Football joins football this weekend as regular-season super-star, soccer returns to broadcast television in the United States for the first time since 1979. FOX will bring the English Premier League into afternoon prime time when defending champions Manchester United takes on rival Chelsea on Sunday as part of its comprehensive NFL on Sunday package.
The game will be broadcast live on FOX Soccer at 11 a.m. ET and then repeated before or after the NFL game in your market. Check your local listings for your day of game kickoff time.
It is the first time since 1979 that Americans will be able to see an over-the-air regular season game filled with club soccer's brightest stars. United will line up Wayne Rooney, Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Nani and Co. against a tough Chelsea side featuring Fernando Torres, David Luiz and top `keeper Petr Cech.
While no early-season match will decide a championship, the London club heads to United's Old Trafford knowing it must make a statement in a season that is already looking like the Battle of Manchester. With United and crosstown rival Manchester City both off to perfect starts, the pressure is on Chelsea, trailing by two points, to not to lose pace this early.
The last time Americans were able to see a regular season game with this kind of star power was in the 1970s, when the North American Soccer League (NASL) played host to the likes of Pele, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and George Best. The NASL made its initial big splash with a famous game televised on CBS that featured Pele's debut with the New York Cosmos at tiny Downing Stadium on Randall's Island.
That game, a match against the Dallas Tornado, took place on a field so shabby that the network had the field spray-painted green for the telecast. There were probably 25,000 in attendance, where cars erratically parked along the limited access to Randall's Island made for a chaotic afternoon. (Pele would later also complain about the paint rubbing off on his boots.) The broadcast, however, was a smash success and kick-started the `70s craze for the game.
But that wasn't the debut of regular season soccer on US networks. It's not well remembered, but in 1966, when NBC carried the England-West Germany World Cup final on same-day tape delay, audience reaction was so strong that two fledgling American soccer leagues were formed (eventually they merged into the NASL), and a game-of-the-week began airing, one which featured some of the best soccer commentary this country's ever heard.
That's because the late Danny Blanchflower was hired as "color analyst" and offered pithy assessments of play that could hardly be called outstanding. Blanchflower lasted one season - and later commented that he was often asked by his bosses to stress the positives - but those with long memories still cherish his humor and astute evaluations which still characterize much of the game reportage in England.
Later, Public Broadcasting carried soccer, albeit rarely live. Their signature show was Soccer Made in Germany , with commentator Toby Charles earning some fame among real football-starved American supporters. Charles probably wasn't all that well known outside his niche, but neither were the Spanish-language announcers of that era. Tony Tirado and (later) Andres Cantor were well-known to soccer fans but were anonymous among the American sports public.
(Remember how surprised those "naive" Americans were to find out that Spanish broadcasters screamed when goals were scored ... so much so that Cantor even wangled an appearance on David Letterman's show during the 1994 World Cup.)
The NASL continued to enjoy a broadcast footprint until 1979 with games aired by ABC including their Soccer Bowl championship game, but most league matches were only carried by local channels, and only in the teams' markets. However, this was also the day of "super stations" in the still nascent-cable era, so Cosmos' games aired on WOR-TV in New York went nationwide and made well-known soccer broadcasters out of Jim Karvellis and Seamus Malin.
ESPN, too, got on the soccer bandwagon when it launched in 1979, but much of the burgeoning cable giant's attention was to the college game. They broadcast the occasional English FA Cup final but generally ignored the European professional leagues well into the last decade.
With the retirement of Pele and the eventual shuttering of the NASL in the early 1980s came a long fallow period for English-language soccer on US television. That went unbroken until the 1994 World Cup and then received a second boost with the kickoff of Major League Soccer in 1996. Most MLS games got little or no network attention, however.
It has been 32 long years since an American broadcast network carried a regular season club game the magnitude of this weekend's. That's a sign of how quickly the Premiership has been embraced by an American fan base hungry to see the best in the sport.
Incredibly, just 10 years ago, Chelsea were an afterthought even in their native London. Today, they and Manchester United enjoy global reputations and boast lineups that rival the star power the Cosmos enjoyed in their heyday.
And one other sign of how far things have come: This time around, there are no worries Old Trafford's playing surface will have to be touched up by a paint crew.