March . . . a time for lovely weather, flowers blooming, spring breakers, and . . . worldwide COVID lock-down?
The current crisis left a gaping hole for sports fans everywhere. Almost every sports league in the world shut down, nearly simultaneously. With everyone ¨social-distancing,¨ widespread stay-at-home orders, and many businesses here in the U.S. closed, a major part of our leisure time was also stricken from our television sets. No more NBA, no more MLS, no MLB, and no soccer.
That is about to change, however. with one of the biggest and best sports leagues on Earth coming back to play. The Bundesliga is home to some of the most-exciting soccer you will see, tremendous rivalries, huge storied teams, and great atmospheres. I’m not going to use this post to talk about the awesomeness of promotion/relegation or the ¨50%+1¨ rule, rather more why to watch, who to watch, and how you can watch.
The Bundesliga isn’t just home to some of the greatest talent on the planet, it’s home to some of the best American talent on the planet. Roughly 30 players with USMNT eligibility ply their trade in the Bundesliga’s first and second divisions, most of whom are vying for spots on the national team. The Bundesliga is helping churn out our best talent, including Christian Pulisic, but there is also great tradition and wonderful exciting sport that comes along with it.
Don’t know anything about the Bundesliga? That’s fine. Want to join in, but need a team to root for? Excellent! Below I will give a small breakdown of all 18 teams in the first division, as well as a couple of notable 2nd division teams. You can watch games beginning Saturday on Fox Sports, FS1, and FS2. You can also watch all 1st and 2nd division games with Fox Soccer MatchPass ($19.99 per month).
European Soccer 101
Throughout the course of the season, each team plays all teams in their division twice: once at home, once away. Points are awarded based on match results. Teams earn three for a win, one for a tie, and zero for a loss. The team with the most points at the end of the season is the champion. This is where it gets a little interesting, however. In the Bundesliga, there is much more to play for than the league championship and this super sweet trophy known as Die Meisterschale (the Champions Bowl).
No playoffs?! What else is there to play for?!
A ton. The top four teams at the end of a season gain entry to the following seasonś UEFA Champions League, where the best clubs in all of Europe go to play mano-e-mano with large amounts of money and pride at stake. The winner of that competition can claim to be the best club in Europe and therefore one of the best in the world.
The next two best finishers (fifth and sixth) go to UEFA Europa League. This is basically the N.I.T. of European Soccer. There is also good money at stake, lots of prestige both in making it into the competition and in winning it. Two German teams are still alive in Europe, as of now. Bayern Munich is still playing in the round-of-16 in the Champions League, and Eintracht Frankfurt is alive in Europa Leagues round-of-16, as well.
There is also relegation at stake. The bottom two teams in the league table at then end of ther season automatically swap places with the top two finishers from the 2. Bundesliga. The third-to-last club has to play a two-game, winner-take-all series with the third-best team from the 2. Bundesliga. This happens every year, so, in theory, a Sunday ¨Beer League¨ team could essentially one day become a fully professional organization (given they have a stadium) by winning their league consistently year after year.
OK, but who should I root for?
Below is a brief breakdown of each club, sorted by current standings. I’ll briefly walk you through each clubs history, their best players, any US players in the ranks, and why you should pick them.
FC Bayern Munchen
(Buy-earn – Moon-Chin)
Commonly Known As: Bayern
Top Players: Manuel Neuer, Robert Lewandowski, Joshua Kimmich, Thomas Mueller, Phillipe Coutinho, Kingsley Coman, Serge Gnabry, Niklas Sule, Jerome Boateng, David Alaba.
American Players: Chris Richards (17 years old, defender, formerly of FC Dallas), Malik Tillman (18, center-forward, currently in youth system), Taylor Booth (18, midfielder, youth system)
You might also know: Alphonso Davies (18-year-old Canadian, defender/winger, formerly of Vancouver Whitecaps FC), Maxi Kleber (NBAś Dallas Mavericks, former Bayern Munich basketball player).
You will like them if: (1) You like global domination, (2) You like the NY Yankees, and/or (3) You like teams with dominant history, that play solid and exciting soccer while being one of the biggest teams on the planet.
Bayern Munich is a storied club, winning roughly half (29) of the Bundesliga championships since its current form came about in 1962. Bayern has an enormous trophy room packed full of league championships, DFB Cup trophies, Golden Boot awards (given to the leagueś top scorer every season), and basically every accomplishment a team can get. They have tons of money, they have rabid fans, and they win. They are the N.Y. Yankees, the Dallas Cowboys, and the Boston Celtics of the Bundesliga. Bayern has a massive fan base both within Germany and the Americas. If you are a fan of the Bundesliga, you either love them or hate them.
Commonly Known As: Dortmund
Top Players: Thorgan Hazard, Marco Reus, Julian Brandt, Erling Haaland, Jadon Sancho, Mats Hummels, Roman Burki
American Players: Giovanni Reyna (17, midfielder)
You might also know: Thomas Delaney, Mario Gotze, Axel Witsel
You will like them if: (1) You like fast-breaking, high-pressing action, (2) You like the mid-00’s Phoenix Suns or the current Houston Rockets, or (3) You like Christian Pulisic
Borussia Dortmund routinely plays an exciting style of soccer and they put up points. Dortmund also gives up a lot of points, too. The last team to win the league title not named Bayern Munich, Dortmund is a constant challenger. They started off slow this season, but since the addition of Erling Haaland and the goal scoring tear he went on once arriving, Dortmund are looking like actual challengers down the stretch. Dortmund has a good history with eight league championships and plenty of other trophies to boot.
Commonly Known As: Leipzig,
Top Players: Timo Werner, Yussuf Poulsen, Emil Forsberg, Kevin Kampl, Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konate, Lucas Klosterman
American Players: Tyler Adams (21, midfielder, USMNT standout), Noah Jones (18, center-forward, currently in the developmental system)
You will like them if: (1) You prefer Darth Vader to Obi-Wan Kenobi, (2) You like crashing parties when nobody wants you there, (3) You like really talented teams that play hard and exciting.
RB Leipzig is probably the most-hated team within Germany. Why? If you ask a German, not from Leipzig, you’ll get an answer similar to, “Because Red Bull cheated the rules and created a club to be nothing more than a commercial.” That being said, RB Leipzig had a meteoric rise from a fifth-division club, has some of the most exciting players in the world on their team, and is a real threat to win the league title year after year. Timo Werner, although inconsistent, is a rocket. He tears through defenses with speed and is an excellent goal scorer. They are fun to watch, they are always dangerous, and if you like the villian, this is your club. Head Coach Julian Nagelsmann is a young, brilliant, and extremely innovative tactician that has Leipzig packing a punch. Leipzig is also one of only two teams in the 1st Division from the former East Germany.
Commonly Known As: Gladbach
Top Players: Breel Embolo, Markus Thuram, Alassane Plea, Florian Neuhaus, Nico Elvedi, Denis Zakaria
American Players: Fabian Johnson (31, midfielder/left back), Michael Wentzel (18, defender, currently in youth system)
You might also know: Matthias Ginter, Yan Sommer, Raffael
You will like them if: (1) You like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland A’s, or teams that were once dominant and still are consistently relevant, (2) You loved watching Fabian Johnson play and still think he should be on the USMNT, (3) You prefer watching reruns of 1970’s NFL films highlights to watching the NFL on Sunday.
Gladbach once had a proud tradition and some of the best players on the planet. Dominant in the 1970’s with an innovative and creative style of soccer, they swept through the Bundesliga to a tune of five titles during the decade. Since then, they have been a mid-table club occasionally finishing in European-competition spots, occasionally battling relegation. They do have a nice attack and are playing great soccer at this point through the 2019-20 campaign. The spent a good part of the year at the top of the table and were leading the league on matchday 14 after a 2-1 win over Bayern Munich. Can they hold onto a Champions League position? Will they continue to falter down the stretch? Currently only six points out of first, they are still within shouting distance of a title. Once the home of USMNT’s Michael Bradley, Gladbach is a solid club with deep roots.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen
Commonly Known As: Leverkusen
Top Players: Kai Havertz, Leon Bailey, Kevin Volland, Jonathan Tah
American Players: None
You might also know: Lucas Hradecky, Wendell, Kerem Demirbay, Moussa Diaby, Paulinho
You will like them if: (1) You like pharmaceutical drugs (Leverkusen started as a sports clubs for the workers of Bayer AG pharmaceutical company), (2) youŕe a fan of Landon Donovan, who once played there, (3) you like teams that are in a steady and consistent rise, (4) you enjoy Twitter, as Leverkusen has one of the best presences in all of #SoccerTwitter.
Leverkusen has been on the rise from a regional league team to a first-division constant since the 1980’s. Never having won the first division championship, they were winners of the 2.Liga trophy in 1978-79 and the UEFA cup in 1987-88 and have been a steady Bundesliga presence for 3 decades. Leverkusen has had a series of top-four finishes, including in seven of the last ten years and finishing as high as second in 2010-11. In Bailey (22) and Havertz (20), Leverkusen has two young stars that could be generational type players.
FC Schalke 04
Commonly Known As: Schalke
Top Players: Amine Harit, Suat Serdar, Omar Mascarell, Alexander Nubel
American Players: Weston McKinnie, David Wagner (Head Coach), Nick Taitague, Matthew Hoppe
You will like them if: (1) You like the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and rooting for your teams former young stars win championships for the Yankees, (2) You like “Loveable Losers” (Saints, Cubs etc.),(3) You love small-market teams that fight hard, produce terrific prospects, and are from a blue-collar towns.
There are two big reasons to jump behind this team: David Wagner and Westin McKennie. Unlike the Devil Rays, Schalke is a seven-time league champion, but haven’t won a single championship since the Bundesliga came into it’s current form in 1962. Schalke is a good, tough, and gritty team. They are an old-school, traditional Bundesliga team that has been around since 1904. There is a lot to root for in the Veltins Arena on matchdays.
Commonly Known As: Wolfsburg
Top Players: Wout Weghorst, Maximilian Arnold, Koen Casteels
American Players: John Brooks (27, defender) Ulysses Llanez (19, midfield), Michael Edwards (19, defender)
You might also know: William, Joshua Guilavogui
You will like them if: (1) You dig Volkswagens, (2) you appreciate their history with American players (Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna), (3) You like small-town clubs with big punch. Wolfsburg does have a fairly recent title under their belt (2008-09), a German Cup (2014-15), and a Super Cup (2015-16). Wolfsburg is home of Volkswagen. In the past, they have had problems getting people in their stands on weekday games. Wolfsburg fights, a consistent Bundesliga member since working there way out of the regional leagues in the 80’s and 90’s before reaching the top division in 1997. Wolfsburg has a nice stadium, solid players, and are a consistent mid-to-high table team. They also have fairly awesome uniforms.
Commonly Known As: Freiburg
Top Players: Nils Petersen, Luca Waldschmidt, Christian Gunter, Robin Koch
American Players: N/A – Most Recent – Caleb Stanko and Alex Mendez
You might also know: Chang Hun-Kwan, Alexander Schwolow
You will like them if: (1) You love beautiful German cities in the heart of the Black Forest, (2) you appreciate teams that consistently churn out homegrown talent on a shoestring budget, (3) You love the “Little Engine that Could.”
Freiburg is the perpetual underdog. Freiburg has been up and down the first and second divisions for the better part of 20 years. Never placing higher than fifth, Freiburg is always a scrappy team with one of the lowest payrolls in the league and in Europe. When the opponent steps into Der Schwarzwald Stadion, they are in for a dogfight backed with rabid fans. Freiburg is a team and a fan base that should be deeply respected. Head Coach Christian Streich will always have them playing solid defensive, teamwork-based soccer.
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim
Commonly Known As: Hoffenheim
Top Players: Andrej Kramaric, Florian Grillitsch, Sebastien Rudy, Diadie Samassekou,
You might also know: Oliver Baumann, Stefan Posch, Robert Skov
You will like them if: (1) you don’t care about the ¨50%+1¨ rule, (2) you appreciate the rise of a fifth-division nobody to a Champions League contender, (3) you love the Croatian National team.
Hoffenheim rose the ranks of the Bundesliga, much like RB Leipzig, in meteoric fashion with the addition of big money from supporter Dietmar Hopp. Hoffenheim circumnavigated the 50+1 rule, and the club´s board voted to allow Hopp to take majority ownership of the club. Hoffenheim rose quickly with tremendous scouting and player acquisition from neighboring countries Serbia and Croatia. While Julian Nagelsmann and many of their key players have departed recently, Hoffenheim is a scrappy squad that poses problems for even the most dominant Bundesliga teams.
1. FC Köln:
Commonly Known As: Cologne, FC (eff-tsay)
Top Players: Timo Horn, Johnas Hector, Ellyes Skhiri, Jhon Cordoba
American Players: Brady Scott (20, goalkeeper, reserve team)
You might also know: Mark Uth, Anthony Modeste, Dominick Drexler
You will like them if: (1) You have a soft spot for traditional, big clubs that have fallen on hard times, (2) you love Mardi Gras, (3) like the Green Bay Packers, (4) you like teams with massive potential and possible resurrection stories.
Köln won the first-ever Bundesliga Championship in 1963-64. They won again in 1977-78, and had five second-place finishes between 1964 and 1990. Once a power team in the Bundesliga, Köln has fallen on hard times. Köln has been an elevator club (constantly moves up and down divisions) for most of the 2000’s. 2018-19 saw them win the 2. Bundesliga. Currently they are a hard-working, under-talented team that, when they play together, can be very dangerous. After struggling in the early going, Köln has been steadily climbing the table for weeks.
1. FC Union Berlin
Commonly Known As: Union Berlin
You will like them if: (1) You love one of the coolest stories in all of professional sports, (2) you love an underdog, (3) you are looking for a feel-good story and cheering for a team just to stay up.
Union Berlin is an amazing story, I don’t have time to get into the complete history, but they shocked many last year by winning the relegation playoff in 2019 (only the second club ever to do so since 1981) for their first-ever trip to the top flight. Currently, only the second East German side in the Bundesliga, they are Mighty Mouse; they play hard, their fans cheer hard, and every win is a Rocky Balboa-type struggle. They are a fun story, play good soccer, and are a fun team to jump behind.
Commonly Known As: Eintracht, SGE
Top Players: Kevin Trapp, Martin Hinteregger, Filip Kostic, Danny DaCosta
American Players: Timothy Chandler (31, right back/midfield), Mason Judge (17, defender, youth team)
You might also know: Makato Hasabe, Jonathan de Guzman, Andre Silva, Bas Dost,
You will like them if: (1) you want to be part of the best fan base in all of sports, (2) you love exciting counterattacking soccer, (3) you have stock in antacids.
Eintracht Frankurt’s nickname is “The Moody Diva,: and as a fan of this club I can’t tell you how appropriate that is. They love to elate you, then rip your guts out. Things like beating Bayern 5-1 (one of Bayern’s worst losses to anyone in recent memory) while making good runs in the DFB Pokal and the Europa League, then losing six out of seven contests. Eintracht has exciting players and talent, and their fans make every game feel like a home game. Not the biggest club, they’ve never won a Bundesliga title, but whether packing Commerzbank Arena or sending 10,000 strong to Milan they make every game an amazing experience. They are a must follow.
Commonly Known As: Hertha
Top Players: Dodi Lukebakio, Marko Grujic, Krsysztof Piatek,
American Players: Vedad Ibisevic (35, center-forward, dual-national)
You will like them if: (1) you love the NY Knicks or the NY Jets, (2) you’re looking for a club with massive potential, (3) you love “If they can just get the right guy in there . . . ” scenarios.
Hertha has had the lion’s share of Germany’s biggest market with a massive stadium for nearly a half-century. Hertha has all the makings of a sleeping giant, but in 50 years they have yet to build the fan base needed to dominate the landscape or successfully compete at the highest Bundesliga levels. Successful runs in the 1970’s and 2000’s bookend horrific plummets to the depths of German soccer. Hertha has never won a Bundesliga title (have won three in the 2.Liga), but are three-time DFB Cup winners. Overspending, poor management, and the inability to draw the attention of a city that has a population of 3.5 million has left fans of the club baffled. As crosstown rival Union Berlin showed, the city will get behind a club they believe in. Hertha seems to be making strides to correct course and could be a good ship to jump on if they ever figure it out.
Commonly Known As: Augsburg
Top Players: Florian Niederlechner, Philipp Max, Tomas Koubek
American Players: Maurice Malone (19, center-forward)
You might also know: Tin Jedvaj, Rani Khedira, Felix Gotze
You will like them if: (1) you love small college sports, (2) you want a great sense of community out of your team experience, (3) you like traditional clubs.
Augsburg has slowly grinded their way up the German soccer landscape to a club that can hold its own at the first division. For nearly 50 years, Augsburg bounced back and forth between the lower divisions until winning promotion in the 2010-11 season. Augsburg has stuck ever since, placing as high as fifth and winning a spot in the Europa League in 2014-15. Augsburg is a tough, gritty club from a beautiful Bavarian town. Without big-time sponsorships, and with one of the smallest supporters groups in Germany, Augsburg is a well-run club with a family atmosphere.
1. FSV Mainz 05
Commonly Known As: Mainz, the 05’ers.
Top Players: Robin Quaison, Moussa Niakhate, Robin Zentner, Jean-Paul Boetius
You will like them if: (1) you love the opportunity for bright young coaches to come innovate the game, with the freedom to do it, (2) you love teams that punch above their weight, (3) you love Jurgen Klopp.
Klopp put both himself and Mainz ’05 on the map with a rise through the 2. Liga, winning promotion in 2004. After a brief two-year stint back in the 2. Liga, Mainz has held a steady place in the Bundesliga for a decade. Mainz has a history of getting good young coaches and giving them freedom to innovate. Always near the bottom in spending, without major sponsors, and having a small supporters group, Mainz is still a battle on many match days. Mainz sits in the midst of beautiful wine country near the Rhein and Main rivers and has wonderful fans and supporters. Also was once the home of USMNT legend Conor Casey.
Commonly Known As: Dusseldorf
Top Players: Rouwen Hennings, Erik Thommy, Kaan Ayhan, Matthias Zimmerman
American Players: Zac Steffen, Alfredo Morales
Rosler looks to bring an up-tempo, high-paced attack to Dusseldorf to close out the season. Duesseldorf holds one German Championship (1932-33, before the formation of the Bundesliga), two DFB Pokals, and two second-division championships. Dusseldorf has little to hope for this season save staying up, and every game here on out will be a battle. Zac Steffen has been wonderfully solid for them in goal this year, and getting to watch two Americans anchor the defense for this squad is worth a look.
SV Werder Bremen
Commonly Known As: Werder Bremen
Top Players: Davy Klaassen, Jiri Pavlenka, Maximillion Eggestein, Leonardo Bittencourt, Milot Rashica
American Players: Josh Sargent (19, striker)
You might also know: Niklas Moisander, Omer Toprak, Kevin Vogt, Nuri Sahin
You will like them if: (1) you like traditional as tradition can get, (2) you love passing, ball movement, and people movement, (3) you are looking for an underdog story.
Bremen is in a deep hole. 18 points through 24 games has left them 8 points shy of being safe, and currently running a goal differential of -28 on the season, it hasn’t been pretty for Die Grün-Weißen. Injuries have absolutely decimated the club this year and left an already-thin roster even thinner. Florian Kohfeldt is a young, energetic coach that has them playing really fun soccer to watch. Bremen just has not had enough in the tank to pull out games. Bremen is a traditional club, 100% supporter driven, and has a strong history with four Bundesliga Championships and six DFB Pokal trophies.
SC Paderborn 07
Commonly Known As: Paderborn
Top Players: Dennis Srbeny
You will like them if: You want to cheer for the team that might win the 2.Liga next year.
Paderborn is a yo-yo club. They will bounce from the third to the first division, back to the second. They are a small club that plays hard and has a good base.
Lower-Division Teams Worth a Look
FC St. Pauli
Why Watch? If you like for your club to be social activists and have a really cool flag. Also, if you love pirate-themed squads.
Why Watch? Julian Green and Timothy Tillman are getting good minutes there, and they are fun to watch.
Why Watch? Sebastien Soto is an up and coming USMNT hopeful.
Why Wach? Don’t watch for Bobby Wood. He’s been terrible and hasn’t seen the field in ten games. Do watch to see if this large, traditional club, which had never been relegated until two years ago, can win their way back to the top.
So, that’s it. Grab a coffee, make some pancakes, and enjoy the Bundesliga this Saturday starting at 8:30 Central. Check out Eintracht Frankfurt vs. Gladbach at 11:30. There are games Sunday, as well. It’s a great time to get into the Bundesliga!
Brian is a part-time blogger, and full-time lover of the Bundesliga.