The Championship Promotion Playoffs: America In English Soccer
The Championship Promotion playoffs began yesterday with West Ham United crossing into Wales to take a massive 2-0 lead in the two-legged tie against Cardiff City. The Hammers, much like their Manager Sam Allardyce, are trying to earn a trip back into the Premier League after a year in exile. The same can be said for the two clubs facing each other this afternoon, Blackpool and Birmingham City.
I have to say it’s a shame for most Americans, though, that these playoffs themselves are relegated to the premium side of the network coverage. In the United States, unless you have Fox Soccer Plus or FoxSoccer2Go, you are unable to watch these semifinals. The final from Wembley will be broadcast on FoxSoccer, but that negates a simple truth – these playoffs are the most American aspect of the Football League that you’ll find.
We Americans love our playoffs. You can’t have a sport in the United States without some form of knockout-style playoff to crown the ultimate “winner.” This truth has become so ridiculous that even sports like golf and stock car racing have contrived ways to turn a single-table style fixture list into a 5-to-10 event “playoff.”
I believe one of the big reasons Americans like this type of conclusion is parity. Playoff systems put all qualifying teams on a more-level playing field, somewhat nullifying the importance of the “regular season.” Teams with better records are typically given an advantage through a seeding system, so that the best team plays the worst team, and so on. American-style playoffs also incorporate an odd number of matches, allowing for a home advantage for the better team (whether in a single match or in a best-of series).
While this playoff isn’t the traditional “winner gets the trophy” mentality, it takes on a “winner takes all” tension because the final victor earns a place at the big kids’ table. And unlike the League and FA Cups, this knockout competition is predicated to an extent upon league finish (3rd vs 6th, and 4th vs 5th). It is actually a pressure-packed conclusion to a grueling 46-match schedule. And the final squad left standing earns automatic trips to Old Trafford, Anfield, and the other historic venues – as well as the big draws that necessitate from the return visits of the tenants of those facilities. It’s a step up, both in prestige, but also in the coffers.
And yet with all of this drama, not too many get the opportunity to experience the action on this side of the pond. Few Americans witnessed Jack Collison’s brace yesterday, part of a West Ham performance that was much less dour than style typically associated with Big Sam. On the other hand, you have a Cardiff City club which has yet again faltered in the promotion playoff. In this particular campaign, they appear to have run out of steam at the crucial moment, not surprising considering the additional strain imparted by their failed League Cup run.
Then we have today’s first leg between Blackpool and Brum, which will also likely receive a minimal American audience (even though both clubs have earned supporters in North America after their recent Premier League stints). Whereas Ian Holloway’s Seasiders will continue to assert their familiar “score first, defend later” philosophy, Birmingham City under Chris Hughton is a much different beast than the one that Alex McLeish ran into the ground a season ago. If there’s ever a tie that could be expected to be an entertaining shootout, it might be this one.
The Promotion Playoff is definitely a slice of American-style cutthroat playoff mayhem. If only more Americans knew about it…