Last weekend saw the Barclay’s Premier League officially end its 2015-2016 campaign, a season that may well be remembered as the most improbable in English soccer history. Leicester City, which narrowly avoided relegation the season before, just won the league in what some are calling the greatest upset in the history of sports despite boasting a payroll less than one quarter of league heavyweights Chelsea and Manchester United.
To put what Leicester did in perspective, think of a small market team in major league baseball like the Tampa Bay Rays or Oakland A’s. Now imagine that their minor league affiliate won the World Series after replacing the big league club. The Foxes’ fairytale captured the hearts and minds of not just their own supporters but practically the entire soccer-loving world as well.
But feel good-stories of underdogs taking out bigger clubs don’t have to end just yet. This Saturday, Manchester United and Crystal Palace play in the FA Cup final—a one-off tournament played concurrently within the Premier League season involving every team in the English Football Association, which includes the Premier League as well as the numerous lower divisions as well.
Crystal Palace is located in south London, and like Leicester, sports a fraction of the wage bill of Chelsea, Arsenal, and other BPL heavyweights. But, with their opportunistic counterattack and analytics-informed approach, Palace started off the 2015 campaign nearly as well as Leicester, sitting 5th at Christmas and giving their loud-singing, window head-butting fans every right to dream of playing in a European tournament next year.
But Palace’s fortunes dropped more in 2016 than everyone not named Jeb Bush, enduring a club record 14 matches without a win in league play. Talk about low energy.
But what ailed Palace during their drop from European contenders to the fringes of relegation fears didn’t stop their FA Cup run, earning impressive wins against Stoke and Tottenham before beating Watford 2-1 in the semi-final at Wembley in late April.
That semi-final win was especially meaningful to Palace fans, in part because of the role played by Alan Pardew, the club’s manager who also led them to the FA Cup Final as a player. In 1990, Pardew scored a header off a corner to help send Palace to the final, which would be lost to Manchester United. Palace’s first goal in the 2016 semi-final was actually a mirror image of Pardew’s goal, with him even admitting he called for it as part of an homage to the squad on which he played.
So if you’re one of the increasing number of Americans who has become accustomed to tuning into English soccer on weekend mornings, this Saturday is your last chance to enjoy English football for a few months. But it’s also another opportunity for a Leicester-like Lilliputian to level a league Leviathan with a trophy on the line. Pardew has said that the position of Man U’s coach Louis van Gaal is very similar to what Alex Ferguson was facing before that 1990 final—with the manager needing a win to validate his status to an unhappy fan base. But with the club’s first ever trophy on the line, Pardew and company are hoping that the similarities end there.