The U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona is a rugged, desolate, uncompromising place that's tough to reach: pretty much like soccer's elite level. I spent a few days there this week producing a television shoot about high-altitude parachute drops. Which naturally got me thinking about high fliers and precipitous plunges, and how September often serves as the proving ground for teams with soaring aspirations after a fast start to the season.
Like this season's "anything you can do, I can do better" Manchester tag-team juggernaut, last year Chelsea pummeled all comers in August and seemed well on its way to wrapping up the EPL title before Roman Abramovich could celebrate his birthday (Oct. 24 for those of you who know what to give the man who literally has everything). Yet, in May, the silverware ended up at Old Trafford, not Stamford Bridge.
The fast starts only count if the momentum keeps rolling. The transfer window sagas have all been put to bed, the Champions League group games (and travel) kick off, more teams begin to find their rhythm, and the pack begins to look for a morale boosting point or three at the expense of the early headline makers.
Last September, Manchester City put the brakes on the Chelsea rocket ride to dominance. And this Sept. 18, Chelsea will get a chance to do the same to the Citizens' archrival at the so-called Theatre of Dreams. A lot of folks are getting caught up in Manchester United's "Super 8" performance against Arsenal last month, while forgetting that quite a few members of the team are too young to rent a car in New York (and some too young to purchase an adult beverage).
At the Yuma Proving Ground, engineers use high-tech GPS systems to guide 10,000-pound payloads gently (I've heard garbage trucks make more noise rumbling down my street) to a safe on-target landing from an altitude of 25,000 feet. Sir Alex Ferguson's track record with young talent is just as impressive. But like the extraordinary folks at Yuma, the good knight knows that it takes lots of testing and data analysis before 100 percent performance can be guaranteed every time out. The EPL champions not only host Chelsea and Basel in September but travel to Bolton, Benfica and Stoke (the Carling Cup doesn't count.) If United imperiously sweeps that little lot aside, it will be a September to remember in the red half of Manchester.
Over in the blue half of the city, Roberto Mancini & Co. face the Champions League-EPL tango for the first time. I witnessed a Humvee being rolled off the back of a C-17 this week, and City's season could plunge just as dramatically if it can't handle the upcoming September test of fixtures with Wigan, Napoli, Fulham, Everton and Bayern Munich. Although stacked with veteran stars, it would still be easy for City to get caught looking ahead to exciting Champions League games this month and allow compromise to its title hopes by dropping unexpected points in trap games against the likes of Fulham and Everton. City will have to overcome such potential potholes all season, and it will be really interesting to see how it handles its doubleheader demands for the first time over the next few weeks.
By tradition, EPL title contenders are not the only high fliers at the start of the season. Last year, Blackpool played the role made famous by Carlisle United in the mid-1970s, soaring among the Gods for a few weeks before taking the Icarus express elevator down to relegation. Wolves might just escape that fate this year (again) but their true colors will most likely be revealed this month against Spurs (at home) and Liverpool (away).
And like watching the genius of a giant high-tech parachute turn figure eights against a brilliant blue sky guided by jaw-dropping scientific minds, that's the beauty of September soccer: true colors begin to show.