By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (May 10, 2023) US Soccer Players – The field for the 2022-23 version of the Championship promotion playoffs wasn’t set until the final day of play in England’s second division. Monday’s concluding round of games began with both automatic promotion places claimed (Burnley in first, Sheffield United in second) and with Middlesbrough and Luton Town assured of their chance to play for the last spot in next year’s topflight field of 20. That left two spots up for grabs as teams finished their grueling 46-game league schedule.
Middlesbrough, unable to catch 3rd-place Luton Town and assured of fourth, drew 1-1 with Coventry City. That point, in combination with other results, secured Coventy’s place in the playoff field as the league’s 5th-place finisher and will face Middlesbrough again in a two-legged semifinal.
Middlesbrough was last in the topflight for the 2016-17 season. A 19th-place finish meant a quick return to the Championship, where they reached the playoffs in 2017-18.
Playing on-loan with Middlesbrough from Manchester City, Zack Steffen has started 42 league games this season. For a club that plays an aggressive, attacking brand of soccer, Steffen has been an important part of the building from the back. Only two keepers in the Championship have attempted more passes than Steffen and only one with more than 30 starts. That means Steffen’s job is to target and pass to a teammate, not launch the ball upfield. Middlesbrough took full advantage of Steffen’s talent with the ball at his feet and it helped push Boro into the playoffs.
The other semifinal is also a match-up of teams with USMNT players, 3rd-place Luton Town versus 6th-place Sunderland. Sunderland needed a victory over Preston North End and anything but a win by Millwall against Blackburn to get a shot at a second consecutive promotion.
The Black Cats were in their first season in the second division since 2017-18 when the club suffered a second-consecutive relegation and dropped into League One. Last year, the club earned a spot in the Championship via the promotion playoffs.
USMNT player Lynden Gooch remained with Sunderland throughout, playing a crucial role in their progress. Gooch made 30 appearances this season, missing several games due to injury. His versatility allowed him to step in at midfield when required. Sunderland’s October switch from a three-man back line to a four-man defense proved no problem for Gooch, who can play both as a wingback and as a traditional fullback.
Getting past Luton Town will be a big challenge for Sunderland. Luton is historically a smaller club than Sunderland, but this season has seen Luton challenge for automatic promotion.
Unlike its playoff rivals, Luton Town has never played a Premier League season. The club’s last campaign in an English topflight league came back in 1991-92, the final season of the old English First Division ahead of the launch of the Premier League. The club played non-league soccer as recently as 2013-14 when it won the Conference Premier title and moved back into the Football League for the first time in five seasons.
Luton finished its league schedule with a goalless draw against Hull City on Monday. There was little to play for in the match with 3rd-place sewn up going into the final day, but a final clean sheet fit the theme of the Hatters season.
In 46 contests, Luton conceded just 39 goals and recorded 20 shutouts in the process. Defense won Luton the points it needed to make the promotion playoff field and get a shot at playing in the Premier League for the first time.
On-loan American keeper Ethan Horvath wasn’t in net against Hull City as Luton Town head coach Rob Edwards chose to rest his first-team players ahead of the promotion playoffs. That was one of two games Horvath missed this season, making 44 starts from 46 league matches, conceding 37 goals in those games. Horvath finished with 19 shutouts, one behind league leader Ben Wilson of Coventry City. Horvath’s 0.84 goals allowed per 90 minutes ranked third behind Wilson and Wes Foderingham of Sheffield United.
Over the next two weeks, between two-legged semifinals and the May 27 final at Wembley Stadium in London, a single club from the group of four playoff qualifiers, each with their own rich histories and compelling stories, will win a place in the top division next year. The journey to this moment was long and arduous. The pressure over three games is immense. The reward for the winner is singular.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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