The backbone of Blues soccer’s backline

Blues defenders Laura Krkachovski and Christine Mulligan reflect on their varsity careers

The backbone of Blues soccer’s backline

It’s exactly 9:00 am on an overcast March morning when Laura Krkachovski and Christine Mulligan walk into the room, coffees in hand. Outside, the clouds have dyed the sky a silver-grey hue that streams delicately into the room, creating a pensive aura befitting the occasion. The two Varsity Blues stars sit, ready to reflect on their storied soccer journeys.

Krkachovski wears a maroon hoodie with a slightly faded Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) logo plastered across it; Mulligan wears a light top. The two are fifth-year Blues athletes — two-year co-captains of the women’s soccer team who have dressed 153 times combined — and, as Krkachovski says, “Obviously we’re best friends off the field.”

In October, the pair received a frame commemorating their contributions, before they faced a tough 1–0 Ontario University Athletics (OUA) playoff defeat that called time on their exceptional Blues careers.

Formative years

Krkachovski and Mulligan, lifelong defenders, faced very different journeys en route to becoming the beating heart of the Blues defense.

Out of high school in Markham, Krkachovski was being courted by both U of T and McMaster’s soccer programs and made her decision with a primary focus on athletics.

Mulligan, on the other hand, “lived really close to UBC” and sought pastures new. “I also really liked the academic programs that U of T has so that was a big draw for me and it worked out as well that I could play soccer.”

It would be Mulligan who would break into the starting lineup in 2013, impressing with two goals: one a headed effort and the other a 40-yard belter, both of which she describes as “flukey.”

Their rookie campaign ended with a fifth-place finish in the CIS Championship, with Mulligan playing all but eight minutes of action in the three CIS games; Krkachovski made the bench for the last of the three games.

In a reversal of fortunes, Krkachovski thrived in second year while Mulligan played just five times before sustaining a season-long injury. Unfortunately, Krkachovski’s breakout season would end in defeat at the OUA quarter final stage.

Heart of the defense

With Krkachovski having shone in 2014 and Mulligan returning from an injury layoff eager to recapture her rookie form, the Blues had a promising new defensive partnership — and blossoming friendship — heading into 2015.

“Every morning before game day we’d meet for a coffee… enjoy it, then go to the game,” says Krkachovski. It’s pleasing, then, to see that even five months after the season’s finale, they’re still enjoying a morning coffee together.

“We like to make a lot of jokes when we’re playing,” says Mulligan. “Often our teammates will look back and we’re laughing.” Mulligan adds that the easygoing chatter cements a strong understanding on the pitch between one another, and Krkachovski agrees.

“She knows when she’s losing me… she’ll be like, ‘Come on, I’m losing you and you’re not talking anymore.’ She definitely keeps me going when I need that,” says Krkachovski.

Krkachovski takes a brief pause before continuing her thought. It’s the kind of pause that just might, in other circumstances and between any other pairing, constitute an awkward break, but sitting next to Mulligan, it’s a comfortable, shared silence.

“Say we mess up and you look up and the whole team is looking back at you. You could read the disappointment on [their] face, but then I have her beside me or she has me to be like, ‘Okay, it’s fine. We’re still okay, everything is going to be fine,’” says Krkachovski. “That went a long way.”

Still, as co-captains, the two maintained an open channel of communication with the rest of the team, and they would stand up for their squad without hesitation.

“She can be harder on people, and I can be the nicer person sometimes. We just balance each other out,” says Mulligan.

“Mull’s more of the ‘motherly supportive’ type,” says Krkachovski with a smirk. “Put that direct quote in there.”

Their complementary technical skills also solidified their leadership and status as strong role models.

Krkachovski’s main strengths are her passing accuracy and vision, while Mulligan’s lie in her aerial presence and long ball abilities — think of Krkachovski as the ball-playing foil to Mulligan’s limited defender role. Mulligan is comfortable holding back and sweeping to accommodate Krkachovski, whom she jokingly describes as “a striker at heart.”

In 2015, the two dressed for all 17 games, with Krkachovski starting every one. She would also score her first goal for the Blues that season. She considers this fact for a moment and looks at Mulligan for confirmation.

“Is that where you shot it almost straight in the air?” offers Mulligan, sparking Krkachovski’s recollection.

“It was for sure going to Bloor Street,” says Krkachovski.

“She was probably five yards away from the net.”

“And I cranked it.”

“Straight up.”

“And yeah it went bar down. It was pretty good,” says Krkachovski, satisfied with the back-and-forth recount of the two-and-a-half-year-old landmark. The pair’s Blues careers are so closely intertwined that this becomes a common occurrence as they piece together memories.

Krkachovski would end 2015 with an OUA East second team all-star honour. “By the end of third year I was really starting to get confident, know my role,” she says. “And then fourth year I just went balls to the wall.”

In their fourth year, 2016, the two started 14 games together, and Krkachovski was again rewarded for her balls-to-the-wall efforts with an OUA East second team all-star honour. However, despite her and Mulligan’s best efforts, the team would fall at the OUA playoff stage for the second year in a row.

Disappointment and development

The next question floats in the air for a few seconds, eliciting a longer pause from Krkachovski and Mulligan. “What’s the biggest life lesson the two of you have taken out, being part of the Varsity Blues program?” Krkachovski then submits an affirmative response that elicits Mulligan’s agreement.

“No matter how much hard work you put into something, it’s not always going to go your way.

“The amount of effort her and I put in at least the past three years straight… and then we still end up in sixth place. We still end up with only five clean sheets.”

“You still have to work hard on everything you want to do well in your life,” adds Mulligan. “But hard work doesn’t equal success, it just equals a better chance of success, I guess.”

Despite their unrelenting dedication, their team has been dumped out at the playoff stage of the OUA for the last three seasons. In 2015, they finished fourth in their OUA regular season conference standings with four clean sheets. In 2016 and 2017, they finished sixth, with five clean sheets each year.

Soccer is a game of such fine margins that a small slip-up at any point could be costly. Especially as defenders, Krkachovski and Mulligan are acutely aware of this. “It’s not a glamorous role,” says Mulligan.

While clean sheets are never truly a barometer of defensive success, the disappointing truth is that the team never made it back to the CIS Championship — or U SPORTS, as it was rebranded in 2016 — level after their first-year adventure, where they qualified as the hosts.

Though nice, Krkachovski’s CIS hoodie bears an uncomfortable weight as a reminder of a tournament that the Blues have not progressed to in four years — a stage that she and Mulligan undoubtedly deserve to have played more on.

But despite the Blues’ shortcomings on the pitch, Krkachovski and Mulligan’s everyday successes for Toronto as leaders, teammates, and friends are insurmountable. “We’re all really good friends with the rest of our team,” says Mulligan. “All my best friends pretty much are from soccer.”

While it may be cheesy to say, it’s these experiences that truly define success.

SEYRAN MAMMADOV/Courtesy of THE VARSITY BLUES

So it goes

Krkachovski offers her own cheesy pearl of wisdom to her previous point: “I know this one’s super cheesy, but just to actually enjoy it. You get so caught up… and all of a sudden we’re like, ‘It’s our grad game. Now what?’”

That’s a question she’s had to contend with after the end of the season. Over the past five years, she’s relied on soccer to give her a release from stress. As someone who obsessed over the team’s standing and performance for five years, the stark contrast of a final season is a bittersweet and jarring reminder to her — and all graduating Blues athletes — that nothing lasts forever. But with all she’s achieved over five years, Krkachovski is bound to overcome this challenge with ease.

Mulligan faced somewhat similar circumstances in 2016 as she approached the end of her four-year undergraduate degree, before she earned “a bonus year” upon being accepted for her master’s in Nutritional Sciences in 2017. “I’m enjoying the extra spare time, but I think it’ll be really weird in August when everyone’s back to playing and we’re watching from the stands,” she adds.

The Blues’ Krkachovski and Mulligan era may have ended, but the two clearly won’t be forgetting about their team anytime soon. While the March clouds outside still drain the blue from the sky, not even the changing seasons can drain the Blues from Laura Krkachovski and Christine Mulligan.

Blues soccer program playoff bound

Men second seed, women fifth

Blues soccer program playoff bound

Blues women beat RMC 4–0 to secure playoff spot

The Varsity Blues women secured their OUA Playoff berth on October 20 with a comprehensive 4–0 victory over the the Royal Military College (RMC) Paladins at Varsity Stadium.

The Blues dominated possession in the first half but were unable to fully capitalize against the Paladins, who focused strongly on defense. Toronto recorded nine shots to RMC’s one, with the breakthrough coming from a 39th-minute corner. Set-piece specialist Daniella Cipriano found centre back Christine Mulligan inside the 18-yard box, who managed to direct the ball into the net.

Cipriano and midfielder Julia Gonsalves linked up well on the right flank of the pitch throughout the half, providing a constant threat to the RMC defense. Striker Natasha Klasios demonstrated impressive hold-up play and dribbling, deftly creating chances for the Blues; this almost paid off in the 44th minute as she found strike partner Chelsea Cheung in space, but the RMC defense quickly removed the danger.

Both teams started strong in the second half, but Toronto fleshed out more chances, including a good run into the box by midfielder Vanessa Bucci and a 30-yard attempt by Mulligan. The Blues finally found their second goal when the impressive Klasios found space and fired in a shot from 20 yards in the 58th minute.

Midfielder Maddie MacKay almost added a third in the 60th minute when her 30-yard rocket bounced off the upright before being cleared by the RMC defenders. The third goal eventually came from an incredible 35-yard lob from second-year midfielder Anna Crone, capitalizing on the RMC goalkeeper’s poor positioning to seal her first Varsity Blues goal.

Although RMC launched more attacks in the second half, they produced zero shots. As the Paladins continued to fade, right back Cipriano found herself in more attacking positions, allowing her to play a smart one-two with Crone to score her first Varsity Blues goal in the 82nd minute.

“It’s such a good feeling to actually reach a goal… it’s been a long three years,” Cipriano said after the match. “It was a good dead ball from Anna… We pressed them really high so I feel like I definitely had the opportunity [to score].”

—Michael Teoh

Blues defender Kelly-Anne Johnson eyes the ball in Toronto’s 4–0 rout against RMC.
PHOTO BY DAVID ZHAO, COURTESY OF THE VARSITY BLUES

Five seniors close out their Blues career

The Blues women played host to the nationally ranked Queen’s Gaels on October 21 at Varsity Stadium. Five graduating Blues athletes were recognized by University of Toronto Executive Director of Athletics & Physical Activity Beth Ali and head coach Luciano Lombardi before the Blues’ final action of the regular season.

Among the graduating student-athletes were co-captains Laura Krkachovski and Christine Mulligan, both defenders for the Blues since 2013. Midfielders Laura Snoek, Alyssa Golin, and Nicki Parkes are also set to move on from the Blues program following the 2017 season. Parkes, a chemical engineering student from Sarnia, was a honoured as an OUA East second team all-star in 2016.

The Blues and Gaels met for the third time in 2017. The Gaels won both previous matches with multi-goal leads. They meet annually in preseason at the Old Four tournament which was hosted by Western University in August.

The Blues had a slow start to open the match. Queen’s rookie forward Alexandra Doane opened the scoring in the 23rd minute. The Gaels entered half time with a two-goal lead courtesy of Jenny Wolever. The final Queen’s goal came early in the second half from Laura Callender off of a penalty kick in the 52nd minute.

Minutes later, the Blues retaliated with a goal by Kristin Parkes. The rookie’s shot came from directly in front of the net, leaving Queen’s goalkeeper Anna Stephenson little chance to make a save. A subsequent hustle play from veteran Chelsea Cheung resulted in another goal for the Blues, priming the crowd for a great comeback. Cheung’s goal was set up nicely by Mulligan’s free kick in the 76th minute.

The Gaels’ defense was on their heels for the remainder of the game as the Blues maintained momentum and had several rushes in the final minutes. Despite this effort, including two saves from Toronto goalkeeper Vanna Staggolis, the Blues were unable to make the comeback. The narrow loss lands the Blues in fifth place in the OUA East Division with a regular season record of 7-7-2.

The Blues will face the Ottawa Gee-Gees on October 25 in the first round of the OUA Playoffs.

—Vanessa Wallace

Blues men earn stunning victory against RMC

The Blues men’s soccer team earned an impressive 4–0 victory against the Royal Military College (RMC) Paladins on Friday night, whom they previously defeated on September 30 with a 4–0 win.

Going into the game with a record of eight wins, two losses, and four draws, the Varsity Blues had optimistic chances.

Blues midfielder Lukas MacNaughton scored the first goal in the fifth minute. The goal was scored at the penalty spot after the Paladins committed a foul in the box. This amazing goal placed the Blues in a perfect position to take an early lead.

Throughout the game, the Blues showed great skill within their crisp passing and speed. Right off the bat, they showed a very obvious advantage in the way the team worked together and communicated. A free kick for the Blues in the 19th minute was set up for success, but unfortunately failed with a bounce off the crossbar.

As half time approached, Blues striker Antonio Ajhert scored a quick goal in the 41st minute, pushing the Blues lead to 2–0. Coming back from the halftime break, striker Nirun Sivananthan scored in the 51st minute rounding the total score to a solid 3–0 in favour of the Blues.

The game came to a brief stop when RMC defender Simon Leslie was injured and continued into the 75th minute when he was substituted out.

In the 80th minute, Blues midfielder Yousef Helmy brought the score up to an impressive 4–0 total, as the Toronto team continued to dominate the field with their determination and fierce plays.

The Blues’ solid victory matches their previous 4–0 win over RMC. Toronto enter their final regular season game against Queen’s University at 8:30 pm on October 21 at Varsity Stadium with a 9-2-4 record.

After this win, the U of T community should be excited to see what happens during the club’s postseason run.

—Jackie Emick

Blues men finish season in second place

The Blues men defeated the Queen’s Gaels 2–1 in a clean performance on Saturday night. The Blues finish in second place in the OUA Eastern Conference behind the Carleton Ravens going into the playoff run.

The team started strong with an early goal off a corner kick in the seventh minute by co-captain Lukas MacNaughton. Toronto maintained a convincing defensive performance throughout the first half, holding the Gaels to only two shots.

Striker Jack Wadden finished the first half with a goal in the 44th minute, assisted by strike partner Nirun Sivananthan.

The Gaels rallied in the second half of the game with a stronger offensive attack, which culminated in Jacob Schroeter’s 83rd minute goal. Despite the goal, the Blues accounted for five shots in the second half and 16 total shots.

Blues defender Devon Bowyer made a nail-biting final minute save and goalkeeper Mark Rogal also had a solid performance with two saves throughout the match.

Despite some uncertainty in the closing moments, the Blues held off attacks and ended their regular season run with an 10-2-4 record. They will enter into the OUA quarterfinals on October 29, opponent to be decided.

—Josie Kao and Laura Quon

Blues weekend soccer recap

Blues men and women enjoy undefeated weekend

Blues weekend soccer recap

The University of Toronto Varsity Blues soccer program had another strong home weekend at Varsity Stadium, earning one victory and two draws. The Blues women’s team defeated the Carleton Ravens and tied the Ottawa Gee-Gees, while the men’s team extended their unbeaten streak to nine and moved into second place in the OUA East standings with a 6-0-3 record following their 1–1 draw against the rival Ryerson Rams.

Nick Lambis scored a late equalizer for the Rams on Saturday in the 85th minute to prevent the Blues men from earning their seventh victory of the season. In the 18th minute, Kenny Lioutas had opened the scoring when he headed home Marko Mandekic’s free kick. Following the draw, the Rams remain seventh in the league standings, having forfeited their first six games of the season the previous week for playing an academically ineligible player.

“We know that Ryerson is a good team and that we may end up seeing them again in the playoffs, so this was a taste of what we will see come October,” Blues head coach Anthony Capotosto said in the team’s official press release following the match. “I thought that our guys put in a great shift today, fought for one another, and picked up a very important point against a very good team.”

The Blues women opened their weekend doubleheader with a 1–0 victory over the Carleton Ravens on Saturday. In the tightly contested match, Blues forward Chelsea Cheung proved to be the only difference, netting the game winner in the final minutes of the match. Cheung followed a shot off the crossbar and placed her rebound attempt in the back of the net.

The Blues women also played host to the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees on Sunday, a match that ended in a 2–2 draw as both teams fought to maintain possession and created chances throughout the match. Cheung continued her strong form, netting a goal from the top of the box in the 12th minute for her fifth goal of the season. Following the goal, Ottawa sustained pressure in the Blues’ defensive third. Ottawa’s persistence eventually paid off, as Gee-Gee Faythe Lou tied the game in the 33rd minute.

As the game continued in the second half, both teams played evenly, with scoring chances occurring at both ends. The tie was not broken until a long pass sent Natasha Klasios on a one-on-one with an Ottawa defender. She beat the defender and the keeper with a shot from inside the box to give Toronto a 2–1 lead in the 63rd minute.

Toward the end of the game, Toronto attempted to hold on to this lead by playing conservatively and not allowing themselves to get caught too far in Ottawa’s end. This strategy did not pay off, however, as an Ottawa free kick from 30 yards out set up a perfect chance for Gee-Gee Katherine Bearne. She did not waste this opportunity and struck the ball into the back of the net to tie the game at two goals apiece.

In a nerve-wracking final 10 minutes, Ottawa looked to have taken the lead in the 85th minute. However, the goal was quickly called offside. In the final few minutes, Ottawa looked dominant, but the Blues held on until the final whistle and secured a draw. The Blues women maintain fourth place in the OUA East and their record now stands at 5-4-1.

Daniella Cipriano talks teamwork, tackles, taking chances

Varsity Blues soccer player embodies U of T’s hardworking spirit

Daniella Cipriano talks teamwork, tackles, taking chances

As a civil engineering student, Daniella Cipriano spends her days mastering the study of design, construction, and maintenance of structures and infrastructure. Outside of the classroom, Cipriano also works hard as a marauding Varsity Blues starting right back, designing chances for her teammates, constructing assists, and maintaining a solid backline.

Cipriano enjoys the defensive and attacking duality her position brings. “I love defending, I love sticking tackles, and then I also love getting forward… Full back was just the perfect position because it combines both.”

The third-year student, who played 15 regular season games in her first year and all 16 in her second, takes to the field donning the number seven on her jersey. She positions herself less like her favourite player, Real Madrid right back Dani Carvajal, and more like his attacking teammate Cristiano Ronaldo, her numeric counterpart in Zinedine Zidane’s squad. Speaking to the benefits of her attacking nature, Cipriano highlights opposing teams’ difficulties defending against wing backs like herself.

“They don’t know if their full back should step or if their winger should come back, so it just confuses the other team as well. Which is kind of nice because you have free range because no one’s coming at you,” she explains. Cipriano can find this free range so far up the flank that it’s sometimes easy to forget she’s a defender. It’s why her relationship with fifth-year right midfielder Alyssa Golin is so valuable.

“[Golin] played as a full back in her first two years I believe, so she knows what it’s like to have to cover and come back and help out… Having someone who knows your position playing alongside you really helps out in the fact that… someone has your back.” Cipriano also has praise for first-year right back Mikayla Ford, saying, “She’ll definitely be able to fill my shoes at least!”

In between praise for her teammates, Cipriano describes being temporarily deployed as a right winger as “fun,” which gives her “a little bit of freedom to not [have to] run back every two seconds.” With her trajectory, she could soon emulate Real Madrid star Gareth Bale’s transformation from a full back into a star attacking winger.

Running up and down the flank for 90 minutes every game is a gruelling task for anyone, but Cipriano laughs when recounting her experience. “When you’re working hard for it and then you get that cross and then they score off your cross, it’s just really rewarding. So you just keep wanting to do it over, and over, and over again no matter how tired you are.” It’s this excellent mentality that has seen Cipriano register two assists in six regular season games, double what she managed last season.

She attributes this more to the team dynamic improving than her individual development. “The core group of us have been playing together for at least three years now… Being able to have that strong core allows me to get forward as a full back, [which] allows you to assist those kinds of goals.”

Despite it being the afternoon of her first day of classes, Cipriano’s enthusiastic character never relents as she speaks. When asked about how she balances her roles as a civil engineering student and a star on the Varsity Blues, the five-foot-four defender laughs.

“That’s a good question — I don’t really know myself! But somehow you just figure it out, you have your schedule.” She further cites the positive work ethic of her fellow Blues, noting that “they push me to do homework as well… Being with those type of people really help me figure out what I needed to do.”

Beyond this, with some of her school days running from 9 am to 9 pm, Cipriano has learned the importance of time management. “[You] utilize the time you have in between classes — when you have that hour when you can finish an assignment and not have to worry about it on the weekend.”

It’s the same pragmatism that’s necessary for soccer players — in the moments throughout the game where opportunities present themselves, Cipriano needs to take her chances to produce good balls for her teammates.

She did exactly that in the regular season home opener against the Nipissing Lakers. Awarded a free kick 40 yards from goal on her right side of the pitch in the 56th minute, Cipriano launched an inch-perfect ball onto the glancing head of striker Chelsea Cheung for the game’s second goal.

The day after, against the Laurentian Voyageurs, Cipriano advanced down the right-hand side and released another perfect delivery, this time for centre back Christine Mulligan to nod in on the far side of the post.

As Cipriano becomes more attuned to her role and her surroundings, she’s hoping to further improve the attacking dimension of her game. “I definitely want to at least get a goal this season — I haven’t scored at all! Hit the crossbar a couple times but definitely a goal this season would be a good goal to reach,” she adds. “Getting more assists and helping the team out in that kind of sense would help me gain confidence, as well as the team. I feel like in the air we could definitely punish teams with our aerial balls.”

Cipriano and Golin are both on the right flank. “Working in that kind of position, we definitely work on [crosses] every practice,” Cipriano says. “If you keep getting the reps and keep working on it, it’s just eventually gonna get better and better, and then it’ll get more and more precise, and then hopefully one person will get on the end of it.”

Last season’s top goal scorer, Natasha Klasios, who missed the first four games of the season due to involvement with Canada at the 2017 FISU Summer Universiade, returned to action against Trent and UOIT over the weekend.

Klasios’ return is a boost both to the team and to Cipriano, who sees her right back role as “a bigger part to our U of T team, especially… with Natasha coming back because we’ll have that confidence going forward.”

Still, Cipriano knows it’s ultimately a team game and that her individual talents need to supplement her teammates’ own. She references a quote the team says before every match: “22 as one.”

“I feel like that really brings us together as a team. Because if you can’t play with 22, you’re not a team… You’re out there not just to play for yourself but to play for everyone else around you, which is amazing, which is really nice. I like that too.”

Blues women’s soccer defeats Nipissing Lakers in home opener

Striker Chelsea Cheung scored brace to lead Toronto to a 3-1 victory

Blues women’s soccer defeats Nipissing Lakers in home opener

With last season’s leading scorer Natasha Klasios representing Canada at the 2017 Summer Universiade in Taipei, the University of Toronto Varsity Blues’ fourth-year striker Chelsea Cheung led the way with a brace as the Blues women earned a key 3–1 victory over the Nipissing Lakers in their home opener at Varsity Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

Cheung’s 56th-minute goal proved to be the game winner. Daniella Cipriano launched a free kick into the 18-yard-box and connected with Cheung, who placed a perfect glancing header off the post and into the back of the opposing net. 

In the 88th minute, the Blues nearly added a fourth goal after Cheung found Erin Kelly beyond Nippising’s backline, but her final strike hit the post. Toronto’s win came as the club fostered an impressive combination play between Cipriano and Nicki Parkes, with the latter attempting to find Cheung or Kelly open for an attempt on goal. 

Parkes struck a left-footed volley into the back of the net in the 85th minute to extend the Blues’ lead to 3–1.

Nipissing opened the scoring in the sixth minute courtesy of Andrea Young, who placed a left-footed strike past Blues’ goalkeeper Vanna Staggolis. The Lakers utilized Young’s speed to put pressure on Toronto’s backline throughout the early stages of the match.

Cheung scored Toronto’s first goal in the 31st minute after she beat Nipissing goalkeeper Mykaela Volpe to a loose ball and tucked her finish into the open goal. 

2017–18 Premier League preview: Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United

Assessing last season's fourth-, fifth-, sixth-placed sides' chances for the upcoming season

2017–18 Premier League preview: Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United

On the run-up to 2017–18 Premier League’s August 11 kickoff, three contributors weighed in on last season’s fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-placed sides’ chances of success.

Liverpool — Michael Teoh

  • Why you should support them

Liverpool have a formidable attacking lineup, and if new £37.8 million signing Mohamed Salah can recreate his preseason form of four goals in six games, the Premier League may be in for another rampant, swashbuckling Reds side à la Sturridge/Suárez 2013–14. With Salah and Sadio Mané providing incredible pace and dribbling down either flank and Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino providing incision and creativity down the centre — not to mention Adam Lallana’s immense attacking pressing and Daniel Sturridge’s striking expertise — Liverpool should improve on last season’s 78 goals scored. New addition Dominic Solanke, who helped England win the FIFA U-20 World Cup and claimed the cup’s Golden Ball this summer, also provides good competition. 

  • Why you shouldn’t support them

Liverpool’s defence is a perennial problem. Though the goalkeeping and right back departments look solid, the team cannot rely on these areas to save them. At left back, James Milner seemed prone to lapses last season, and the 31-year-old may have trouble keeping up with the Premier League’s speedier wingers. Alberto Moreno has enjoyed a good preseason, but fears over his concentration and positioning remain. New signing Andrew Robertson needs time to settle into the defence, and should problems at centre back continue, he might not have the experience necessary to sufficiently help his team.

Just like last season, Liverpool’s main choices at centre back are Joe Gomez, Ragnar Klavan, Dejan Lovren, and Joël Matip. The lack of quality at the heart of defence is worrying for a Liverpool side that conceded 42 last season. Any additions would have already missed the crucial preseason, meaning it’ll be difficult for them to gel with the squad and recover match fitness — the last thing an already shaky Liverpool defence needs.

  • Best player

Sadio Mané. Though it may be easy to heap praise on Coutinho for his moments of magic, the Brazilian can sometimes fade from games. Mané may not have the same sparks of sheer brilliance as Coutinho, but he provides a rapid and consistent threat on the wing. He reads the ball well, can hold up play smartly, and can unlock defences with his pace and dribbling skill. With Salah expected to terrorize defences on the other flank as well, Mané may be able to have an even greater impact on the Liverpool team this season than last.

  • Why I support them

It was a pair of mind-boggling volleys from Captain Fantastic himself, Steven Gerrard, that called my attention to Liverpool. Even without a strong knowledge of the Reds, Gerrard, or the importance of that 2006 FA Cup final, the celebrations from the fans and players, as well as the bewilderment in the commentators’ voices, clued me in on how special the club is. Although Liverpool are entering their sixth season since their last trophy, an exhilarating 2013–14 season led by Brendan Rodgers’ Sturridge/Suárez strikeforce and two cup finals in Jürgen Klopp’s debut 2015–16 season show that Liverpool are not too far from the forefront of the modern game.

  • Prediction

Third. Much like the 2013–14 season, Liverpool’s attack is very promising and its defence is worrisome. Despite this, the expected backline this season looks more secure than the nightmare we saw for much of 2013–14, so expect the team to concede fewer than the 50 they did that season. The caveat to this is that Liverpool now seem to have no out-and-out goal machine to compare to Sturridge/Suárez — who scored a mind-boggling 52 goals between them in 2013–14 — despite their current attacking riches, including Firmino, who is still acclimating to his role as a main striker. It took five players — Coutinho, Mané, Firmino, Divock Origi, and Lallana — to achieve 52 league goals last season.

While promising attacking youngsters Ryan Kent, Solanke, and Benjamin Woodburn have shown during preseason that they are ready to step up if called upon, injuries to Liverpool’s defence can expose their frailties, so their season looks to depend upon how well Klopp can maintain their freshness. In his first season at Liverpool, he guided the team to the Europa League final and League Cup final but suffered a poor domestic season, finishing eighth. Even without the distraction of Europe last season, Klopp & co. struggled for form domestically after the new year, a big concern for the Reds.

As it stands, third place is a realistic expectation, but if Liverpool crash out of their cup runs early, expect them to put on a good challenge for second. Conversely, if they stick around in Europe and the domestic cups’ latter stages, they could easily slip into fourth or fifth.

Arsenal — Kevin Kapenda

  • Why you should support them

Arsenal will look to win the Premier League this year, and after going five seasons without having a prolific striker in their ranks, they unsurprisingly signed French international Anthony Lacazette from French club Lyon for £47.7 million. Lacazette has scored at least 20 domestic goals every season since 2014–15. England is not France, of course, and he will need time to adjust, but getting to 20 in his first season and building on that beyond 2018 is what will be expected of him, especially if he’s to start for France at the 2018 World Cup. Arsenal is also expected to boost their squad with either of the French-speaking Riyad Mahrez or Thomas Lemar, as well as long-term target William Carvalho of Portugal.

  • Why you shouldn’t support them

If you’re new to the game and are looking for a team to support, the Gunners might not be the club whose jersey you’ll wear with pride all year. Not only have they failed to lift the Premier League trophy in 13 years, the club’s spending policy has not remained competitive with clubs like Manchester City or PSG, who regularly spend hundreds of millions on players each summer. This lack of investment in acquisitions is often frustrating for fans of thrifty clubs like Arsenal. When Arsène Wenger continuously claims his squad is strong enough to compete, as Manchester City, Chelsea, and Manchester United are unveiling six to eight players every two years, it can be difficult to remain committed to Arsenal. If you do become a fan, don’t expect Arsenal to spend £199.8 million on a transfer fee for the next Neymar Jr.

  • Best player

Aaron Ramsey. Alexis Sánchez, who has scored 53 goals in three seasons, is certainly deserving of this honour but may not be a part of the club by the time you read this. Because of this uncertainty, I believe Aaron Ramsey — not Mesut Özil — is Arsenal’s best player. Since the 2013–14 season, Arsenal have won three FA Cups, two of which were hard fought. In those two finals, Ramsey scored the winning goal, catapulting Arsenal to a 3–2 victory over Hull City in 2013–14 and a 2–1 victory over Chelsea in 2016–17. Before 2014, Arsenal had gone nine years without a trophy, something fans of rival teams never fail to mention. ‘Rambo’ Ramsey’s the best because he saved Arsenal fans from another decade of torment.

  • Why I support them

Arsenal was the only team in which I saw myself represented while growing up. If you’re a French-speaking African, odds are you’re either an Arsenal fan or you root for national teams featuring the club’s players, such as France, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, or Morocco. Soccer may be the world’s game, but that doesn’t mean its biggest competitions and stadiums have always been inclusive of all people. Since Arsène Wenger became club manager in 1996, Arsenal have set the standard for diversity and countering anti-Black sentiment in European soccer. This is why I support the club through thick and thin.

  • Prediction

Third. In the 2016–17 Premier League campaign, Arsenal finished fifth, missing out on the Champions League or a top-four finish for the first time since 1995–96. In my opinion, there is no reason why Arsenal can’t get back to the top four after this major blip. They ended the season in excellent form, winning five out of five in the league and defeating both Manchester City and Chelsea as clear underdogs to lift their third FA Cup in four years. Therefore, I am predicting Arsenal will finish third in 2017–18, far removed from the league race, but still above some pretty good clubs.

Manchester United — Daniel Samuel

  • Why you should support them

Romelu Lukaku is the world-class striker Manchester United desperately needed last season. The former Everton striker and 2016–17 Golden Boot runner-up swapped places with Wayne Rooney to provide manager José Mourinho with a top attacking target. Prior to the announcement of his signing with United, Lukaku promptly threw an early Fourth of July rager with Paul Pogba in Los Angeles on July 2 and was cited by police for excessive noise. His partying felt like the appropriate actions of a vacationing striker negotiating to play with one of the richest clubs in the world. The incident underlines one of the key facts for Mourinho to acknowledge: the relationship between Lukaku and Pogba — arguably the club’s best two players — has the potential to make or break the 2017–18 season.

  • Why you shouldn’t support them

Rooting for Manchester United is a difficult task in 2017. There’s a multitude of reasons why people choose not to support United, one of the most hated clubs in the world. The easiest argument would be to criticize how the Red Devils use their considerable wealth to buy the best players in the world, a practice that’s common among the richest soccer clubs. Recent history hasn’t been kind to Manchester United. Many supporters have been turned off by Marouane Fellaini’s outrageous antics, and every interaction between Mourinho and the media is a study of how ridiculous the size of a manager’s ego can be. Furthermore, United’s best player, Paul Pogba, is one of the most polarizing players in the world. Rooney is gone, and Chelsea clearly has the best collection of talent in the league.

  • Best player

Paul Pogba. Let me apologize for his atrocious dabbing celebration, as he’s only 24-years-old. But what Pogba lacks in maturity, United’s £94.5 million man makes up for in raw talent as one of the best midfielders in the world. There’s no doubt to how talented Pogba can be, but the narrative constantly surrounding the French international is whether he’s able to achieve a sustained period of success. He had a few stellar seasons at Juventus and played a key role in France reaching the Euro 2016 final. The addition of Lukaku presents Pogba with a proven striker to target. For United to even dream of hoisting the league title in 2017–18, the club will need a full season of Pogba in top form, creating key chances for forwards but also finding the back of the net himself.

  • Why I support them

My interest in soccer began with the 2006 FIFA World Cup and peaked with David Beckham’s historic move to the MLS in 2007. At the age of 10, supporting Manchester United felt like the natural thing to do. Everyone I knew in the predominantly Portuguese school I attended spoke fondly about Cristiano Ronaldo’s supreme talent and often debated whether or not he could eventually become better than Luis Figo. During the final weeks of the school year, the sheer spectacle that was the 2006 World Cup resulted in the entire school being situated in the gymnasium, empty classrooms, or the library huddled around a television screen or projector to watch Ronaldo’s exploits.

The decision to support United was confounded because I couldn’t stand then-Liverpool striker Fernando Torres, and Chelsea didn’t seem like an acceptable option because of John Terry — even though his scandalous episodes with Wayne Bridge and Anton Ferdinand came afterwards — but only reinforced my decision to root against Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea.

I was immediately stunned by the seemingly insurmountable skill and pace Ronaldo wielded. His departure to Real Madrid in 2009 was a massive blow, but United still had Wayne Rooney, who, regardless of Ronaldo’s achievements, was easily my favourite United player. In his prime, Rooney was ridiculously versatile, and he could star anywhere in the midfield or attacj for United and help dictate the course of any match.

  • Prediction

The club will have its second full season with players like Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and Pogba, and Mourinho as club manager. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is gone. Luke Shaw will begin the season still on the mend. Juan Mata is healthy. Marcus Rashford turns 20 in October. Pogba and former Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matić should form a formidable pairing in the midfield. And Everton’s Wayne Rooney is scheduled to make his return to Old Trafford on September 17.

Chelsea is still great, Liverpool has been steadily improving, Harry Kane has been almost unstoppable and won the Premier League Golden Boot the past two seasons for Tottenham, and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has spent a ton of cash acquiring full-backs Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy, and Danilo over the transfer season to bolster his club’s backline.

Could 2017 be the year Manchester United return to glory? Beyond just stating the facts, is there any way to truly know?