By J Hutcherson (Aug 5, 2021) US Soccer Players – The Championship is an interesting dilemma for players. Its reputation as a grind of a league is well earned both for the median level of play and for the 46 regular season games. Two automatic promotion spots and four playoff places changes the scope of the league for one simple reason that we’re reminded of as every season winds down. There’s a lot of money at stake for the three teams that make it to the Premier League.
It’s an escape hatch scenario, promising a massive cash infusion by any standard along with the prestige of no longer playing in the Championship. Last season, 3rd-place Brentford advanced through the playoffs to join winners Norwich City and 2nd-place Watford in living the Premier League dream. There was a seven-point gap between 3rd and 4th and another seven points between 6th and 7th. That bracketing may give the three playoff clubs that didn’t make it some solace. the previous season, 3rd-place Brentford finished tied on points with Fulham but ahead on the tiebreaker. Both were two points back of 2nd-place West Brom and automatic promotion Fulham took the Premier League playoff spot. Nottingham Forest finished 7th on a tiebreaker with 6th-place Swansea.
Call it Championship math, but it’s normally the glut of games that catches up with some clubs. They look back at a season where even a point would’ve given them a chance at seeing through their exit strategy. Instead, the risk for the reward ends up being another season in the Championship normally adjusting budgets and expectations accordingly.
Given the parachute payments the Premier League pays over three years to its relegated clubs, the three teams making the drop will always be favorites. Penciling in some combination of the relegated clubs Fulham, West Brom, and Sheffield United is no stretch. It’s a difference in scope and scale that is hard to match for clubs that haven’t recently been in the Premier League.
Fulham’s situation is interesting in that regard. They won promotion in 2017-18 in their second consecutive season of making the playoffs. It was their fourth in the Championship when they made it through, after their parachute payments ended. They were right back in the Championship in 2019-20, winning promotion through the playoffs. Now, they’re in a familiar position trying to once again spend only a season a league down.
Antonee Robinson and Tim Ream are part of the squad for the promotion campaign, in a situation where the objective couldn’t be more clear. That’s a significant type of pressure on a squad adjusting to no longer being in the topflight, but it’s become the expectation even when it doesn’t work that way. Bournemouth finished 18th in the 2019-20 Premier League and 6th last season in the Championship.
For other USMNT players in this league, the scenarios change accordingly. Matthew Olosunde unrelegated himself, staying in the Championship with Preston North End after Rotherham United made the drop to League One. PNE has never been in the Premier League, ending a four-season spell in League One through the playoffs in 2014-15. As a Championship club, they’ve finished as high as 7th in 2017-18 and as low as 14th the following season. In 2020-21 they finished 13th, solidly midtable 16 points back of the last playoff spot.
Expectation management is tricky at this level. Push too hard, and failure gets redefined in a way that can quickly turn against a coaching staff. Don’t push hard enough, and that lack of ambition can lead to its own problems. It’s a different situation in the Championship, where getting lost in midtable can bog a team down for years.
Ethan Horvath joins Nottingham Forest from Club Brugge with that club last seeing the topflight at the end of the last century. After three seasons in League One, they’ve spent 13 seasons in the Championship last making the playoffs in 2010-11. A 17th-place finish last season chased that tied on points 7th-place from 2019-20. That drop is not exactly surprising in the Championship, with a go for it mentality one season turning into an attempt to avoid bigger issues the next. The bigger issue in the Championship is the same as it is in any league in England, dropping to a lower level.
Trying to stay out of trouble is also part of the Championship scenario. A quick look at the League One teams tells that story. Lynden Gooch’s Sunderland is still stuck there. Sheffield Wednesday, Charlton, Ipswich Town, Hull, and Wigan are all teams normally associated with a higher division now trying to find a way back. Each has specific situations that led to quality time in the third level of English soccer, but it doesn’t change the scary story no Championship club is interested in hearing.
Duane Holmes’s Huddersfield Town finished 20th last season, six points above the relegation zone and two seasons removed from the Premier League. Huddersfield wasn’t one of those relegated clubs that immediately challenged for promotion. After dropping out of the Premier League in last place, they finished 18th in the Championship in 2019-20. It’s no knock against the potential for the club to point out that the only time they’ve finished higher than 16th place over the last nine seasons was when they won promotion as the 5th-place club in the Championship in 2016-17.
That’s also what’s in play in the Championship, building and rebuilding reputations. A club can spend seasons as a promotion candidate, coming close to the automatic spots and failing to advance out of the playoffs. A mid-tier club can wear that lacking ambition tag with pride while watching ambitious clubs crash into League One. While it’s easy to say that similar scenarios exist in any league you choose, the Championship offers such divergent rewards and punishments it ends up at least somewhat unique. It’s not just playing for promotion. It’s doing it against teams that still have a share of Premier League broadcast revenue. It’s not just hoping for mid-table obscurity as a season slips away. It’s trying to avoid relegation to a league that’s a world away from dreams of the topflight.
We’re well into a generation where the Champions League is the focus for the American soccer player. That doesn’t have to take anything away from playing for points in the Championship.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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