This weekend, Germany’s Bundesliga becomes the first major soccer league in Europe to return to action after stopping because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Here’s a viewer’s guide for the players to know, how to watch the games, and picking a favorite team.
Let’s get the simple stuff out of the way first. The Bundesliga has long been one of the world’s best soccer leagues. There are star-studded powerhouses like Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, and many other teams sign top players from everywhere. There’s also the vast domestic talent pool that has fueled Germany’s four men’s World Cups and three European championships. Few countries anywhere are better at the sport.
The Bundesliga is also one of the world’s most entertaining soccer leagues, routinely leading Europe in average goals per game. Before the season was stopped on March 13, the Bundesliga was averaging 3.20 goals per game — not only topping the continent for the third straight year, but also beating its own average from the last two campaigns.
Along with entertainment on the field, there’s a great tradition of entertainment off the field. The Bundesliga has some of Europe’s top attendances, including the highest per-game average among the continent’s leagues in the last two full seasons. And fans don’t just show up, they bring flags and scarves and unveil giant banners that sometimes cover entire stands. Dortmund’s “Yellow Wall,” a 25,000-capacity end of their stadium, is the most famous example.
Unfortunately, you won’t see any of that right now, or for a while. All games will be played behind closed doors for the foreseeable future.
Fox and Univision have U.S. broadcast rights. Games generally air on FS1 and FS2 in English, and on TUDN, UniMás and Fox Deportes in Spanish. The TV schedule for this weekend is at the bottom of this article. (Hopefully you’ll read the rest of it first.)
But it’s still a gamble. When tests were run on the 36 teams across Germany’s top two leagues, there were 10 positive cases. Two players from second-division team Dynamo Dresden tested positive, sending the entire team into quarantine and postponing their first game back.
Public opinion on playing games is far from unanimous — in fact, recent polling by German news organizations found nearly a 50-50 split.
“Everyone has to be clear: We’re playing on probation,” Bundesliga CEO Christian Seifert said when the green light was given to resume. “I expect everyone to live up to this responsibility."
Seifert has spoken with U.S. sports leagues about how Germany has handled the pandemic.
“That we’re allowed to play again boils down to German politics for managing this crisis, and the health system in Germany,” he said. “If I were to name the number of tests that I was asked about in teleconferences with other professional leagues, with American professional leagues, with clubs from the NFL, the NHL, Major League Baseball and others, and I tell them how many tests are possible in Germany, they generally check, or there’s silence, because it’s just unimaginable in the situation over there.”
Bayern are Germany’s Yankees. They make the most money, sign the biggest players, and have won the most trophies by a mile: 29 league titles (including the last seven) and five European Cups. They’re in first place this season, too.
Dortmund are the country’s No. 2 club, and No. 1 in many hearts. In addition to their colorful fan base, they excel at turning young players into stars and selling them for huge profits.
The most famous to Americans, of course, is Hershey native Christian Pulisic. He made his pro debut there as a teenager, and last year was sold to English club Chelsea for $73 million. Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ($70 million) and Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembélé ($137.5 million) are also alumni.
The current team has a new crop of stars, led by Norwegian sensation Erling Braut Haaland and American Giovanni Reyna. Haaland, age 19, has 12 goals in 11 games since joining the team in January — including a hat trick in his Bundesliga debut. Reyna, the son of U.S. legend Claudio Reyna, is already a regular at 17.
RB Leipzig are another big team, and they’re entertaining. But they aren’t very popular, because they’re bankrolled by the Red Bull corporate conglomerate. (The same company owns MLS’ New York Red Bulls and Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg).
Bayern (55 points), Dortmund (51), Leipzig (50), Borussia Mönchengladbach (49) and Bayer Leverkusen (47) are all in the title race.
Schalke 04 are Dortmund’s big rivals, 20 miles across the Ruhr Valley in Gelsenkirchen. The Revierderby is one of German soccer’s biggest games — and the latest edition is Saturday at Dortmund. Schalke have a long history of signing Americans, from Thomas Dooley in the 1990s to Jermaine Jones in the 2000s to Weston McKennie today.
The Bundesliga has long been a top destination for American players, and right now is a golden era. Not only are there lots of big-time U.S. national team players in Germany these days, they’re almost all getting regular playing time. Here are some names to know.
Ulysses Llanez: Forward, VfL Wolfsburg, 19, Lynwood, Calif.
Josh Sargent: Forward, Werder Bremen, 20, O’Fallon, Mo.
Tyler Adams: Midfielder, RB Leipzig, 21, Wappingers Falls, N.Y.
Fabian Johnson: Midfielder, Borussia Mönchengladbach, 32, Munich, Germany (One of many Americans born in the country to U.S. servicemen.)
Weston McKennie: Midfielder, Schalke 04, 21, Little Elm, Texas
Alfredo Morales: Midfielder, Fortuna Düsseldorf, 30, Berlin, Germany
John Brooks: Defender, VfL Wolfsburg, 27, Berlin, Germany
Timothy Chandler: Defender, Eintracht Frankfurt, 30, Frankfurt, Germany
Here are a few suggestions.
If you like teams that win all the time: Of course you’d pick Bayern.
If you’re a Union fan: Sporting director Ernst Tanner used to be in charge of TSG Hoffenheim, where he developed current RB Leipzig manager Julian Nagelsmann. Former Union assistant coach Dick Schreuder is currently on Hoffenhem’s staff. Tanner also has ties to the Red Bull organization, and brought their high-pressing playbook to Chester.
If you’re looking for Philadelphia ties: Frankfurt is Philly’s sister city, so Eintracht Frankfurt fits the bill. Or Fortuna Düsseldorf because of Steffen. Or Hoffenheim, and not just because of Tanner. Bucks County native Zach Pfeffer, the Union’s first homegrown player, went on loan there in 2013. (And their sponsor, SAP, has a headquarters in Newtown Square.)
If you’re a hipster: Dortmund have been cool for so long that they’re almost establishment now. If you really want to buck the trend, go for Union Berlin. This is their first-ever season in the top flight.
If you’re a win-at-all-costs type: Leipzig.
If you enjoy suffering: The teams currently in the relegation places are Düsseldorf, Werder Bremen and Paderborn. But really, pick Hertha Berlin. The biggest team in Germany’s biggest city hasn’t won the Bundesliga since 1931 and has never won the German Cup. They haven’t even made the final since 1993.
If you want the real answer: A lot of American fans will tell you Dortmund, and they’re right. There’s no team in Germany — or anywhere — quite like them. If you used to watch when Pulisic played there, it’s time to tune back in. Reyna is a rising star with must-see creative talent.
In addition to TV broadcasts, all games are available on Fox Soccer Match Pass, Fox’s subscription streaming service.
9:30 a.m.: Borussia Dortmund vs. Schalke 04 (FS1, Fox Deportes); RB Leipzig vs Freiburg (FS2, TUDN); Augsburg vs. VfL Wolfsburg (Fox Soccer Plus); Fortuna Düsseldorf vs. Paderborn; TSG Hoffenheim vs. Hertha Berlin (Fox Deportes tape-delayed at 11:30 a.m.)
12:30 p.m.: Eintracht Frankfurt vs. Borussia Mönchengladbach (FS1, TUDN)
9:30 a.m.: Köln vs. Mainz (FS1, Fox Deportes)
Noon: Union Berlin vs. Bayern Munich (FS1, UniMás, TUDN)
2:30 p.m.: Werder Bremen vs. Bayer Leverkusen (FS2, Fox Deportes)