Sunderland enters the 2014-2015 Premier League season knowing that just about any start will be better than the one it had last season. The Black Cats lost 12 of their first 19 games last term, a run that rooted them to the bottom of the table and led to the dismissal of Paolo Di Canio as manager. For the vast majority of the season, Sunderland looked to be all but certain of relegation.
Then, in an incredible three-week span, everything changed. Sunderland took points off Manchester City. The Black Cats defeated Chelsea, Manchester United, and fellow relegation battlers Cardiff City in a run of four straight wins. Miraculously, the team avoided relegation to the Championship.
MORE: Sunderland's season schedule
So was that late burst indicative of Sunderland’s quality, or simply the product of desperation? This season will go a long way toward solving that riddle. Sunderland return most of the major players from last season, and have added quality in every position...except for at striker.
Unfortunately, striker is a position where Sunderland could need a help. Depending on your view, Sunderland’s struggles to score last season were the fault of mis-firing strikers (including the USA’s Jozy Altidore), or that of midfielders incapable of unlocking opposing defenses to put the strikers in position to score.
Manager Gus Poyet, who led Sunderland to safety last season, clearly believes the problem lies with the latter. New acquisition Jordi Gómez will bring creativity to the center of the park, while the addition of Jack Rodwell gives the club a legitimate two-way midfielder that could help put Sunderland on the front foot a bit more often than last year.
Americans in the English Premier League
SI's Grant Wahl goes through the American players in the English Premier League this season.
KEY ARRIVALS: M Jordi Gómez (from Wigan Athletic), G Costel Pantilimon (from Manchester City), D Patrick van Aanholt (from Chelsea), M Jack Rodwell (from Manchester City)
KEY DEPARTURES: D Phil Bardsley (to Stoke City), M Jack Colback (to Newcastle United), D Carlos Cuéllar (Free agent), D Craig Gardner (to West Bromwich Albion)
PLAYER TO WATCH: Jozy Altidore. Altidore had a nightmare 2013-2014 season with the Black Cats, but then again so did just about everyone. This season is a big one for the American striker, who still has to prove his credentials as a starting striker in the EPL.
KEY STAT: Connor Wickham scored five goals in 2013-2014, all during Sunderland’s four-game winning streak that saved their season. Wickham had been on loan at Leeds United until just a couple weeks before.
STADIUM: Stadium of Light (Built in 1997; Capacity 48,707)
Located on the banks of the River Wear on a former coalmine, the name links to Sunderland’s coal-mining tradition and the history of miners emerging from darkness into light at the end of a shift. A Davy lamp monument—another miner remembrance—stands outside the bowl-shaped lower deck that features a second tier over the west and north stands.