- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 10, 2009

The stranglehold on the top of the English Premier League held by the “Big Four” - Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal - could be challenged by Aston Villa.

No club has unseated one of the Big Four from the top of the standings in three seasons, and only a handful of teams - Everton, Newcastle and Leeds - have managed to nudge out one of the big boys in the past 12.

Villa, guided by Irish coach Martin O’Neill, might have something to say about that. If the Birmingham-based club cracks the top four, its success might come at the expense of Arsenal - though the season doesn’t end until May. Going into the weekend games, the American-owned Villa sits in the fourth spot with 38 points, three points ahead of the Gunners.

The top two teams claim a berth in the lucrative European Champions League, and the next two get spots in the qualifying rounds. The last time Villa sneaked into the top four was the 1995-96 season.

American soccer fans have watched Villa closely in recent years. The club, founded in 1874 by members of the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel, is run by Randy Lerner, who also owns the NFL’s Cleveland Browns. Lerner became a fan of the team when he attended Cambridge.

Villa’s two key goalies are American. Veteran Brad Friedel, who was instrumental in helping the U.S. team reach the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, is the starting keeper. Brad Guzan, a former Chivas USA star and the current backup to Tim Howard on the American team, serves as the No 2 goalie for Villa.

Lerner is one of the few American owners in the Premier League who holds the respect of the fans - unlike the Glazer family at Manchester United and co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks at Liverpool.

Villa has not won a trophy since it took home the League Cup in 1996. The team last won the English title in the 1980-81 season, then won the European Cup a year later. In the following 27 seasons, only seven other clubs, including the Big Four, have won the title.

Fans of the resurgent English national team also have a vested interest in Villa: It’s one of the few clubs in the top flight in which a majority of players in the starting 11 hold English passports. That’s good news for national team coach Fabio Capello, who has trouble finding English players starting games in the top flight.

On a personal note, I’ve taken a new look at Villa since my long-lost half-brother, who tracked me down last year, has been encouraging me to cheer on his beloved team. He sent me the official Aston Villa calendar at Christmas, along with a Villa hat and scarf.

I used to watch the team as a youngster growing up in Birmingham. My best friend and neighbor once dated the daughter of former Villa coach Tommy Docherty, and I was introduced to the flamboyant coach at his house.

Docherty was a colorful guy, to say the least. He never was out of the tabloid media. He was kicked out of United after having an affair with the wife of a club staff member. He once commented: “I’ve always said there’s a place for the press, but they haven’t dug it yet.” He coached more than 13 teams in his career, and his favorite quip was, “I’ve had more clubs than Jack Nicklaus.”

It will be a great achievement if Villa ends up in the top four. I may even don my new scarf and hat.

Notes - Veteran defender Ezra Hendrickson, 37, retired, ending a 14-year career in Major League Soccer. He played for D.C. United for part of the 2004 season. Last year, he won a title with the Columbus Crew. … The Washington Freedom agreed to terms with Lori Lindsey, Becky Sauerbrunn and Emily Janss, three of the team’s picks from the Women’s Professional Soccer draft in October.