Several months before doomsday, before Leeds United was dumped out of the Premier League, before Everton's win on the EPL's final day sent this historic English club tumbling to relegation, Leeds was celebrated stateside for its Americanness.
It had an American head coach, and by the end of January three U.S. men’s national team midfielders. Their brightest moments felt like momentous ones for the sport in the United States. They represented the growth of men’s soccer and the headway Americans have made in the global game. Their mere presence as protagonists in the world’s preeminent league felt like progress.
But then their season started to spiral. Jesse Marsch, the Wisconsinite coach, got sacked with his team straddling the border of the relegation zone. Three coaches and countless groans later, Leeds suffered the most feared of EPL fates. It needed a win and help Sunday to avoid relegation; it got neither. Fans cried after a 4-1 loss to Tottenham. Down in Liverpool, Everton beat Bournemouth to stay up — meaning Leicester, the 2015-16 champions, also went down.
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) May 28, 2023
And so arose the question of the Americans’ culpability in Leeds' downfall: If they were celebrated, couldn't they also be blamed?
But neither Marsch nor Tyler Adams, nor Brenden Aaronson nor Weston McKennie, is anywhere near the top of the list of responsible individuals. On the contrary, perhaps this cursed season could have been salvaged if Leeds had stood by Marsch — or, more importantly, if Adams had stayed healthy.
Leeds was better with Jesse Marsch
Marsch was canned in February after 20 games and just four wins, with Leeds in 17th and angst accumulating, understandably. But eye tests and analytics alike suggested they’d been victimized by soccer’s randomness. Most Expected Goals (xG) models — which measure chance creation and its defensive equivalent — suggested that Leeds was playing like a mid-table team, not a bottom-feeder. Only rotten luck and poor finishing — neither of which a manager can control — were restricting them.
Leeds looked somewhere between stale and dreadful in Marsch’s final four EPL games, which prompted the sacking; but even that perception was heavily influenced by uncontrollables. Leeds created more xG than its opponent in each of those four games, per FBref. In between, it won twice in the FA Cup. This was not a sinking ship — until the club’s owners and executives panicked and turned it into one.
Under Marsch, Leeds’ non-penalty expected goal differential was -5.15, or -0.26 per game, good for 11th in the Premier League, per Understat. Under his three successors, Michael Skubala, Javi Gracia and Sam Allardyce, the per-game xGD slumped all the way to -0.93, the worst mark in the league.
The other inflection point arrived in March. In the team’s first six games post-Marsch, including two against Manchester United, they were bad but competitive, with an xGD per game of -0.6. Then Tyler Adams hurt his hamstring in training, and everything changed.
Tyler Adams’ injury changed everything
Adams, the USMNT midfielder signed from RB Leipzig last summer, took the Premier League by storm in the fall. He buzzed around Elland Road and other grounds, shielding the Leeds defense and tilting the field forward. He was far from perfect, especially on the ball, but without it, he was superb.
And with Adams on the field, Leeds was decent. In his 24 starts, they took 23 points, and the underlying numbers were even better. Their xGD was -4.7, or -0.19 per game. That was an 11th-place pace.
Without Adams, in 13 games prior to Sunday’s, their xGD was -16.3, or -1.25 per game, by far the worst in the league. (By comparison, through 37 weeks, Nottingham Forest's EPL-worst mark was -0.7.)
Adams underwent surgery on the hamstring and never returned. In his absence, Leeds slumped into the relegation zone and never recovered.
The real reasons for Leeds' downfall
His U.S. teammates were less impressive. McKennie was inconsistent after joining in January. Aaronson started strong then regressed, and seemingly suffered amid the emotions of a relegation battle, under the weight of his price tag.
But therein lies the real blame. Leeds spent upward of $150 million to bolster its squad this season, but failed to fill its biggest holes — namely the one created by the summer sale of Raphinha to Barcelona.
Its leaders tried to play "Moneyball," identifying players who were more valuable in Marsch's Red Bull system than in any other. But they overpaid for those players, like Aaronson, who was phased out of the starting 11 as Leeds moved away from Red Bull ball under Gracia and Allardyce.
Meanwhile, they overlooked traits like final-third prowess and defensive solidity. Their big-money January signing, 20-year-old striker Georginio Rutter, started just once and never scored. As Leeds chased games in April and May, needing goals to pull itself out of the drop zone, Rutter couldn't even get off the bench.
This was a poorly built team turned incoherent by the coaching changes. It is now a Championship team, with more changes coming.
What's next for Adams, McKennie and Aaronson?
Relegation will come with cascading consequences for Leeds, which had grand plans for stadium expansions and European competitions — until Sunday. Clauses in contracts will be triggered, and the roster will have to be reshaped, and the Americans will be impacted.
McKennie will almost certainly be elsewhere next season. His January move from Juventus was an initial loan, with certain clauses that would either allow or obligate Leeds to make the deal permanent this summer. But relegation nullifies all of that.
McKennie will head back to Juventus, where he's under contract until the summer of 2025. Juventus, of course, is in financial shambles and could look to move McKennie again. Or he could stay in Turin and fight for playing time.
Adams and Aaronson, on the other hand, both signed contracts at Leeds through 2027. It's unclear whether relegation will affect those. (The Athletic reported that all Leeds players have clauses that will reduce their salaries, and cut the club's total wage bill by 50-60%.)
What's clear, though, is that Adams will have suitors. His profile rose over the first half of the Premier League season, and rose even further at the 2022 World Cup. EPL clubs will want him. Manchester United has been linked with him. Leeds may try to keep him, but he should have options across Europe.
Aaronson, though, will most likely stay at Leeds in the Championship, unless he pushes for a move out of England, or unless the club receives an offer it can't refuse.
Looming over all those potential negotiations is a potential takeover. Andrea Radrizzani could still sell his majority share in the club to the owners of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers — who are currently minority shareholders. Or, relegation could impede the sale.
So there is uncertainty, for almost all involved. The only certainty is that next season will look different — and less glamorous, and less American.