Promotion, Relegation, and Gringos

Football - Manchester United v Arsenal Barclays Premier League

Ask a gringo, ‘What’s the most exciting sporting event?’ and you’ll probably hear ‘the Super Bowl’ or ‘March Madness.’  Both are full of drama and the occasional upset, but soccer’s system of promotion and relegation could give either competition a run for its money.

With the European season winding down, Fútbol for Gringos takes a gander at the English Premier League’s table and how it affects gringos playing their club soccer in England.

Championship Format

Since most soccer leagues don’t utilize a playoff, they employ promotion and relegation.  Promoted teams are those that finish in the top 3 places: they get ‘promoted’ to a higher division within the same country.  Their counterpart, sides that get relegated, are the bottom 3 finishers, who get ‘relegated’ to a lower division.  This ensures season-long excitement for even the worst clubs.

The Premier League, England’s highest division, has a season consisting of 38 matches (home and away against the 19 other teams), with a win granting 3 points and a tie 1 point.  Quite simply, the team with the most points wins the championship.  At this juncture, most teams have participated in 35 matches, but a few, due to scheduling conflicts with tournaments, have only played 34.

Title Contenders

The only two clubs with a realistic shot at the title are Chelsea and Manchester United.  United’s April 3rd loss to Chelsea, which dropped United to 2nd place, appeared to cost them their title ambitions.  Last week, however, United beat crosstown rivals Manchester City while Chelsea lost to 4th place Tottenham Hotspur.  The two table-topping clubs are separated by only 1 point heading into the last three matches.  Their last few games are pretty comparable: Chelsea will play two immanently winnable home games, Stoke City (11th) and Wigan Athletic (15th), and  one difficult away match, Liverpool (6th).  Manchester will take on Tottenham and Sunderland (13th) at home and Stoke City away.  A loss for either team essentially grants the title to the other.  In the event of a tie (same number of points at the end of the season), goal differential is used and Chelsea currently top United in that category.  Interestingly, head-to-head is not the first tie-breaker, an unlucky break for Chelsea who won both match-ups this season.

Third-place Arsenal are theoretically within striking distance but could not grab the title without multiple losses by both Chelsea and United.


On the other end of the quality spectrum are Hull City, Burnley, and Portsmouth.  Portsmouth are guaranteed to finish last.  After going into administration (essentially bankruptcy), they were docked 9 points by the league.  Burnley, 27 points, and Hull City, 28, both can avoid relegation.  They will need help, however, from 17th place West Ham United (31 points).  Hull finish with 2 home games, Liverpool (7th) and Sunderland, and 1 away, Wigan.  Burnley have a more difficult finish, as both their home matches, Liverpool and Tottenham, are all but unwinnable, and their last away game, 9th place Birmingham, will not be easy either.  West Ham host 2 matches (Manchester City and Wigan) and journey to face Fulham (10th) for the other.  The ‘Hammers’ could be helped by Fulham’s schedule – the tenth place side is still in the Europa League title hunt and may look to rest starters during Premier League matches.


Since the Premier League is England’s 1st division, the top finishers are not promoted.  Instead, they are granted places in European club cups (see below).

Promotion to the Premier League is granted to teams in England’s 2nd division – the Championship.  The top two finishers, who in 09-10 will be Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion, earn automatic promotion.  The third through sixth place teams have a playoff to determine the third club that will be promoted.  With two games to go those spots are filled by Nottingham Forest, Cardiff City, Leicester City, and Swansea City.

European Cups

The race for European competitions is just as contested as the relegation and promotion battles.  The top four positions gift entry to the lucrative Champions League, the 5th and 6th place positions are worth involvement in the Europa League, and the winner of the FA Cup (England’s most prestigious club cup) also lands a Europa League spot.

Chelsea and Manchester United are already guaranteed Champions League places, and Arsenal, currently 7 points up on Tottenham and 9 points ahead of Man. City, could only lose theirs through an epic collapse.

Fourth place is where the real drama is.

Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Aston Villa, and Liverpool (4th – 7th) could all grab that position.  City’s upcoming matches against Tottenham and Villa could very well settle the issue, as the three teams are only separated by three points.  Manchester, however, have a game in-hand: they have only played 34 games, while the others have all played 35.

Liverpool’s recent form (last 3 games – 1 win and 2 ties) may not only have cost them a Champion’s League spot, but a place in the Europa League as well.  Aston Villa’s most recent win bumped Liverpool down to 7th and means they currently do not qualify for either competition.  In addition, 8th place Everton, Liverpool’s hated rivals who are only five points back, could sneak into seventh if Liverpool continue their poor form.

But there is hope for the Liverpudlians in the form of Chelsea.  As noted earlier, the winner of the FA Cup is also granted entrance to the Europa League, and Chelsea is one of the finalists.  But if Chelsea wins, they would not participate in the Europa League, as they already have a Champions League spot lined-up.  Instead, the 7th place finisher, presumably Liverpool, would attend.

Unbelievably, Portsmouth – who are guaranteed to be relegated – are Chelsea’s opponents in the final.  Winning a Europa League place would take some of the sting off relegation, but Chelsea will be heavy favorites.

What’s it all mean?

It’s all about the money.  Teams that advance to the knockout round of the Champions League get an extra €38.45 million in revenue.  This money, which is in addition to compensation for each Champions League win, enables teams to buy better players, giving them a higher chance of a top finish the next year, granting more money from the Champions League, etc, etc.

Revenue generated by promotion to the Premier League and involvement in the Europa League ensures a similar cycle, though on a smaller monetary scale.

On the other hand, teams that are relegated often have to sell players to make up for reduced income, which leads to a poorer product on the field and a less likely chance of being promoted back to their original league.

Premier League Relegation/Promotion Influence on Gringos

In the Premier League, two Americans’ clubs are desperately trying to avoid relegation.  Jonathan Spector’s West Ham and Jozy Altidore’s Hull City could both go down.  Altidore, on-loan from Spanish club Villareal, would likely not stay with Hull, as they would be hard pressed to afford all of their current players’ salaries.  He could return to Villareal or find himself loaned elsewhere.

Spector would likely follow West Ham to the lower division.  His versatility (he can play left back, right back, and center back) makes him quite a value.

None of the other Americans in the Premiership appear to be relegation-threatened.  Marcus Hahnemann and Wolverhampton Wanderers are closest, six points above Hull City.  Bolton Wanderers (Stuart Holden) and Fulham (Clint Dempsey) are safely clear.

The rest of the American contingent (Tim Howard at Everton and Brad Guzan and Brad Friedel at Aston Villa) are all fighting for European competition.  If Everton could grab a Europa League spot, the proceeds might go towards the return of Landon Donovan, who had a short-term loan with the club earlier in the season.

And while none of the Americans playing in the Championship – Jay DeMerit, Frank Simek, and Kenny Cooper – are on a side fighting for promotion, all of their teams (Watford, Sheffield Wednesday, and Plymouth Argyle) are close to relegation.  Plymouth, currently 2nd to last, are likely to be relegated, but Sheffield and Watford could both survive.  The former is one point away from safety and the latter sit two precious points above relegation.

As this will be a regular feature for the rest of the season, come back next Thursday to see how American relegation fears and European competition hopes are progressing in England and the rest of Europe.

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