As the Premier League season winds down, one of the talking points is the relegation zone. Stapled to the bottom of the table since early February, Sunderland is all but guaranteed to go down. Middlesbrough looks likely to join the Black Cats, while Swansea City and Hull City are duking it out to avoid the final spot in the drop zone.
So who’s coming up?
We got our first answer this past Monday, when Brighton & Hove Albion mathematically clinched promotion from the EFL Championship, England’s second division, thanks to a 2-1 win over Wigan and a late equalizer from Derby County against Huddersfield Town.
Brighton & Hove Albion will play in the top flight for the first time in the Premier League era, and the South Coast club has only spent four seasons in England’s first division in its 115-year history.
There’s plenty of Premier League experience in the side, with striker Glenn Murray and his 23 goals, good for second overall in the EFL Championship, leading the top line of manager Chris Hughton’s 4-4-2 formation. Breakout winger Anthony Knockaert and veteran midfielder Steve Sidwell have also played key roles, as Brighton & Hove Albion went almost four months unbeaten earlier this season to comfortably gain promotion.
A couple of United States men’s national team players will feature prominently in the race for the other two Premier League spots. DeAndre Yedlin recently returned from a thigh strain to reclaim his place as Newcastle United’s first-choice right back, and he played 78 minutes in a loss to Ipswich Town on Monday.
Newcastle is winless in its last three matches, but the Magpies are still second in the table with 85 points, six above third-place Reading with three matches to play. Yedlin has made strides this season with regular appearances under the guidance of manager Rafa Benitez, and Newcastle can clinch promotion with a win over Preston North End on Monday and either a loss or draw from Reading on Saturday.
USMNT midfielder Danny Williams will help Reading keep the pressure on. Williams has made 35 starts in the league this season, primarily playing as a deep-lying mid right in front of the back four, and he’s also scored four goals.
The top two teams in the Championship table are guaranteed Premier League promotion, while the third through sixth places compete in a playoff for the final spot, colloquially referred to as “the richest prize in football.” So while Reading is currently third, the Royals would be drawn into a tournament with fourth-place Huddersfield, fifth-place Sheffield Wednesday and sixth-place Fulham, if current standings hold.
Leeds United could throw a wrench into that. Once one of England’s mighty clubs — it’s won the top flight three times and was the last team to win it before the advent of the Premier League in 1992 — Leeds suffered a financial implosion early this century and spiraled all the way down to the third division before returning to the Championship, where it’s been a mid-table side for most of the last six seasons.
The prospect of Leeds returning to the Premier League is enticing (the club is bitter rivals with basically every major team in the country), and this year it’s a realistic possibility. Leeds is currently seventh but level on points with Fulham, and the remaining run-in is considerably less difficult than its London counterpart, which is away to both Huddersfield and Sheffield Wednesday among its last three matches.
Another USMNT player will try to help Fulham navigate the tricky schedule. Tim Ream has made 25 starts for the Cottagers primarily as a center back, and the club is top-10 in the Championship in goals conceded. Right now, the goal differential of plus-24 (Leeds’ is plus-15) is why Fulham finds itself with a seat at the playoff table.
But that could change quickly. A lot could change as we find out which teams and USMNT players will join Brighton & Hove Albion in the Premier League next season.