This weekend marks the end of the domestic football calendar for the vast majority of the world. Most of Europe's biggest leagues wrap up this weekend, along with Mexico. For the football addict, it seems like a dire time of the year. But fear not, fellow addict! I am not here to tell you about a rehabilitation clinic, nor am I here to tell you to take this opportunity to spend more time with your family. No, I'm here to give you more of that drug that you crave.
I'm going to tell you about a 12 step program that will help you get through this dark period in your life, but this is not your typical 12 step program. Most 12 step programs are a means to cure your addiction, while mine is just a way to get you through that three month period where there's no premium product available.
Step 1: Major League Soccer
When: Now through November
In case you didn't notice while all the Euro goodness was still around, Major League Soccer kicked off in March and will be rolling throughout the summer. Real Salt Lake, New York Red Bulls, and LA Galaxy are all off to good starts and should be competing for the Supporters' Shield deep into the season. The real fun in this league will come in July once players are released from their contracts in Europe and the Designated Player rumors start flying everywhere.
Step 2: Copa Libertadores
When: Now through June 22nd
If you can't get into Copa Libertadores, you can't get into football. No, this is not an exaggeration. This competition has insane comebacks, crazy fights, pitch invasions, and unbelievable upsets every season. The 2011 competition has already produced some instant classics, including the Jaguares de Chiapas-Atletico Junior game in which Jaguares pulled their goaltender in the middle of the game for poor play and equalized three times. Velez Sarsfield, lead by Maxi Moralez, are the favorites in this competition, but watch out for Neymar's Santos.
Step 3: Japanese J. League
When: Now through December
The J. League was scheduled to take a five week break for the Copa America, but due to the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country, causing canceled games and Japan's withdrawal from Copa, the J. League will now play straight through from now until December. Kashiwa Reysol are surprise leaders after five rounds, but Shinsuke Nakamura's Yokohama F. Marinos are just one point behind. Champions Nagoya Grampus have gotten off to a slow start, while Yasuhito Endo's Gamba Osaka have played only three games and can go top by winning both of their games in hand.
Step 4: Russian Premier League
When: Now through Spring 2012 (TBD)
Yeah, that timetable above is serious. To prepare for the 2018 World Cup, Russia has to get off of their summer schedule and onto the regular European schedule in which teams play from the fall through the spring. This results in a bizarre format that isn't even finalized yet, even though the season has begun. The teams will play a regular schedule until December, when they will take a winter break. After the winter break, the top half teams will be split into a group where they will play for the title, while the bottom half will fight against relegation. So far, the competition is wide open, with all of the big teams having their strengths and weaknesses. Spartak Moscow sit top after nine games.
Step 5: Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A
When: May 21 through December 4
After four months of seemingly endless state championships, Brazil's national tournament is finally set to get underway. Flamengo, now with 100% more Ronaldinho, Cruzeiro, Santos FC, and Internacional were the four teams that won Brazil's big four state leagues in the winter. Fluminense are the defending champions, and they have some serious firepower with Dario Conca, Deco, and Fred. This league always produces some fun matches, and it's also the one to watch if you want to see the superstars of the future as youngsters.
Step 6: Euro 2012 Qualifying
When: September 2010 through October 2011; Fixture set this June 3-7
Our first taste of international football for this summer comes on June 3rd, as a set of Euro 2012 qualifiers kick off. Highlights include Turkey-Belgium, England-Switzerland, and Portugal-Norway, which take place over that four day period. This competition is slightly devoid of drama so far, as no true world power is outside of a playoff spot in the current standings.
Step 7: CONCACAF Gold Cup
When: June 5th through June 25th
While Costa Rica and Honduras are no pushovers, this competition has developed into a rivalry between the United States and Mexico over the last two tournaments. The USA won in 2007 off of a fantastic volley by Benny Feilhaber, while Mexico's B+ side tore America's B- side limb from limb in the 2009 final. This year, both teams are putting everything they have into the competition, and it should be a great one.
Step 8: UEFA European U-21 Championship
When: June 11th through June 26th
This competition only features eight teams, but all should be relatively strong sides. England are bringing out all of the big guns, while Spain should be the favorites. The dark horse is the Czech Republic, who despite failing to produce lots of world class professionals in recent years, always feature extremely strong youth sides.
Step 9: FIFA U-17 World Cup
When: June 18 through July 10
Can I tell you a lot about the U-17 World Cup? Of course not, but it's still going to be fun. About half of the players who tear it up in this competition will be superstars in five years, while the other half will fade into obscurity. The fun of this competition is picking out who's who.
Step 10: FIFA Women's World Cup
When: June 26 through July 17
As an absolute unabashed supporter of the United States women's national team, I'm not even going to pretend to be objective about this competition. I will be throwing things at my television every time they make a slight mistake. I'm dead serious. Outside of the U.S., the hosts, Germany, have a fantastic veteran team, while Brazil features the best player in the world, Marta. If anyone but those three won, it would be a large upset.
Step 11: Copa America
When: July 1st through July 25th
Almost certainly the highlight of the summer, Copa America takes place throughout July in Argentina, and it features some of the most entertaining national teams in the world. Argentina have the best player in the world, Brazil are Brazil, Uruguay are loaded with young stars, and Chile should still be entertaining in the post-Bielsa era. Japan were originally invited, but have withdrawn and been replaced with Costa Rica, filling out the field of 12. In his home country, the spotlight will be on Lionel Messi, who carries the stigma of not yet having delivered big in an Argentina shirt.
Step 12: FIFA U-20 World Cup
When: July 29th through August 20th
While the U-17 World Cup is merely an exercise in player development and speculation, there's something a little more concrete about the U-20 World Cup. Most of the players who will participate in this competition are already established professionals, and will probably be the stars of tomorrow. Copa America, Gold Cup, and the European U-21 rosters will determine who shows up to this tournament, but one name that you should keep an eye on is confirmed: Mexico's Cubo Torres.