A Taxpayer-funded Stadium is a Financial Own Goal for St. Louis

Today I read a column from Benjamin Hochman in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that made my blood boil. Hochman was attempting to counter the argument put forth by Governer-elect Eric Greitens that taxpayer-funded sports stadiums are "welfare for millionaires". I happen to agree with the governor-elect that taxpayers have no business speculating on sports stadiums, but that's not what made me sigh and shake my head at Mr. Hochman's column.

He's entitled to his (wrong) opinion that building a Major League Soccer (MLS) stadium using taxpayer funding would be good for St. Louis and spur economic growth in the city. What I take issue with is presenting a nonsensical investment scenario as sound practice such as in the following excerpt: 

"Let’s consider it this way. A house appraises at $150,000 — but someone buys it for $240,000 and plans to wait for it to increase in value, just to see a return. The house’s investor understands that buying the house could benefit the whole community, so it’s worth this initial cash loss.

Well, Forbes says an MLS franchise, in a market similar to St. Louis, is worth $150 million. But SC STL is willing to invest $240 million (paying for the MLS expansion fee and some of the stadium), acknowledging that it could take eight to 10 years to make the money back."

The way I read it, Hochman is arguing that taxpayers should support the "partnership" offered by SC STL because the ownership group is ready and willing to overpay to bring an MLS franchise here by putting up 65% of the cost of the project. This is apparently worth it to the benevolent owners of SC STL because it will benefit the whole community now and then they'll worry about recouping their investment down the line when the value of the team has appreciated.

One problem, of course, is that this is NOT a return on investment. In the house example, if you paid $240,000 for a $150,000 house, you would need the house to appreciate in value by 60% just to break even. At that break-even point your "return" is a big fat ZERO. No intelligent investor would take that deal and expect to come out ahead more often than not.

However, there is a reason that such a senseless investment scheme could make sense to the ownership group behind SC STL if they get some help from the city. In broad terms, Major League Soccer is a single entity made up of all the teams in the league. The ownership group of each team holds one "share" in the league and thus the profits or losses of individual teams are shared equally. Through normal operations, MLS loses money each year, but in order to buy into the league, you need to pay a hefty expansion fee which has increased with each additional team. This expansion fee is shared among the existing owners.

The way I see it, even though SC STL would be paying for 40% of the cost of construction in order to get a stadium deal done, this is a small price to pay for an opportunity buy a share in the league with their $150 million expansion fee. They won't get such an opportunity without a new stadium to operate in. SC STL has presented this as evidence that they're being a generous partner in the deal. While they're only paying for some of the cost of the stadium, they're paying for all the cost of the expansion fee. How nice of them!

Although, according to Forbes (via Hochman) that $150 million is exactly what the team would be worth once it is up and running. Since ever-increasing expansion fees are the only way MLS owners are currently making any real return, having a share of the league pie (and any future expansion fees) is the only appreciating asset in the deal. The league owners' hope is that by the time MLS stops expanding, the league will be profitable and the value of each share (team) will go up value. There's no guarantee the league will be profitable in the future, but as long as new money keeps coming in via expansion fees, those holding a share in the league will get paid. If you're thinking this makes MLS seem like a Ponzi scheme, you're not alone. 

So, if we apply this to Hochman's example, here's what's actually going on: SC STL wants to buy a house that's worth $150,000 right now, but the price tag to acquire it is $350,000. Their proposal is that SC STL will pay $150,000 for the house only (exactly what it's worth) and will own the house free-and-clear. To satisfy the seller, they still need to come up with the remaining $200,000. To do this, SC STL is proposing that they put up $80,000 (40%) as long as the taxpayers will take out a loan for $120,000 to cover the remainder.

When it's all said and done, SC STL would own a house worth $150,000 that they paid $230,000 for. That's a 53% premium, but assuming the house is truly worth $150,000 and they're bringing their own money to the deal, they'll have a 65% equity position. The taxpayers will owe $120,000 on their loan and own nothing except conjecture from SC STL that doing this deal will improve the value of adjacent homes in the neighborhood, create jobs because they'll hire people to cook, clean, and do maintenance at their house, and also create new tax revenue by having out-of-towners to come visit them and spend money at nearby bars, restaurants, and hotels. I think it's pretty obvious that the SC STL proposal is not a benevolent investment partnership, but more like a bait-and-switch.

The potential benefits to the taxpayers of such a deal may indeed come to fruition, but what if they don't? What if the addition of an MLS team doesn't create any additional revenue for the city after all? The SC STL ownership group will very likely make a return on their investment no matter what because they own the only appreciating asset in the deal, a share in MLS along with a cut of any future expansion fees. The ownership group would also receive 100% of any profits from a future sale of the team. If "build it and they will come" doesn't come true, the city could take a total loss on their end of the deal even while the ownership group pockets a healthy profit. Does that sound like a "partnership"?

If the projections do come true and enough new revenue is created to pay the taxpayers back in full, what was the return on investment for the risk they took funding the unsecured end of the deal? Even if there was an actual net positive return for the city over the life of the stadium lease, time and again we've seen sports teams come back to taxpayers and ask for more money for renovations or a brand new stadium. One team is currently suing to get out of their lease and others have threatened to move the team to gain leverage.

I would love to see MLS come to St. Louis, but not at the expense of taxpayers. Adding a team here would be a definite plus for the city both in terms of civic pride and financially. I am not disputing that. However, if the city has to put up $80 million with no guarantee of success and no asset to fall back on if it doesn't work out like SC STL says it will, it's a terrible proposition any way you look at it.

Simply put, the city would put a lot of taxpayer money at risk in order to help the investors behind SC STL acquire the a potentially lucrative share in Major League Soccer. You can argue the merits of various tax incentives that have been given to many other businesses in St. Louis, but there's no denying that the proposal put forth by SC STL socializes the majority of the risk while privatizing any potential for a hefty profit in the future. That's not a partnership to make St. Louis great again; it's the definition of welfare for millionaires.

In the spirit of bad analogies (thanks Mr. Hochman!), I see this "deal" as asking St. Louis to score an own goal in order to spur growth. Imagine your soccer team is coming off a string of draws and losses, but they've been playing better recently and it's unclear at this point what the outcome of the season is going to be. The next match is about to start and their opponent is much more talented and has your team outmatched. The other team comes to your team before kickoff with a proposition: we'll let you score an own goal right from the kickoff.

It will put your team behind and definitely give the other team an immediate advantage, but being behind might spur your team to play really hard over the remaining 90 minutes which could help them have a chance of coming back to tie or even win the game. While winning after scoring an own goal right away is possible, it's unlikely. A tie is probably the best your team can hope for and it's almost certain that giving the other team an advantage will just end up helping them score more goals than they otherwise would have in the rest of the game. There's always a chance it could work in your favor though. Would you want your team to accept that proposal?

Sticks and Stones

Right off the bat, I did not vote in this election. That's a separate discussion unrelated to thoughts I have about the results. My vote was not worth 42 votes in the electoral college, so spare the non-voter/3rd party shaming. I am simply offering some thoughts I had while trying to understand what caused such a stunning upset to take place.

 

While looking out over the smoldering ruins of last night's election predictions, I was struck by the realization that words don't matter after all. For most of my lifetime, and at an accelerated rate over the last decade, we've been told how powerful words are. Because they're so powerful, we've been told that we need very well-educated people to carefully sift through all the words and tell us what we're allowed to say and to whom we're allowed to say it. Any speech that deviates from allowable opinion is now defined as racist, sexist, homophobic, or nationalist and anyone engaging in such talk has been branded accordingly. I think this final step is where the foundation was laid for Trump's victory last night.

Is a world where we avoid hurtful words so that nobody ever has to suffer taking offense or being triggered something to strive for? Yes, I believe that it is. However, I disagree with the notion that someone's words mean more than the actions that they take or what's in their heart. In recent years though, we've been told that no, a person's words are what determines whether they are a racist or sexist and they need to answer for them and be punished accordingly, no different than if they had firebombed a church or hit a woman rather than simply said something politically incorrect. I think that over time this attitude alienated a huge swath of rural America.

You can believe that this group of people is still privileged by virtue of their sex and/or skin color, but you cannot deny the fact that they have been left behind both socially and economically. Instead of discussing ways to help people in rural America understand and cope with the social and economic changes that are taking place, you have an establishment media made up of coastal elites that consistently, and with increasing vitriol, labelled these people as rednecks, racists, and various other forms of "deplorable". After years of being treated like social pariahs, I think it's easy to see how many in this group would be drawn to someone who doesn't kowtow to the politically correct status quo.

Trump is a truly unique phenomenon. He broke all the rules set forth for a Presidential candidate by the establishment and yet he still won in a landslide. This proves that more people than anyone realized were deeply fed up with being told in what ways they are and are not allowed to express their frustration with the changes taking place all around them. Do you really believe that 1 in 2 Americans are deeply racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, or all of the above? I don't. More and more people are open to change than ever before, but it's a slow process that takes time and it won't be sped up by labeling those who can't keep up with ever-changing definitions of acceptable speech as awful human beings. I think many of the people who voted for Trump felt they had no other way to express their fear that life in America as they and their parents and their grandparents knew it was going away faster than they were ready for. 

Americans have always despised being told what to do and last night a large group people, who felt left behind by the speed at which our society has changed over the last decade, said enough is enough and put the brakes on the whole thing. Trump said many hurtful things during his campaign, but I think that his supporters looked past his words and personal impropriety because they were angry that the establishment saw him as nothing more than a hilarious caricature of their underlying fears about social change and the economy. I would suggest that one consider this before unleashing more anger and finger-wagging over the fact that Trump won. If you try to understand how a Trump voter could possibly feel that siding with him was their best choice, I think you'll find that it's not because they hate women or immigrants, but that too many people told them it's where they belonged.

This too shall pass though and while it stings for many that the country as a whole may not be as far along as the progressives would like, it doesn't mean that social change is going to be thrust into reverse and take us back to the dark ages as many have been forecasting this morning. While Trump was winning electoral votes, the legalization of marijuana in various forms recorded a clean sweep wherever it was on ballots. Look beyond the president; society is becoming more socially liberal and accepting of change by the day and that's not going to stop because of Donald Trump. American society doesn't change based on who's voted president. The only effective action you can take to make the world a better place is to focus on your sphere of influence. Be a good person to your neighbors, do good things in your community, and focus on raising your kids to be the people you want to see in the world. Do that and it's guaranteed you'll be on the right side of history.

The NFL's Popularity Problem Is a Familiar One

If you haven't noticed, this NFL season has been about as entertaining as a toddler's birthday party. Inexperienced players, bad coaching, injuries, a lack of star power, and an erratic commissioner are among the issues that have conspired to make America's richest sport's league all but unwatchable. In watching this unfold, I've noticed that many of the root causes of the NFL's recent problems are strikingly similar to those causing the current plight of our national economy and political system.

Professional Football used to be a free market. Sure, the game has certain rules necessary for fair play, but so does a free market economy. In the past, fans knew that the best 22 players would take the field for their favorite team each week and compete within that set of rules. Over the years, however, the commissioner (government) has burdened the game (economy) with an unrelenting barrage of new rules, revisions, and fines. Many of the new rules favor quarterbacks (too big to fail) and scoring in general (Wall Street). The League's new salary structure favors cheap, unskilled (rookie) labor over established veterans. Instead of letting the game's free market decide if the league should be geared toward offense or defense and then ebb and flow over time as coaches and players adjust, the commissioner decided it's in everybody's best interest if scoring goes up as high as possible and the most important players when it comes to scoring points get protected even if it means basic fundamentals and the ability to get through more than three plays without a penalty flag goes straight out the window.

Can anyone explain what constitutes a catch in today's NFL? Ruling on a catch used to be like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous quote regarding obscenity, "I'll know it when I see it." The current explanation in the 2016 NFL Rulebook includes 6 paragraphs and over 200 words. Beyond the catch rule, there are now a litany of new penalties surrounding the way players tackle, hit, block, and conduct themselves on the field. You can't tackle receivers unless they're defenseless, then you can only tackle them a certain way. You can block, just don't block from behind, from the side, or  below the waist. You can tackle a quarterback, just not too high, or too low, or anywhere near his head. Did you manage to score a touchdown? Great! Just don't coordinate your celebration with a teammate, celebrate near an opponent, or celebrate too long. Don't wear anything that's not league-sponsor approved and if you're thinking of supporting a childhood cancer patient by writing a Bible verse on your eye black, don't even go there.

While some of the rule changes have no doubt improved player safety, so much of the intervention of the league office seems rooted in nothing other than exerting control. Instead of letting each team regulate their players' behavior, the league office wants to make sure everyone conforms to one polished image. Gone are the days where teams had a personality matching their coach, their city, their star players, or like most things cultural, a combination of many influences. Fans are tired of rooting for indistinguishable teams made up boring, unmarketable players. It's impossible to market a team or an individual player well when they've been forced to act alike by an uptight commissioner.

Modern stadiums are completely sterile and corporate-focused even though they're largely funded with taxpayer money. Beyond the on-field rules of conduct, the League has chosen to enforce rules for off-field conduct as well. Of course, much like our national government, the League likes to pick winners and losers by doling out punishment based solely on their perception of public opinion rather than any defined legal or moral code. The League has ignored damning evidence of domestic violence involving well-known players (Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Josh Brown) while gleefully pouring time and effort into punishing teams (New England Patriots) and players (Tom Brady) that don't instantly submit to a decree of wrongdoing (Deflategate) even if it's based on nothing. The League's hypocrisy in this manner is obvious to anyone who's watching and eerily similar to the way government seeks to apply punishment to some (Edward Snowden), but not others (Hillary Clinton) even when they've committed the same crime.

The result of all this onerous regulation, intervention, and meddling in what was once a relatively free market sport is a vastly inferior product. Sure the league has grown immensely over the last 15 years and made billions in profit, but who has benefited from this? Players? Fans? The cities that pay for new stadiums? The sole benefactors have been the League itself, the commissioner, and the owners, i.e. the elites. Much like our current bubble economy, just because the stock market is at an all-time high, doesn't mean that the output or the outlook is any better than it was when this uptrend began.

All of the NFL's money and power has flowed in one direction and I think fans inherently know this and as the product in front of their eyes has gotten worse and worse, they've realized how deeply frustrated it makes them feel to have put so much time and effort into something without anything in return except asking for more. As a result, I think many fans have become more willing to turn away altogether and sink their time, money, and energy into other endeavors. Similarly, many people are fed up being told how great the United States economy and system of government is because when they look at their bank statement or the candidates being foisted up them they are asking themselves, if this is the best our country can do, why should I even bother tuning in?

My Best Day in Central London

In November of 2013 my wife Kendra and I took our first big vacation together as a married couple. Our itinerary included four nights in London, England; four nights in Edinburgh, Scotland; and three nights in Dublin, Ireland. The first full day we spent in London was my favorite beginning-to-end day of the trip as we were able to see a number of iconic sites as well as dig up a few gems that we hadn't expected to find.

Our AirBnb was located just a few feet from the Leicester Square tube station, so our day began with a leisurely stroll down Charing Cross Road and past Trafalgar Square on a sunny Thursday morning. We popped into a little sandwich shop to grab breakfast to-go. I had a bacon sandwich with a fried egg which became my go-to way to start the day in the UK and I demand an answer as to how otherwise gluttonous America missed the boat on the bacon butty sandwich.

On the way to the Millennium Bride with breakfast in hand we passed St. Paul's Cathedral. This is one of many Christopher Wren designed buildings that we would see during our trip and it's probably the most impressive of them all. We didn't have time to tour the interior, but we walked a lap around the outside and took in all of the beautiful artistic intricacies on display. The Queen Anne statue out front is also quite striking with her golden crown, orb, and scepter. Just before arriving at the Millennium Bridge, we passed the National Firefighters Memorial. This memorial was originally intended to honor firefighters who lost their lives in the London Blitz during World War II. The scope of the memorial has since been expanded to include firefighters lost during peacetime as well.

After crossing Millennium Bridge, we made our way to Shakespeare's Globe for a morning tour which turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip for me. The self-guided Exhibition in the Globe is engrossing and covers a wide breadth of topics from Shakespeare's impact on the English language that we use it today as well as techniques they used to sew, stitch, and dye the elaborate costumes used in his productions. The guided tour offers a fascinating opportunity for visitors to get a firsthand glimpse into life in 17th century London through the lives of those who produced, performed, and attended Shakespeare's plays. An awe-inspiring amount of work went into recreating The Globe from the ground up so that this important historical insight would be available for generations to come. I would put Shakespeare's Globe among my top must-see sites for anyone visiting London.

After leaving The Globe, we continued east along the riverfront, stopping to sample Turkish delight and fresh roasted nuts at the Borough Market. We then crossed the Thames on the modern version of the famed London Bridge and made our way to the Monument to the Great Fire, also known simply as The Monument. I knew little about the Great Fire of London going in, but luckily The Monument turned out to be both informative and interactive!

The Monument stands 202 feet tall, the exact distance from its location to Pudding Lane where the Great Fire began. Inside is a narrow staircase with 311 steps that take you to an observation platform with views of Tower Bridge and a number of iconic modern buildings along the Thames. One of the biggest takeaways from our time spent in the United Kingdom was that builders of monuments are passionate about stairs. While the immediate area has been built skyward over the last 340 years, the view is still well worth the climb.

From The Monument we continue east a short distance to the Tower of London. I was slightly let down by the Tower of London overall, but part of that was our own fault. The castle is huge and you could easily spend half a day or more checking it out. I had only budgeted a couple of hours since we wanted to do both Tower Bridge and Westminster Abbey before the end of the day.

We started out doing a tour of the medieval palace and the East Wall with an audio guide. This took up a lot of time and we would see plenty of medieval castles later on in the trip that I thought made for much more interesting exhibits. We then quickly toured the Crown Jewels and walked through most of the Royal Armouries before moving on. It was neat to see the Crown Jewels up close, although I didn't find the exhibit that engrossing. I really enjoyed the Royal Armouries, but we were short on time and sort of rushed through it. I would recommend that you see the Crown Jewels first, tour the Royal Armouries, take the East Wall Walk, and then end at the Medieval Palace on your way back to the main entrance.

Just outside the southeast corner of the Tower of London is the entrance for Tower Bridge. The exhibition here was one of my favorites in London and went very in depth on the history of engineering and constructing the bridge. After walking across via a glass-floored observation deck above the roadway, you head back downstairs to the engine rooms to learn about the mechanical side of operating the bridge. It's a great tour overall and from up high on the bridge you get some truly spectacular views of the River Thames.

It was late in the day at this point, so we decided to take the tube to Westminster which was back the way we came and then some. Unfortunately, Westminster Abbey was closed by the time we got there, so we moved on to the Churchill War Rooms which is right across the street. The War Rooms are open until 6:00 p.m. which is at least an hour later than most of the other tourist sites we visited, so it might be a good idea to leave it until later in the day since you'll have more flexibility on time. I am a somewhat of a World War II buff, so I loved the hell out of this museum.

The War Rooms exhibit is housed inside the actual Cabinet War Rooms which were built in the late 1930s just before the outbreak of World War II. When the war ended, the secret command center was more or less abandoned for nearly 40 years before it was turned into a museum in the early 1980s. Because the War Rooms were never re-purposed, the entire underground complex is basically unchanged from when it was in use during the war. A major redevelopment in 2005 added an immense level of detail to the displays such that it feels like you could actually be involved in the key moments of the war. After the War Rooms exhibit is the Churchill Museum which is a large exhibition solely dedicated to the life of Winston Churchill. It's a brilliant and detailed museum that includes many fascinating artifacts from Churchill's life before, during, and after the war. As a history dork, I was in heaven, but Kendra actually enjoyed all of it just as much.

The streetlights were on by the time we'd finished in the Churchill War Rooms, so we made our way back toward Trafalgar Square to call it a day at our AirBnb. The weather held up well and we ended up walking over 5 miles on the day, not including all the stairs we climbed at The Monument, Tower of London, and Tower Bridge. Seeing so much in one day actually had a humbling effect as we realized we could put in another 5-10 days just like it and still have barely scratched the surface of all there is to do and see in this great city. Even so, this was my favorite day in Central London; at least until the next one. Cheers!

Stubborn German Brewing Company

With nothing much going on in St. Louis this past weekend, my wife and I journeyed over the Jefferson Barracks Bridge and visited Stubborn German Brewing Company in Waterloo, Illinois on what turned out to be a gorgeous Sunday afternoon. Southern Illinois' newest craft brewery opened in late April 2016 and I had heard positive reviews from several friends who had been there over the past few months. Our experience at Stubborn German more than backed up those claims!

Although it was too crowded to sit outside and enjoy the weather on their beautiful front porch, seats at the bar suited us just fine. Stubborn German does not serve food, but that leaves plenty of room for beer and with a wide variety of styles on offer, you'll want to do plenty of sampling. You can order full or half pints of all their beers as well as a 6-beer sampler tray for $9.

I started with a pint of their altbier which is one of my favorite beer styles. Altbier is a German style that is top-fermented like an ale and then matured at a much cooler temperature like a lager. This unique crossover of brewing techniques creates a beer with a rich and fruity malt flavor that finishes refreshingly crisp like a lager. Stubborn German's altbier is as good an example of the style as I've had and I would highly recommend it for both novice and experienced beer drinkers alike.

Stubborn German did such a great job branding their various styles of beer that I felt inclined to get one of everything on the tap list. Since we also had to drive back to St. Louis later in the day, my wife and I decided to order a sampler tray for our second round and I think she enjoyed writing out our choices on the tray with a chalk ink pen just as much as drinking them. The two IPAs, Blitzkrieg and Midnight Rye, were very good and I wouldn't hesitate to order a pint of either one, but my favorite beers from our sampler tray were the Mississippi Steam and Schitzengiggles.

stubbornsampler

Mississippi Steam is a California Common which is style that I've seen pop up at a few craft breweries recently. Also known as "steam beer", a California Common is fermented with cold-loving lager yeast at warmer temperatures more typical for ales. Similar to the German altbier, this crossover in brewing techniques creates a malty, medium-bodied beer that's also easy-drinking and refreshing. Schitzengiggles is a Munich Dunkel which is a German dark lager. This beer was fantastic and I ended up ordering an additional half pint after we finished the sampler tray. Since I've never been to Germany, the vast majority of dunkel biers I've had were imported, so having a fresh, cold pour just a few feet from where it was brewed gave me a brand new appreciation for the style.

In addition to Stubborn German, Hopskeller Brewing Company also calls Waterloo, Illinois home, although the Hopskeller taproom won't open until later this year. Two craft breweries operating in a town of roughly 10,000 people gives Waterloo a breweries-per-capita figure that's 15 times the national average. That fact alone should be reason enough for a visit!

English Premier League 2016-2017 Preview

1) Manchester City
The most-talented squad in the league quit on a lame duck manager last season and barely scraped 4th place as a result. They added the world's best manager in Pep Guardiola while shoring up central midfield (Ilkay Gundogan) and defense (John Stones) in the transfer market. The Premier League title is City's to lose for the foreseeable future. 

2) Manchester United
This summer United added four immediate starters, including the most expensive footballer of all time, and a manager with an exceptional Premier League resume to a squad that finished level on points with 4th place Manchester City last season. Assuming overachievers Leicester City and Tottenham revert toward the mean and Jose Mourinho maintains his hoodoo over Arsene Wenger, United should easily finish in the top four and challenge for the title.

3) Chelsea
Much like Manchester City, the Chelsea squad quit on their manager Jose Mourinho after a dismal start to the season and The Special One was fired for the second time as Chelsea manager. With as deep a squad as any outside of Manchester, new manager Antonio Conte has plenty of talent to work with and should make Chelsea a title contender again in short order.

4) Arsenal
Despite an asinine transfer policy that pushes a threadbare squad to the brink of disaster each season, Arsene Wenger has stubbornly managed to keep Arsenal in the Champions League for 17 years running. If history is any guide, Arsenal will do just enough to secure a top-four finish in what is likely to be Wenger's final season at the helm.

5) Liverpool
Jurgen Klopp's makeover of a team that was headed definitively in the wrong direction just two years ago is nearly complete. With an enviable array of young attackers at his disposal, Klopp's pressing style of play should give Premier League opponents fits for years to come. Questions remain at the back, but if Liverpool can discover some measure of defensive solidity, they will be immediate contenders for the top four.

6) Leicester City
The Foxes shocked the world by winning the Premier League last season and surely there is no chance at a repeat. Even so, Leicester City weren't simply lucky winners; they played like champions from start to finish. While they will struggle to reach such epic heights ever again, especially while playing in the Champions League for the first time, Leicester has a solid team and an experienced manager who should be able to keep them from immediately falling back into mediocrity.

7) Tottenham
After months of desperately clinging to Leicester City's coattails, Tottenham came unglued in an epic second-half meltdown at Stamford Bridge before losing their final two matches to finish below arch rivals Arsenal yet again. Most of their key players then went on to experience similarly harsh letdowns at the Copa America and European Championships in the summer. With no time to rest and recharge after the stress of playing at full-tilt for most of the last year, Tottenham will struggle to cope with their rejuvenated top four rivals as well as a full slate of Champions League fixtures.

8) West Ham United
The Hammers were sneaky-good last year and looked on course to secure a place in the Champions League before sputtering down the stretch with a series of disappointing draws. Unfortunately, the club followed up such a promising season with a fairly bland summer transfer window and another 7th place finish now looks more like a best-case scenario. Moving from the intimately rowdy confines of Upton Park to the cavernous Olympic Stadium will also negate what had been one of the best home field atmospheres in the Premier League.

9) Stoke City
The Potters finished 9th for the third successive season and while they could probably move a couple of places higher if things break right, it seems unlikely they will suddenly mount a serious push for a European place. Gone are the days of having to worry about getting dragged into a relegation scrap, but until the roster's overall talent level improves significantly, Stoke will simply remain among the best teams in the second tier of the Premier League.

10) Southampton
Over the course of three weeks this summer, Southampton lost their manager and then sold their best defensive midfielder, best creative player, and best striker. Such an mass exodus of talent would hamper the prospects of any football club, but after finishing 8th, 7th, and 6th in successive seasons, the Saints are hoping that selling off the club's best assets will help consolidate their position in the top half of the table for the long haul. In the meantime, the club puts their Premier League status at risk while attempting to rebuild their roster on the fly.

11) Watford
As long as Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo can maintain their scoring record from last season, The Hornets should finish comfortably mid-table. I also see some upside here as Watford maintained the status quo during the summer while also shoring up their squad depth. Several teams around them in the table were forced to sell key players so Watford could rise in the table simply due to attrition.

12) Bournemouth
After barely surviving their first-ever season in the top flight of English football, minnows Bournemouth will look first and foremost to secure a third season in the Premier League. Last September, the team lost star striker Callum Wilson to a torn ACL after just seven games in which he had already scored five goals. The Cherries held their own though and sat in 11th place well into the second half of the season. When it appeared that Bournemouth had secured safety, the team took just one point from their final five matches and sank like a stone. Manager Eddie Howe will hope that having his best players available for a full season will allow Bournemouth to retake last season's high water mark and this time hold onto it.

13) Middlesborough
I've always had a soft spot for Middlesborough so I am thrilled to see them back in the Premier League again. In the early 2000s Boro boasted a fascinating cast of swashbuckling players that managed to reach the 2006 UEFA Cup (Europa League) Final at their peak. The club fell on hard times after that and were eventually relegated, but now they're back and have shown the ambition to remain in the top flight. So far this summer they've added former Premier Leaguers Alvaro Negredo, Brad Guzan, Fabio, Victor Valdes, and Gaston Ramirez to an already deep squad of experienced campaigners. 

14) Everton
Ronald Koeman is a manager whose stock is on the rise after a very successful stint at Southampton, however, his new club is headed in the opposite direction after woefully underachieving last season. Everton is so far planning to run back basically the same exact squad minus their most-talented young player in John Stones who was sold to Manchester City for a hefty sum. The club replaced Stones with (ages as of September 1, 2016) 32-year old Ashley Williams who will play alongside 34-year old Phil Jagielka and 31-year old Leighton Baines in defense. While the midfield boasts several intriguing yet oft-injured young talents, if Everton does not age gracefully at the back, they could find themselves sinking into a relegation dogfight. 

15) Crystal Palace
A popular pick for relegation this season, I think that the impending demise of Crystal Palace is a bit overblown. They have a very supportive home atmosphere and an experienced roster of veterans who have been through the wars at this end of the table. Alan Pardew is a bad manager, but it took him a number of years to take Newcastle down so I imagine Palace survives for at least another season before things go south completely.

16) West Brom
Professional shouter Tony Pulis is the embodiment of a brand of English football that's well past it's sell by date. It's good enough to keep a club in the 21st century Premier League, but it won't ever inspire ambition of achieving more than that. Pulis' repugnant band of knuckle-dragging hatchet men will likely kick and punch their way to 40 points using any means necessary. 

17) Swansea City
After returning to the top tier of English football for the first time since the mid-1980s, Swansea ascended to record levels of success for the club by winning the 2013 League Cup and earning a place in the Europa League. After another season of punching above their weight, the cracks started to show in early 2015 before a disastrous 2015-2016 season where Swansea only avoided finishing much lower in the table thanks to surprising wins over Chelsea, Liverpool, and West Ham in the final month of the season. Even long-serving club captain Ashley Williams jumped ship this summer from an ever-weakening roster, leaving Swansea squarely in the fight against relegation from day one.

18) Burnley
The Clarets were relegated in 2015 after just one season in the Premier League, but will make an immediate return after finishing last season on a 23-match unbeaten run to win The Championship. The club faces an uphill battle to shake the label of a yo-yo club by earning a stay in the top flight. Burnley tends to stick with the players who earned promotion instead of going on a spending spree. It's a strategy that has rarely worked for any promoted club, but with so many bad teams in the bottom half of the Premier League, I wouldn't be surprised if they managed to stay up.

19) Sunderland
For some reason David Moyes decided to return to the Premier League aboard Sunderland's sinking ship and he faces a massive task to keep them up. Big Sam Allardyce worked his hoof-and-chase magic to just avoid relegation last season before deciding to take the England job. Sunderland has a thin squad of mostly Manchester United cast-offs and I just can't see how they're not going to finish at or near the bottom of the league. Maybe Jermain Defoe has one more year of magic and can score enough goals to give them a puncher's chance, but it seems very unlikely. Overall it's a sad state of affairs for one of the biggest football clubs in England.

20) Hull City
The Tigers enter the Premier League with no manager and without even enough professional players to field a full match day squad. Steve Bruce, the most successful manager in the club's history, resigned in July due to ongoing disagreement with management over transfers. While Bruce was making the most of the meager resources at his disposal, the club's ownership was engaging in a ludicrous ongoing dispute with fans over dropping "City" from the club's name in order to rename it Hull Tigers. With no end to the turmoil in sight, Hull City will be fortunate to eclipse Derby County's shameful record of 11 points as the fewest in Premier League history.

Contemplating Arsenal: Matchday 1 Dilemmas

Everyone knows that you can't win the league by September's end, but I believe you can go a long way toward losing it. With Liverpool, Leicester City, Southampton, and Chelsea among their first six opponents, Arsenal can ill afford to start the season in a sluggish manner if they want to avoid the all too familiar burden of playing catch-up. For me, 10 points is an absolute minimum in these first six matches and given that Arsenal play Liverpool and Chelsea at home, meaning trips to Anfield and Stamford Bridge loom in the second half of the season, banking points now against their title rivals is even more paramount. Unfortunately, inaction in the transfer market and ill-timed injuries have left Arsene Wenger with several key dilemmas heading into Matchday 1.

On the field, the preseason has been quite fruitful. While the club searches high and low in the transfer market for a new striker, the team has come through five friendly matches with a unbeaten record and 17 goals scored. Fringe first-team attackers Chuba Akpom and Joel Campbell caught the eye in the offensive third and are pretty much assured of being involved in at least Arsenal's three August fixtures as Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud have yet to start training after their exploits at the European Championships. For two players most assumed would leave on loan, or even permanently in the case of Campbell, it's been a statement preseason to this point.

At the back, two defenders new to the first team also had impressive preseasons. Krystian Bielik did very well as an 18-year old thrown in alongside and against much more experienced players. The young Pole had a few nervy moments, but mostly showed a much more advanced game than his age would suggest. Rob Holding, a new signing from Bolton Wanderers, also played well and seemed to improve with each successive game. Based on their preseason performances, either player could argue that at this point they should be well ahead of Calum Chambers on the depth chart.

Last year's stalwarts Hector Bellerin, Nacho Monreal, and Alex Iwobi picked up right where they left off and all three should find themselves in the starting XI against Liverpool. New signing Granit Xhaka also caught the eye as he seamlessly integrated into the team. His wide range of passing ability immediately had the midfield functioning better than it had at any point in the final two months of last season. Mohamed Elneny was very assured in preseason and while I don't think he'll be first-choice to start the season, he's going to be a very important player for Arsenal. After missing large chunks of last season through injury, Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla both looked fit and ready to get back to their best. Santi, playing in the #10 role, completely bossed the 8-0 win over Viking FK and The Coq was as energetic and tenacious as we've seen him in 2016. 

Based solely on preseason performance and fitness, I would pick the following team to play Liverpool:

Starting XI:
Cech
Bellerin
Holding
Bielik
Monreal
Coquelin
Xhaka
Cazorla
Campbell
Akpom
Iwobi

Bench: Opsina, Gibbs, Elneny, Ramsey, Alexis, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain

Conversely, there are nearly as many less positive aspects to Arsenal's preparation for the season that have left the squad criminally lacking in central defense and as limited on options up front as when last season ended nearly three months ago. Frankly, I think the lack of a striker signing has more to do with a lack of viable options rather than a lack of trying. Jamie Vardy was content to stay on a Leicester. Higuain was way overpriced for his age and appears to have gotten over Argentina's Copa American Final defeat by shame-eating bread pudding for the last two months. Arsene Wenger would never go for a player with Ibrahimovic's attitude. Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo have joined the Premier League, but neither would be an upgrade over Olivier Giroud. Arguably no player who has already moved would've fit the bill for Arsenal so I have a hard time raking Wenger over the coals for a lack of action here.

Lacazette seems to be available only if Arsenal are willing to overpay. Mauro Icardi has been mentioned, but it felt so out of the left field that it's more likely an agent is fishing for a new contract. Unless Arsenal is waiting for a big domino to fall and free up an angle to move for Lewandowski or Lukaku, I can't see what move folks will be pointing to on September 1st saying see, see, that was the one that Wenger missed out on. I think a last-minute move for one of Mahrez, Lacazette, or Draxler is the most likely scenario at this point unless something dramatic happens and a true impact player becomes available. As reactive to perception and fan sentiment as Ivan Gazidis has been in recent years, I also believe early season results will have an impact on Arsenal's deadline day dealings. If things go awry against Liverpool and Leicester, there will be immense pressure on Wenger to make something happen no matter what. It's not an ideal scenario, but a very possible one.

On the defensive end, the ankle injury suffered by Gabriel Paulista on Sunday leaves Calum Chambers as the only fit senior central defender in the squad less than a week before the season starts. An established central defender had to have been on the club's shopping list at the start of the summer as Per Mertesacker enters the final season of his contract, Laurent Koscielny turns 31 years old in a month's time, and the other existing internal options, Gabriel and Chambers, having failed to impress. When Mertesacker was ruled out until 2017 with an injury in the club's first preseason game the need for a defender become more urgent. Inexplicably though, more time passed with no movement on the transfer front before Gabriel's injury left the club in a serious lurch and without enough time to do much about it.

Surely Wenger already knew that getting in a central defender before the window closed was no longer an "if the right deal comes along" scenario where if it didn't happen then at least he still had the same options he finished with last season. With Mertesacker gone as a fallback option, the situation the club finds itself without any of the three available in is akin to fiduciary irresponsibility. Some people would say Wenger simply "took a risk" that the players on hand could bridge the gap until the end of the transfer window when players supposedly become available. I find this line of thinking ludicrous; a risk coincides with a potential reward and I just can't find any upside to this approach aside from possibly saving a few dollars on a transfer fee or maybe getting a slightly better player at the last moment were they to become available instead. When circumstances change and necessity emerges, those in charge need to make the tough decisions that guarantee needs are met at the expense of wants. Frustratingly, club management has failed miserably in this area yet again.

As it stands, I think Arsene Wenger will have little choice but to field a makeshift defense in the opening match against Liverpool. I really can't believe that he would take the added risk of bringing Koscielny back from the beach and straight into the side against a team as good as Liverpool. Not only is there a risk that Koscielny plays poorly because of a severe lack of match sharpness, but I have to believe that straining to keep up would increase the risk of injury and thus worsen an already dire situation. It seems absurd to take such a gamble with a player that Wenger has routinely said needs careful management because of a chronic achilles problem as well as a recurring hip injury. Look no further for a glaring example of bringing a player back too soon out of necessity than the poor performance of Alexis Sanchez in the first half of last season.

The "best" option is probably to play Nacho Monreal in the middle alongside one of Chambers or Holding. That he paired Holding with Gabriel from the start against Manchester City would hint to me that Wenger, like anyone who watched the preseason, feels that Holding is simply a better option at his point. Kieran Gibbs was solid in preseason and will be eager to stake a claim to playing time early on in the season. The only other option, aside from moving Francis Coquelin from midfield to center back, would be to play Holding and Chambers together, but playing two inexperienced central defenders against the pressing of Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool side seems like a recipe for disaster. Remember in December of 2014 when Wenger deployed a very green Chambers alongside an unfit Per Mertesacker and then-unproven Hector Bellerin at the Britannia Stadium? Stoke led 3-0 at halftime and Calum Chambers was later sent off.

Looking at all aspects of the situation, I think Arsene Wenger will pick the following team on Sunday.

Starting XI:
Cech
Bellerin
Holding
Monreal
Gibbs
Coquelin
Xhaka
Ramsey
Ox
Alexis
Iwobi

Bench: Opsina, Chambers, Koscielny, Elneny, Campbell, Walcott, Akpom

From the midfield forward, it's actually not a weak team at all. Ramsey probably isn't fit enough to do 90 minutes, but neither is Cazorla so they could split that position something like 55/45. Alexis probably won't last 90 minutes either, so Walcott or Akpom will likely get a run out in the second half depending on if Arsenal need a goal. Campbell can bring an injection of creativity as well as defensive solidity to the right hand side, so it seems almost guaranteed that he gets on the field at some point. Bielik probably earned more consideration than many would have thought, however, I can't see Wenger relying on an 18-year old assuming Koscielny can at least suit up. Any way you slice it, Sunday will be an engrossing Opening Day for Arsenal fans, for better or for worse.