players who are dynamic on offense, and if they got that one world-class star, they could win it all. They have an intense inner-state (city) rival, the Clippers (Liverpool) who spends more than they do, and their games against the Clippers (or Liverpool) are always cutthroat battles you don't want to miss.
Who are they?
Like Everton, the Saints are coming off of a very impressive 2013-14 season -- finishing 8th in their second season of their current stint in the BPL.
They improved on their 14th place finish the year before -- their first Premier League season ever -- but paid for their success when the big clubs bought many of the their star players. Despite the loss of talent, the Saints seem to have not missed a step in the early stages of this season, still playing cohesive and exciting attacking football.
They were unlucky to lose against Liverpool in the opening weekend, a match in which they dominated the second half, and their 3-1 comeback victory at West Ham was a quality result.
Players to know:
Midfielders James Ward-Prouse and Dusan Tadic have been playing excellent soccer so far this season.
Recently signed forward Graziano Pelle has responded to early criticism with two goals in the last week, one against Millwall in the Capital One Cup and one against West Ham.
Finally, right back Nathaniel Clyne has looked dangerous running up the wing toward goal.
When they play together, this team is still a tough matchup for anyone.
U.S. Team Comparison: Florida Marlins (before the change to Miami Marlins)
Southampton has a great youth academy and a nose for good young
talent, but the big clubs offer too much money to pass up on selling its stars and so the team must continually rebuild. There is always have new talent coming in though, and the Saints should never be counted out of a match.
Who are they?
The Swans are currently atop the league, second only to Chelsea on goal difference, with three wins in their first three matches.
Two of those matches were against relatively poor teams, but the first was against Manchester United. That was before United spent that $250 million on some of the world's best players, but there's something to be said for being the team that causes a big club to spend that kind of dough.
Swansea is led by a core of strong British players that may get called up to the national team if its current form continues and, like Southampton, they play well together. If you're looking to find good soccer where you'd least expect it, Swansea City is your team.
Players to know:
Those British studs are Nathan Dyer, Wayne Routledge, Leon Britton, and Jonjo Shelvey and they are helped in the midfield by offseason acquisition Gylfi Sigurdsson. Sigurdsson not only has a great name but dominated the match against Manchester United with his control of the middle of the pitch -- assisting the first goal and scoring the second.
U.S. Team Comparison: Oakland Athletics
As an overlooked team lacking any big household names, they seem to have no right to win games but they find a way. Maybe it's the management, and maybe it's the players. Who knows? Maybe it's money ball. But whatever it is, the Swans are rolling so far.
Who are they?
Unlucky is what the Foxes are. Their first three matches were against Everton, Chelsea, and Arsenal. Yet, City was able to draw two of those games and hold the same Chelsea squad that put six goals past Everton to just two.
Leicester City's identity is still relatively unknown and it may turn out to just be a club that's good at defending and not giving up. But as the champion of England's second division last season, it will be interesting to see if the club can beat the lower-level competition in the Premier League and stay afloat.
If their first three games mean anything, the Foxes won't be going back down anytime soon.
Players to know:
Argentinian forward Leonardo Ulloa is looking like a good Premier League striker with goals against Everton and Arsenal (and he almost grabbed a second against the Gunners that would have grabbed all three points).
The recent signing of aging Inter Milan midfielder Esteban Cambiasso is a smart move by the Foxes that will provide veteran leadership.
U.S. Team Comparison: Portland Trail Blazers
Leicester City's capabilities are still unknown, but they've already surprised some people. The big boys won't be able to walk all over them, but can they get enough wins down the stretch?
Jake Montgomery is a senior at Harvard University majoring in English. Raised in Philadelphia and a lover of the beautiful game since '06, he is a huge fan of the Eagles, Phillies, Sixers, Georgetown and Harvard basketball, Chelsea FC, Neymar, Steph Curry, Shabazz Napier, and Kanye West. Follow him on Twitter: @TheFloorGeneral