One of the biggest differences between English soccer and every American sport is that we Yanks rely on a postseason playoff to determine champions, whereas in England they just go by the best record during the season.
More importantly, we can drink beer in the stands — hell, we can buy beer in the stands — but that’s for a different post.
Most Americans don’t realize there are also playoffs in English soccer. It’s just that they aren’t in the Premier League, which is where about 99% of American fans focus their attention.
The playoffs are in the lower leagues, and they are going on as I write this.
First, a quick reminder: The leagues and cups of English football are arranged in a pyramid, connected by promotion and relegation. So, at the end of the season in all the leagues, there is a champion determined by record over the course of the whole season — but also, the bottom three clubs have to drop down a league for the whole next season. That’s relegation. Promotion is simply the top three coming up from the league below.
Below the Premier League, in the three levels collectively called the English Football League, the top two are automatically promoted, but no. 3-6 go into a playoff. No. 3 plays #6 in a two-legged playoff, with the first game at #6 and the second at #3. Aggregate goals win, and away goals are the first tiebreaker. So if it’s 1-1 the first game at #6 and 2-2 the second game at #3, team #6 wins because they got more away goals.
Meanwhile, #4 plays #5, same deal. The winners play a final at Wembley stadium, which is where pretty much all championship games are played in England — thus creating the mystique of “getting to Wembley.”
If you want a detailed history of the playoffs in England,
The 2016-17 Football League Playoffs
This year’s playoffs are already underway, after the Football League Championship (the top league below the Premier League), had their last day on May 7.
Two teams from the Championship have already been promoted to the Premier League for 2017-18: Champions Newcastle United and runners-up Brighton and Hove Albion. Finishing third through sixth were Reading, Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield Town, and Fulham. So, starting on May 13, it’s two legs each of Reading-Fulham and Wednesday-Huddersfield, with the winners at Wembley on May 29.
Both of these matchups, by the way, turned out great for fans and atmosphere. Huddersfield and Sheffield are only an hour apart, and Reading fans have only a 38-mile trip to Fulham. Lots of away fans are among the things I think you’ll love about watching English soccer.
The Championship final on May 29 is often considered “the richest game in football.” The loser has to go back to the Championship for the next season, but the winner? They go to the Premier League and get a share of all those television bazillions, not to mention selling out pretty much every home game next year. (Imagine selling tickets for a home game against, say, Barnsley or against Liverpool.)
The estimated worth of the 2016 final, won by Hull against Sheffield Wednesday: £170 million, or about $220 million.
Whenever I think of this game, I think of the 2014 final, when Queens Park Rangers beat Derby County on a late winner by Bobby Zamora. Here is the clip of that one. Just listen to the crowd when it goes in!
Elsewhere this year, in League Two it’s Exeter City vs. Carlisle United and Luton Town against Blackpool, with the final on May 28. (Portsmouth and Plymouth are already up.) In League One, the semifinals have already happened; Millwall, who beat Scunthorpe, will face Bradford City, who beat Fleetwood Town, in the final on Saturday, May 20. (Sheffield United and Bolton are already up.)
Millwall v Scunthorpe was 0-0 in the opener at Millwall, and the 3-2 leg at Scunthorpe was a cracker, as the Brits say. The intensity here speaks for itself. (Visiting Millwall are in stripes.)
As near as I can tell, the only one of these games on regular US television is the Championship Final on May 29; that’s on beIN Sports, which is included in many cable packages. The rest of them are on beIN’s online streaming service, beIN Sports Connect, as well as another online service. fuboTV.
Another thing to keep in mind, should you be thinking about the best time to go to England to watch soccer: May, because of the playoffs, is a truly awesome thing.