The new Bundesliga season is here. Last year, I opted for the angle that if you are an American fan of soccer, perhaps even a fan of the USMNT, you should be watching the Bundesliga. Christian Pulisic may have fled for England, but the same sentiment remains true as bevy of Americans continue to compete at the highest level in Germany.
Since I wrote that last piece, Bayern Munich won their seventh consecutive league title, but trailed Borussia Dortmund for much of the season. Also, I was suspended from Twitter for months because someone supposedly representing the Bundesliga filed a copyright complaint against me posting a GIF of an incredible goal.
Naturally, it appears that the Bundesliga wants to grow their product, except that they also seem to want to grow it the same way that baseball has been trying - by completely controlling all media and preventing fans and advocates from sharing anything that might pique the interest of fans of other leagues around Europe. On top of this, the dominance by Bayern and failure of all Germans teams, including Bayern, to have a strong showing in European competition has turned one of the most exciting leagues in the world into a product precariously balancing between a surge and the bubble bursting altogether.
There are a number of exciting storylines which present themselves each season and this year is certainly no exception. Here are five somewhere between freezing cold and scalding hot takes for the upcoming campaign.
1. Best Match of the Hinrunde - Schalke 04 at Borussia Mönchengladbach
The Hinrunde, the German term for the first half of the Bundesliga season, is composed of Matchdays 1-17, running from August until late December before the midseason holiday break. With 17 matches for each team to choose from, in addition to the DFB Pokal - the German Cup tournament - and European competition in the Europa League and Champions League, there’s obviously a lot to choose from and a lot that can happen over the course of four months.
Bayer Leverkusen at Bayern Munich on Matchdays 13 might be a really intriguing affair. Both teams seem set to be among the best in the league, but neither would be my pick for champion this season. If the first half of the season is going poorly for Niko Kovac and Hasan Salihamidžić, jobs could be on the line and this might be a matchup that says a lot about who has the inside track to secure their spot among the top four and a Champions League spot in the table heading into the midway point of the season. But, that’s not my match of the Hinrunde.
I know my pick seems a bit out there, but it’s too obvious that any combination of Bayer, Dortmund, Bayern, Leipzig, and maybe Gladbach will make for a must-watch match. You wouldn’t skip Chelsea against Liverpool or Manchester City against Tottenham, so obviously you’re not going to skip Dortmund and Bayern or Leipzig and Leverkusen.
Schalke had a terrible season in 2018-19. It was quite bad and no fun. Gladbach had different fortune. While Schalke was just five points clear of the relegation playoff, Gladbach was just three points shy of being level on points for a Champions League spot. Both teams need a good start, Schalke should be desperate to start the campaign strong after their hideous 2018-19 campaign while Gladbach needs to set the tone for a season in which they want to compete in Europe and keep pace with the best clubs in Germany. Either team dropping points to open the season would put a real crimp in their plans, particularly Schalke. Another season starting with a string of Ls being handed to 04 could be trouble. This match is absolutely worth watching and could very well be an indicator of fortunes for one or both squads.
2. Which Promoted Side has a Better Chance of Staying Up? - Union Berlin
I love promotion and relegation and image a world where it exists in American sports, but it would probably be a catastrophe stateside. I have no problem for settling for a few obvious underdogs to cheer for. Sometimes a German side has dipped down and then returned to the top flight after a short visit to 2.Bundesliga, kind of like some episode of Scared Straight.
It feels like a lot of promoted sides have struggled recently. Since the 2009-10 season, 19 teams have achieved promotion heading into the 2019-20 season and by my count 13 of those teams have been relegated since, some sides being relegated and then being promoted again.
This year, for just the second time in the past decade, three teams achieved promotion. Union Berlin joins 1. FC Köln and SC Paderborn in 1.Bundesliga this season. No small feat considering they had to win a playoff against VfB Stuttgart to make the jump. For reference, Stuttgart was a full seven points clear of automatic relegation before Union beat them to move up.
Now, do I think that Union stands a good chance of staying up? No. Do I love the idea of a Berlin derby in the Bundesliga? Yes. Am I down with their logo and colors? For sure. It’s amazing. There isn’t logic behind my choice. If I were trying to be logical, I’d pick Köln. And I do think it would be great if ANY of these teams stay up and there’s a pretty good chance of it this year since there are three new teams instead of just the normal two. Even if they comprise the three worst teams at the end of the year, at least one of them will have the benefit of a playoff to determine their fate if that’s how it shakes out. No, I’m taking Union because it would be fun and I think the real appeal of a promoted side is their long-shot underdog story.
3. Who Wins the Title? - RB Leipzig* (Borussia Dortmund)
Honestly, this is a bananas pick. The correct answer is probably Borussia Dortmund. Bayern has been a tire fire this summer with the Callum Hudson-Odoi and Leroy Sane debacles, plus they let those situations drag on long enough to torpedo any other major moves abroad.
Dortmund has done some very nice things like not lost Jadon Sancho which is huge considering the rate at which talented young stars hit the eject button at Westfalenstadion. They also added a bunch of proven guys who should bolster depth, which certainly seemed to wear on Dortmund during the last campaign, allowing Bayern to steal a title they had no business winning.
Julian Brandt, Thorgan Hazard and Mats Hummels are going to drastically improve the Yellows this season. But they also secured Paco Alcacer as a permanent transfer and now have added yet another talented Barcelona youngster to the ranks in right back Mateu Morey. The Spanish U18 player has been really good to date. Coming off a knee injury, he could end up being an incredible acquisition if he’s as good post-injury as he was leading up to it.
Still, while the title feels like it is Dortmund’s to lose, the last time I felt confident they were an elite squad that was a true favorite was during the days of Jurgen Klopp. Injuries, players leaving, and other factors have kept Dortmund off balance in reason years, but their long line of replacement coaches for Klopp just hasn’t convinced me. Enter RB Leipzig. Having previously secured the signature of Julian Nagelsmann - the German wunderkind of coaching - he’s starting his first season in charge of the corporate East German side. The only player that left Leipzig this summer that I rate is Bruma and you could argue how much that loss actually moves the needle.
So, why the asterisk? Yeah, let’s address that.
*This would be my hottest take and only valid IF Leipzig retains Timo Werner for the entire season. If Werner bolts for Munich or heads abroad for the likes of AS Roma or some other caller, the Energy Drinks will be fortunate to retain their top-four status.
Red Bull probably doesn’t have a title in them this season, I’m basically talking myself out of it. Nice.
4. 2019-20 Bundesliga Wunderkind? Mickael Cuisance - Borussia Mönchengladbach
Every team in the Bundesliga has at least one youth product that could make a big splash this year. It’s hard for me to imagine many players having anywhere the near the kind of impact at age 19 that Cuisance is set to have for Gladbach.
He already had a smash season as a first year player in the Bundesliga last season, but with the opportunity to play a full season worth of matches this year, he’s got the chance to emerge as one of the best midfielders in the Bundesliga. Or, he could slump as he is still so young and Gladbach are going to be leaning heavily on Cuisance and the rest of the roster to advance in the Europa League while chasing down a top four finish in the league.
The one way this gets railroaded is if Cuisance’s entrance into the Bayern rumor mill ends up being true. If he makes a move to the German giants, not only will he not be likely to emerge, he is likely to regress or find himself out on loan. Not ideal for a player of his skill level. Just look at what is happening currently with the exciting Jann Fiete Arp who was excluded from the Bayern squad for their DFB Pokal opener despite an impressive preseason.
5. What Gives at Bayern? Everything
Bayern shouldn’t have won the title in 2018-19. They were given, by their lofty standards, an extremely early exit from the Champions League. They finally let go of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. They’ve made a very conscious effort to get younger. They brought in Kovac and Salihamidžić before their disappointingly successful season.
The already mentioned disaster that is their summer transfer almost certainly leaves them too thin to compete for an eighth consecutive league title and probably finds them gassed if they are still in three competitions when April rolls around.
Now, Oliver Kahn enters the picture.
Is Kahn going to be a positive? Is he going to move quickly and strongly against Kovac and Salihamidžić? It feels like he almost certainly will be a driving force in that direction, but is that even in the best interest of the club at this point.
The club that has become synonymous with German excellence and dominance for almost a decade straight might be better suited to to fall back into the pack and retool. It was several years after Kahn won his Champions League trophy that we last saw Bayern as a club that was going to need some work and some time to regain their elite European form.
It was 2007-08 When Bayern competed in the UEFA Cup, lined up Luca Toni as their goal-getter, and brought in a player named Franck Ribery. They were crushed in the UEFA semifinals, losing 4-0 on the road in the second leg at Zenit Saint Petersburg. It was also the year they promoted Toni Kroos to the senior team. It was also a year where a few club legends and favorites departed, Roy Makaay and Mehmet Scholl notably. It was also the year another player left the squad for Juventus on a free transfer - Salihamidžić.
Now, Salihamidžić is facing another exit from the club as they turn downward in their arc of dominance just as they did the last time he departed the club. We can only hope that the next Ribery-level talent is being brought in by transfer and that the next Kroos is being promoted from the youth side.
So you see, Bayern goes through their own version of cycles and down years. They just do it better than most.