South Korean tries to engineer Premier League breakthrough this season
SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Martin Rogers previews the 2018 International Champions Cup, featuring Europe’s elite soccer clubs such as Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus.
LOS ANGELES – By the end of next week the English Premier League will kick off, and that’s not the only certainty for the upcoming season. Unless there is a wild, once-in-a-lifetime upset like Leicester City’s stunning title triumph two years ago, everything points to the EPL being dominated by a handful of elite clubs once more.
Predictability hasn’t prevented the EPL from morphing into a giant global brand and breaking through into that closed circle at the top is no easy task. Leicester, following its remarkable triumph, was unable to sustain momentum. Over the past decade only one team, Tottenham Hotspur, has managed to consistently gatecrash the domination of the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea.
And now, as it comes towards the end of a preseason campaign in the United States, Tottenham feels it is ready to take the next step and mount a serious challenge for the EPL title.
“It is time to make a new history,” Tottenham’s South Korean midfielder Son Heung-Min told USA TODAY Sports in a telephone interview. “It is very important that we believe in ourselves. We can do better. Everyone has a winning mentality. It is a new time.”
The North London club will move into its new stadium – on the same site as its historic, but outdated White Hart Lane complex and with a retractable extra field designed for hosting NFL games – after the opening game of the season. It has finished third, second and third in the past three campaigns, and its fan base is desperate for it to claim the ultimate prize.
The Spurs have achieved steady rise through judicious activity in the transfer market and solid identification of talent. Son, for example, came to the club after five solid years in Germany, but was not considered a can’t-miss Premier League prospect when he arrived in 2015.
Since then, he has blossomed into one of the league’s most productive players and was rewarded last week with a new five-year contract. He was also involved in his country’s World Cup campaign that included a famous victory over defending champion Germany.
“We have a lot of players who did well at the World Cup and I think it can give us confidence for the new season,” he added. “When you have success it gives everyone a lift.”
Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Kieran Trippier, Eric Dier and Danny Rose all featured heavily in England’s surprising run to the semifinal, while goalkeeper Hugo Lloris captained France to the championship.
Korea’s win over Germany was the highlight of its time in Russia but was not enough to send the country through to the knockout stages. Son and his colleagues still received a hero’s welcome when they returned to Seoul, and that acclaim also continued on Tottenham’s American tour as part of the International Champions Cup, a preseason event featuring 18 of Europe’s top clubs.
In Los Angeles, members of Major League Soccer newcomer LAFC’s Mexican fan base requested to meet with Son to thank him – Korea’s win over Germany meant that Mexico progressed to the round of 16 instead of being eliminated from the group.
Asia has already been one of the EPL’s most passionate markets for the past 15 years, but Son’s arrival at Tottenham sparked a fresh surge of interest in his homeland. Visitors to the Winter Olympics this year noted that when Tottenham games are broadcast, Son’s face is used instead of the team logo in the score line tab at the top of the screen.
No league is more global than the EPL, which has extraordinarily high viewing figures across Asia. With Asian soccer on the ascendancy – China’s league is benefiting from huge investment, Japan nearly reached the World Cup quarterfinals, and Son is leading a new generation of Korean talent – that popularity may soon start to be reflected in the playing ranks.
“I expect more players to come to (England),” Son added. “We have got great players in South Korea and Asia and I hope they come as soon as possible. The possibilities are big.”
As for Tottenham’s hopes of clinching the club’s first league title since 1960-61, much will depend on making a strong start to the season. It’s final game in the ICC, where it beat Roma 4-1 then lost on penalty kicks to Barcelona on Saturday, will come in Minneapolis on Tuesday, against Serie A giant AC Milan.
Eleven days later, EPL action begins, starting with an away fixture at Newcastle United.
“We have to look forward now,” Son added. “We can get to the next level.”