By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 17, 2023) US Soccer Players – Just over 30 games into the 2022-23 Championship season, there isn’t much drama at the very top. That’s how good Burnley has been with 17 matches left to go. The bulk of the Championship’s annual drama doesn’t have to be about the team that comes out on top, though. That’s when the race for the automatic promotion spot can turn into the focal point of the season.
It’s a tired trope to declare that a race for the playoffs is “heating up” at any given point in the campaign, but as this Championship season hits mid-February, it certainly feels true. After a grueling 48-match schedule, places three through six enter the playoffs for the final place in next season’s Premier League. With the Championship fostering a fierce competitive balance, that means a majority of clubs can still dream about playing topflight soccer next season even with two-thirds of the season already gone.
Here’s the picture as it stands. Burnley is in first, clear by eight points over 2nd-place Sheffield United and 15 points ahead of 3rd-place Middlesbrough. Sheffield United has a seven-point lead over Middlesbrough. Seven points aren’t insurmountable at this point in the season, but it is significant.
Middlesbrough’s win over Sheffield United on Wednesday, thanks in no small part to Zack Steffen’s nine saves, narrowed the gap between the two clubs from 10 to those seven points. The win keeps Boro’s dream of avoiding the playoff alive. The push is now on to turn a four-game winning streak into a stirring challenge for 2nd-place.
Boro is benefiting from the goalkeeping of Steffan and the league-leading goal scoring of Chuba Akpom (17) as it works to get back to the top division for the first time since 2017.
The playoff places are where things get interesting and the drama ramps up. Middlesbrough’s grip on a spot in the four-team knockout tournament is strong with eight points separating them from 7th-place Millwall after Wednesday’s results. Accounting for some differences in games played makes that lead slightly less comfortable, but Middlesbrough can feel good about the buffer it has built.
Steffan’s countryman Ethan Horvath and Luton Town sit in 4th-place, four points behind Middlesbrough. There is where the drama is at a fever pitch, and the sense that every single point could make the difference between a chance at promotion and another season in the Championship is keenest.
Between 4th-place Luton Town and 10th-place West Brom, the gap is just five points. Horvath’s performances in goal are part of a defense that has allowed the fourth-fewest goals in the competition. When the standings are this tight, the soccer can get cagey. Preventing goals is the first step toward getting a shot at jumping into the top division next year.
Luton enters the weekend off a pair of draws in its last two Championship matches against Coventry and Preston. A visit from 1st-place Burnley looms on Saturday. The league leaders are unbeaten in 11 matches across all competitions going back to a League Cup loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Behind Luton is Sunderland, one of the more remarkable stories of the competition this season. The Black Cats’ recent history is a tough one, complete with back-to-back relegations that took the club from the heights of the Premier League to the relative obscurity of League One.
Promoted to the Championship via the playoffs from the third division last year, Sunderland is attempting to pull off back-to-back promotions. The current job is simply to consolidate a place in the playoff places. With two matches against bottom-half teams over the next two weeks, Sunderland has a chance to put some distance between itself and the playoff chasers. Lynden Gooch’s club plays at home against Bristol City on Saturday and then travels to 20th-place Rotherham next Tuesday.
In the race for the final spot in the playoffs, there are ten teams within six points. Watford holds that spot now, but flux is sure to come with Millwall and Blackburn only a point behind and Norwich City and West Brom just a point behind them.
Norwich’s season is turning around after a brutal end to 2022, a drop down the standings, and a managerial change in December. Norwich bolstered its chase for a spot in the playoffs with a 3-1 win over Hull City on Wednesday, a game in which Josh Sargent tallied his 11th goal of the year.
For the Canaries, the mission is promotion or bust. Pressure is on manager David Wagner to get his team up the table in short order. There are points available through February. Norwich is set to face Wigan Athletic, Birmingham City, and Cardiff City over the next three weeks, three teams in the bottom third of the league. Both Wigan and Cardiff are in the thick of the relegation battle.
West Brom’s rise to promotion playoff contender has come under the guidance of manager Carlos Corberan. Corberan took over at the Hawthorns in late October with the club near the bottom of the table. West Brom rattled off five straight wins starting on November 1st, with forward Daryl Dike returning to the squad midway through that run.
The club collected ten victories in 14 total matches since Coberan’s arrival, good enough to fight its way back into contention. Dike has chipped in with three goals for a club that does not rely on one chief goalscorer. Brandon Thomas-Astante leads the team with five goals this season. Right now, West Brom’s chances of playing for promotion to the Premier League are as good as anyone’s.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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Photo by John Dorton – ISIPhotos.com