As Milwaukeeans, we’re stuck with local sports teams constructed under limited budgets and narrow windows for success. The plight of a small market team is an irritating and continuous struggle, fraught with demoralizing complacency and athletes constantly ready to skip town. But when the right pieces fall into place, the outcome feels cathartic and deserved, like finally fucking winning the $250 prize from a pull tab after wasting thousands of dollars over many years to get there.
The NFL regular season kicks off in two weeks, but football season has already begun for most of the world (soccer, that is). And while the sport remains on the fringes in United States conscience, the tide certainly seems to be turning. American soccer, in particular, has been fire recently, with the men’s team reaching a thrilling round-of-16 game against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup (and advancing past a Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal team) and the women’s team absolutely demolishing the competition at this year’s World Cup. There’s no better time to start a casual life-long obsession with soccer than now.
The simplest way to get into soccer is to choose a team to follow. This can be a supremely easy, thoughtless task. Want to watch the best player in the world? Pick Barcelona. Enjoy insane yet effective coaches? Pick Chelsea. Like saying Juventus? Pick Juventus. Yet it feels anti-Milwaukeean to embrace a side that is consistently good and uses its seemingly endless resources without care, buying the best players from smaller clubs across the world. You know that guy whose favorite teams are the Lakers, Patriots, Yankees, Duke and Alabama. Don’t be like him.
Below is a list of one team from Europe’s best top flight soccer divisions (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France) that most closely fits what it’s like to be a Milwaukee sports franchise. Cheer these teams not because they’re the best, but because, like Milwaukee, they overcome adversity just to become pretty good.
Premier League (England) — Stoke City
Stoke City, or the British underdogs: It takes time (and usually heaps of cash) to compete annually in the Premier League. Since the club’s 2008 promotion to England’s highest flight, Stoke City employed a smart, methodical approach to spending, one that any small market team requires to be successful. After fighting to remain in the division for a few years (the bottom three squads face relegation to a lower league each season), Stoke became a scrappy force to be reckoned with, finishing ninth (out of 20) the previous two campaigns and included wins last year to defending champs Manchester City and a 6-1 trouncing of Liverpool. Now, ownership decided the time is right to strike by signing formerly high-rated stars from big clubs, like Dutch midfielder Ibrahim Afellay from Barcelona and 23-year-old Swiss winger Xherdan Shaqiri (who earned the nickname the Alpine Messi) from Inter Milan. It’s like if the young, up-and-coming Milwaukee Bucks signed Amar’e Stoudemire and Enes Kanter to league minimums. The risk is low but reward is sky high. Will Stoke City win the Premier League? Of course not. They’d near a miracle run to crack the top four, which earns a spot in the coveted Champions League, a tournament between Europe’s best clubs. But an entry into the Europa League (one rung beneath Champions League) is definitely within reach. That would be like the Bucks gaining home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs next year.
La Liga (Spain) — Atlético Madrid
Atlético Madrid, or the sneaky title contenders: The La Liga title race often features only two teams, Barcelona and Real Madrid. While routinely overlooked over those two heavyweights, Atlético won the league and reached the Champions League final (only to lose to rivals Real) just two years ago. After that impressive run, Atlético lost both its star striker and goalie and fell out next year’s title picture, finishing in a distant third. In baseball terms, the difference between Real and Atlético is the same as the Cubs and Brewers. One has all the resources in the world, the other must spend wisely and patiently wait for the right time to strike. Barcelona may be unstoppable this season, but a second place finish is within reach.
Bundesliga (Germany) — Eintracht Frankfurt
Eintracht Frankfurt, or not Bayern Munich: Bayern Munich runs a systematic train through the Bundesliga. The perennial champions don’t resemble a single stateside sports franchise, rather it’d be like if the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers combined into one hellish super team coached by some Joe Torre cyborg. Almost every German team seems undervalued compared to Bayern, but since we’re picking, let’s go with Eintracht Frankfurt, if only because you might run into manager Armin Veh at Nessun Dorma in Riverwest.
Serie A (Italy) — Unione Sportiva Sassuolo Calcio
Unione Sportiva Sassuolo Calcio, or a town with a population less than Fond du Lac: Last year marked Sassuolo’s first season in Italy’s top division, but somehow the newcomers finished mid-table (12th of 20). That result was undoubtedly aided by wunderkind striker Domenico Berardi, the current Giannis Antetokounmpo of Italian soccer. He’s a raw prospect that one day will be playing big time minutes for a Champions League squad. Bonus points for the team chairman’s name, Carlo Rossi, for giving fans a great way to celebrate victories that’s cheap as shit.
Ligue 1 (France) — Olympique Marseille
Olympique Marseille, or manager that spotted greener pastures: It’s more common in college sports (see Marquette University men’s basketball team), but there’s nothing more infuriating than a coach parlaying an outstanding season into a better job somewhere else. Marseille’s coach Marcelo Bielsa resigned one game into this season following a successful fourth place finish the previous campaign. He presumably left to take the open coaching post at Mexico’s national football team after Miguel Herrera was forced to leave because he punched a reporter.
You can catch most games on cable (NBC Sports carries Premier League, Fox Sports carries Bundesliga, and beIN Sports carries La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1) or stop by local soccer bars The Highbury, Nomad or Red Lion Pub for a morning pint.