Who will get promoted to the Premier League?
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Who will get promoted to the Premier League? Your Championship primer

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The Football League Championship returns on Saturday, as Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion look to keep hold of their automatic promotion places.

It won’t be easy.

[ MORE: Spurs-Man Utd recap | JPW’s 3 Things ]

Here is your guide to the final nine matchdays of the season for England’s second tier.

The top two

Marcelo Bielsa’s Peacocks and Slaven Bilic’s Baggies have 7- and 6-point cushions on third place with nine matches to go, a congested fixture list ready to tax the benches of all of the sides.

The playoff race

Third through sixth in the Championship will contest the playoffs for the third promotion spot to the Premier League.

Third-place Fulham will learn a lot about whether it’s in the race for automatic promotion or just a playoff probability within one week’s time. The Cottagers host fourth-place Brentford at 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday and go to Leeds one week later.

Fulham has 64 points, six back of second place and nine clear of seventh place. It would be very surprising if the Londoners didn’t keep hold of a playoff spot.

Brentford (60) and Nottingham Forest (60) have five-point advantages on seventh, nice but not too comfortable, while Preston North End’s one-point-above-sixth-place footing is uneven.

Six teams are within two wins of Preston’s 56 points. Seventh-place Bristol City has 55, Millwall and Cardiff City have 54, Blackburn and Swansea City have 53, Derby County has 51, and QPR’s on 50.

Who will get promoted to the Premier League?
Rooney’s Rams are six points behind the playoff places (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Americans Abroad

Speaking of QPR, USMNT veteran Geoff Cameron is a fixture for Mark Warburton’s London side. The 34-year-old has played 28 times this season.

Derby County has seen a fine season out of Duane Holmes, who has three goals and three assists. Not American, but ex-DC United man Wayne Rooney is Holmes’ teammate.

No American has played more Championship minutes than Fulham’s Tim Ream (3142). Next up are Wigan’s Antonee Robinson (2587) and Hull City’s Eric Lichaj (2546).

Matt Miazga is handling center back duties for Reading, while Cameron Carter-Vickers’ latest loan stint at Luton Town has gone well individually.

Luca De La Torre (Fulham) has seen neglible minutes this season.

English-born MLS and NCAA star Jack Harrison is with Leeds.

Manchester United academy product Jack Harrison of Leeds United went to school at Wake Forest before playing for NYCFC in Major League Soccer (Photo by George Wood/Getty Images).

The relegation scrap

Three clubs will go down to League One next season. Two of the three teams in the bottom three will need a massive change in fortunes to avoid that fate.

Barnsley is seven points back of 21st and Luton Town sits six points back of safety.

Charlton Athletic is currently in 22nd with 39 points, but it can look to a single win as chance to move ahead of any of the five sides ahead of it (depending on how goal differential goes).

Hull City, Wigan Athletic, and Middlesbrough are just two points above the drop zone, while Stoke City and Huddersfield Town have three-point distances above the drop.

Charlton can pass Hull with a win at the KC Stadium on Saturday, though it’s only other chance to affect a fellow struggler is July 18 versus Wigan.

This week’s schedule

Fulham v. Brentford — 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday
Middlesbrough v. Swansea City — 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday
Millwall v. Derby County — 8 a.m. ET Saturday
West Brom v. Birmingham City — 10 a.m. ET Saturday
Huddersfield Town v. Wigan Athletic — 10 a.m. ET Saturday
Hull City v. Charlton Athletic — 10 a.m. ET Saturday
Sheffield Wednesday v. Nottingham Forest — 10 a.m. ET Saturday
Luton Town v. Preston North End –10 a.m. ET Saturday
QPR v. Barnsley — 10 a.m. ET Saturday
Reading v. Stoke City — 10 a.m. ET Saturday
Blackburn Rovers v. Bristol City — 10 a.m. ET Saturday
Cardiff City v. Leeds United — 7 a.m. ET Sunday

EFL letter recommends clubs prepare for return ‘at short notice’

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The English Football League has sent a letter to all clubs advising they return to training in mid-May and prepare for a return to play from the coronavirus shutdown at what the EFL described as “relatively short notice.”

The letter from EFL chairman Rick Parry, which was sent to all 72 clubs before it was obtained by The Independent and shared by the BBC, notes that while the EFL does not have the power to enforce training schedules for clubs, it interestingly advises that clubs may suffer public relations damage should they return to training earlier than the advised May 16 date. The letter then addresses a rumored start date in early June without confirming or denying the viability of that date.

“By advising a mid-May return to training,” the letter reads, “it has inevitably led to speculation that the season will recommence on June 6 – three weeks later. No date has been discussed and we continue to work with the government and health authorities to help identify the date where we can resume our season. Our planning needs to be agile enough to allow us to be as prepared as possible for a return at relatively short notice.”

The letter is intentionally vague, leaving room for multiple possibilities, but does admit that “these [scenarios] are expected to take further shape over the course of the next two weeks and clubs will receive an appropriate briefing once these plans are at an advanced stage.”

The letter also invites clubs to share their thoughts and possibilities as the EFL notes “collaboration is key to achieving success in these challenging times.” It notes that many clubs have already expressed their thoughts about playing behind closed doors, admitting that is a very likely possibility for when the games recommence.

The Premier League is likely to follow suit shortly after videoconferencing Friday with all 20 clubs to discuss plans for the next few months and how to potentially return to play.

While it was not discussed in the letter openly, The Telegraph reported Friday morning that the EFL is considering its return to play using a limited number of Championship grounds – more specifically 10 stadiums – while closed-door games remain at the forefront.

Championship Focus: West Brom, Leeds improve promotion chances with wins

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By no means is the race for promotion within the Championship sealed and delivered, but West Brom and Leeds United continue to add to their lead on the rest of the pack.

Despite playing the final 13 minutes down a player after Romaine Sawyers saw a straight red card, the Baggies went on to earn a formidable 3-0 win over Bristol City.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Sheffield United loanee Callum Robinson opened the scoring in the 32nd minute, while Hal Robsun-Kanu sealed his brace with 11 minutes left in regular time. With the victory, Wes Brom extends their league unbeaten streak to five matches, and their total point to 66.

At Elland Road, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United registered their first back-to-back wins since October, following a minimal-margin victory over Reading. Leeds holds a five-point cushion on third-place Fulham.

Meanwhile, with goals quick fire goals from Paul Gallagher and Alan Browne over a four-minute stretch against an aching Hull City, Preston moved into play-off contention.

Saturday’s results

Brentford 2-2 Blackburn
Bristol City 0-3 West Brom
Swansea City 3-1 Huddersfield
Wigan Athletic 1-0 Millwall
Barnsley 1-0 Middlesbrough
Birmingham 3-3 Sheffield Wednesday
Nottingham Forest 0-0 QPR
Preston 2-1 Hull City
Charlton 3-1 Luton Town
Stoke City 2-0 Cardiff City
Leeds United 1-0 Reading

USMNT defender Eric Lichaj tears ankle ligaments

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31-year-old U.S. international Eric Lichaj has torn ankle ligaments while playing for Hull City and is expected to miss a considerable amount of time, possibly the remainder of the season.

Lichaj, the Hull City captain, sustained the injury in the 70th minute of Hull City’s 1-1 road draw at Reading last weekend. He was absent for Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to Blackburn.

“Eric and Herbie [Kane] are going to be out for the foreseeable future – at least two or three months which means they’re probably going to miss the rest of the season,” said Hull City manager Grant McCann. “They’ve both torn ligaments in their ankles. It’s exactly the same injury, which is bizarre. It is two blows for us. I think both are going to get a second opinion from a specialist. But it is very unlikely we will see them again this season.”

Lichaj has missed just three Hull City matches this season, and the Tigers have lost all three by a combined 7-1. Otherwise, the right-back has been on the pitch for all 29 matches, seeing the field for all but 65 total minutes across those games. Hull sits 14th in the Championship table. The injuries are piling up for Hull City, who were missing a colossal 12 first-team players in the loss to Blackburn on Tuesday.

The timing is brutal for Lichaj, who had just worked his way back into the U.S. national team setup after a solid seven years on the periphery. Lichaj has 16 total caps for the U.S. national team, half of which came in 2010 and 2011 near his debut. After the 2011 Gold Cup, he made just three substitute appearances until returning to regular consideration in 2017, since when he’s made five appearances and has been an unused substitute 11 more times.

West Ham announces prolific Championship scorer Bowen

Jarrod Bowen
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Hull City had sold Jarrod Bowen to West Ham United.

The prolific Championship scorer comes with a reported $24 million fee which could rise to $33 million with add-ons.

Bowen, 23, has 52 goals in three Championship seasons with the Tigers. He did not score in seven Premier League matches during the 2016/17 season.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ] 

Primarily a winger, Bowen joins an Irons team that has in-form Robert Snodgrass on that spot but stars Andriy Yarmolenko and Felipe Anderson suffering from injuries.

West Ham’s 23 points have them in 17th place, but only by goal differential. Bottom Three sides Bournemouth and Watford also have 23 points.

The Irons season has been a monumental disappointment, and David Moyes‘ appointment has changed very little. He’ll be hoping the new blood helps his cause.

Watch our transfer deadline day show from 6-8 p.m. ET on Jan. 31, live on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com.