Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Leicester City

Though I’m not a Leicester City supporter, the Foxes’ win in the 2015-16 Premiership might be my single favourite sporting result of all time.  Everyone loves an underdog, and there’s a good case to be made that LCFC’s victory is the most unlikely thing to ever happen in sports history.

Upsets happen all the time, of course, in games or series.  You even get the odd ‘lucky season’ where a team defies most statistical measurements on their way to a championship.  The Denver Broncos just won a Super Bowl a few months ago despite an offense that could charitably be described as ‘poor’ and they had an insanely lucky record in close games.

Comparing Leicester’s win to any American pro sport, however, is a poor contrast due to the existence of playoffs and unbalanced schedules.  Within all four US pro leagues and even in Major League Soccer, there are simply too many teams and (perhaps more accurately) too much adherence to the current schedule structure to distribute games in as fair a manner as possible.  The NBA, for instance, could simply have everyone play everyone else in one home and one away game, though the owners and players wouldn’t dream of the revenue lost from cutting the schedule from 82 games down to 58.  So the postseason is the big leveller, and playoffs have become such a part of North American sports culture that we often overlook just what a tiny sample size they really are.  A team that is derided for “not performing in the clutch” may have lost just one game, or four games out of seven.

With the EPL, however, you have 20 teams playing each other once at home and once again for a 38-game schedule.  This is as fair as you could possibly make it, and even within this structure, you’ll obviously still have some variance — playing a team in September is different than playing them in February after they’ve loaded up on talent in the transfer window, for instance.  The point is, with no postseason, there’s no margin for luck in the Premiership.  You can’t squeak into the playoffs and then go on a Cinderella run (that’s what the FA Cup is for). 

To win the Premier League, you have to be the best over nine-plus months of football.  You’re also competing against some of the most well-funded sporting organizations in the world who can literally outspend lower-level teams by tens of millions of pounds.  Baseball may not have a firm salary cap, yet the vagaries of the sport allow for upsets to happen even over a month of play.  Over nine-plus months of soccer, however, the cream always rises to the top, and in this era of billionaires spending fortunes on transfer fees and player salaries, there was seemingly no path to EPL greatness unless your club happened to be purchased by a spendthrift tycoon.  Chelsea and Manchester City rose to EPL titles over the last decade with this method, and given all the riches involved, you could count on one hand the number of teams who had a legit chance to contend for the Premiership.  Leicester City and the rest of the minnows were 5000-to-1 longshots, hoping to just avoid relegation or have a respectable FA Cup run as their evidence of a great season.

Instead, Leicester won the entire thing.  There was no real luck involved — by all the metrics, they simply had a very good squad that, on paper, “deserved” to be at or near the top from a statistical standpoint.  The only luck involved was that the big EPL powers (Man City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal) all had down years by their standards, or in Chelsea’s case, a disastrous year.  None of these clubs may even finish second, as Tottenham currently holds a three-point lead for second place heading into the season’s final two matches.  It was a perfect storm for a new club to rise up, and yet the fact that it was little Leicester City rather than one of the more established second-tier clubs (Tottenham, West Ham, etc.) is stunning.

There will be much written about what this means for English soccer and whether or not the era of the ‘super-team’ is over.  Yet what I feel happiest about is less the hope that it gives fans of other long-suffering clubs (since this could indeed be a one-off) and more the pure joy that Leicester City fans must be feeling right now.  If you’re a fan of a lower-tier EPL club, this is literally beyond your wildest dreams.  You’re never thinking “oh, maybe next year with a bit of luck…”  You’re forced to just aim low for the odd upset win over a powerhouse or maybe, if everything breaks absolutely right, finishing top six or seven for a Europe League spot.  For some poor sod in Leicester who’d been faithfully supporting his Foxes for decades, this season is like nine months’ of Christmases. 

So ten years ago, when I more or less randomly picked Fulham to be my favourite Premiership team, I really dropped the ball.  Imagine if I’d picked a favourite club from ‘outside’ the EPL (since Leicester were third division at that point) and then watched in shock as they not only earned promotion, but won it all?  Instead I’m stuck with a lousy second-tier team.  Dammit, Fulham!

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