This really isn’t a soccer post, just an article about underdogs.
I’ve seen this argument floating around out there – and Anthony mentioned it yesterday – is Vegas in the Stanley Cup finals more impressive than Leicester City winning the Premier League a few years back? One is an expansion team just trucking through the playoffs and the other is a small club that knocked off traditional powerhouses on the way to the top.
For what it’s worth, Leicester was 5000-1 to win the Prem back in 2016. The Golden Knights were 500-1 to win the Cup at the start of the season. The latter is ridiculous but the former is outrageous. Vegas was dead last in the preseason books while Pittsburgh was 6-1 to win it all. Chelsea started at 7/4 odds and Manchester City was 2/1 at the beginning of the 2015-2016 EPL season, so you see the incredible disparity in expectations that both Leicester and Vegas faced in their various leagues.
Those 5000-1 odds placed Leicester in the bottom five during preseason predictions. They were coming off a 14th place finish the year before and had just escaped relegation by miraculously winning 7 of their last 9 games. In a way, Leicester’s 2015-16 success probably should be viewed as an extension of a head-scratching prior campaign. Vegas wasn’t riding that same rollercoaster because, well, they didn’t exist.
The main difference between the two teams, and why I think Leicester’s triumph is slightly more impressive, is that there’s no salary cap in the Prem. You can pay out whatever wages you’d like, which is why the same teams (Chelsea, City, etc) continually finish in the top five while small clubs like Bournemouth and Huddersfield are just happy to be there. To that point, Leicester only paid out 50 million pounds in player wages, ranking 15th in the league.
The “big five” all paid their players more than triple that amount:
You see the massive gulf there. The best American sports comparison to what Leicester did in this department would be Billy Beane’s Oakland A’s sweeping the Yankees and Red Sox en route to a World Series title. There were “Moneyball” elements to Leicester’s approach, just by the nature of how the league is constructed.
Vegas, on the other hand, absolutely nailed their expansion draft and fleeced multiple clubs with trades, but they were still forced to play with the same salary cap as everyone else. They just did it better and smarter and had the benefit of starting from a blank slate, no Andrew McDonald or Dale Weise contracts. I wrote about this last week and mentioned how George McPhee killed Florida with the Reilly Smith trade and killed Columbus with the William Karlsson trade. If you want to say that VGK made some incredibly shrewd moves and lump their front office decisions in with their on-ice performance when doing an overall evaluation, I’d say that’s absolutely warranted. If this was the NBA, McPhee would have been lavished with Sam Hinkie-esque praise. I don’t think he gets nearly enough credit.
Leicester had similarly successful player moves, pulling Jamie Vardy out of the third division and spotting N’Golo Kante at Caen. Riyad Mahrez was just another dude from an average French club. Both teams are really similar in the way they picked up guys who flew under the radar and weren’t valued elsewhere, like Erik Haula and Jonathan Marchessault. In both cases, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Leicester was an organized counterattacking team and Vegas is a chip-on-shoulder group of grinders with a Stanley Cup-winning goaltender. Both coaches, Claudio Ranieri and Gerard Gallant, probably had something to prove after returning to their respective leagues.
The other main thing for me is that the Prem doesn’t have playoffs. You just play the 19 other teams home and away and whoever finishes with the most points wins the league. To that end, you can’t really slide into the playoffs as a 4th or 5th seed and then go on a run. You have to be consistently excellent all season long and can’t afford too many slip-ups. Leicester finished with 23 wins, 12 draws, and only lost 3 times that year, twice to Arsenal and once at Liverpool. Otherwise, they went 3 wins and 5 draws against the combination of Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Manchester United.
Vegas won the Pacific with 109 points but didn’t have the league’s best regular season record. Nashville (117) and Winnipeg (114) finished with better totals in the west, while Tampa and Boston had 113 and 112 points in the east. So Vegas had the 5th best point total if you combine both conferences into a single table. They did, however, go 4-2 against the Predators and Jets in the regular season and 4-0 against the Lightning and Capitals, so they definitely didn’t just pad their win total by beating up on bottom dwellers. They were consistently excellent against the league’s best teams.
Plus, they smashed the Jets when it counted, 4-1 in the Western Conference finals. They swept the Kings and took out the Sharks in six, so they’ve been incredibly impressive in the playoffs. I think you just have to decide for yourself how much weight you put in playoff performance vs. regular season consistency, which is the difference between North American sports and foreign soccer leagues. Is it more difficult to play your best basketball or hockey in the playoffs vs. showing year-long consistency in the Premier League? I don’t know. I think both formats provide little room for error, but you can’t finish 7th in the EPL and Cinderella your way to the finals like the Flyers did back in 2010.
One thing I’ll say about Leicester is that they didn’t have many distractions that season. They weren’t playing in the Champions League or Europa League like Chelsea and Tottenham, so they had fewer games to play. They were able to focus on the domestic league and didn’t really encounter the same fatigue or squad rotation issues that the big clubs had to deal with. They exited the FA Cup in the third round, so that also narrowed the focus. You can certainly bring up all of these points when arguing against Leicester and in favor of Vegas.
Whatever your opinion, both of these stories are fantastic, just wonderful teams who shattered the odds and proved a lot of people wrong. There’s no wrong answer when trying to determine who has been more impressive, but based on the Premier League wage disparity and the top-heavy nature of foreign soccer leagues, I just feel like Leicester had the steeper hill to climb back in 2016.