Here we are, embarking on another crazy-sounding soccer Thursday. As I write this, Manchester United is about to host Zorya Luhansk and Southampton is traveling to play Hapoel Be'er Sheva in Israel. What exactly is going on here?
In a recent installment of this series designed to explain what all these soccer matches are doing on your television, we talked about the Champions League. If the Champions League is the cool big brother that everyone wants to be friends with, then the Europa League is the little brother that no one really wants to have around and marginally spends time with.
In a typical year, teams who finish first through fourth in the Premier League table play in the Champions League the following season. In that competition, those English clubs play the top clubs from all the other European countries the previous year.
The Europa League gets the best of the rest. While there are exceptions (which we will discuss in later Casual Fan posts), teams who finish in fifth, sixth, and seventh in the Premier League play in the next year's Europa League. This year, representing England are Manchester United, Southampton, and West Ham.
Unfortunately, nobody loves the Europa League. It's inconvenient. It doesn't come with the big payday like the Champions League. The matches are always on Thursday, which makes life difficult because of the short preparation allowed for the next domestic match (which is always on a Sunday to give two days' break).
Plus, it usually means playing uninspiring opponents in faraway lands. Like Israel and Ukraine. Travel like that is hard.
It's for all of these reasons that some people think it was a good thing that West Ham was already eliminated from this year's competition.
Knowing that the Europa League is unpopular with many clubs, UEFA has attempted to dangle a carrot in front of them, hoping that it is enough to inspire more effort. The winner of the entire competition gets an entry into the next year's Champions League, regardless of their domestic league standing. In theory, Man United could get relegated this year from the Premier League but still play in next year's Champions League by winning this year's Europa League.
Take from this what you want. If you want to enjoy and root for Southampton in their Europa League match today, go for it. No one ever feels good about missing out on or losing in a competition.
Don't forget something else: if we didn't have the Europa League, we wouldn't have Thursday soccer. For that, we can all be thankful. Regardless of the obscure opponents.