Kickoff at Leicester City, who are in the Europa League Group Stage for 2020-21.

What is the League Cup, also known as the EFL Cup or Carabao Cup?

There are a lot of things about English soccer that are unfamiliar for the American fan, starting with the fact that the Premier League is only one of several competitions going on during the season.

A League Cup game might be your best bet for getting into places like Liverpool’s Anfield Stadium.

I have a guide to all the leagues and cups of English soccer, but here I wanted to concentrate on what most English folks call the League Cup. Officially, it is now the EFL Cup (for English Football League), and for sponsorship reasons it’s called the Carabao Cup — Carabao being a Thai energy drink.

Confused already? Let’s sort through it.

(You can skip ahead to the bottom line here.)

One Sport, Multiple Leagues and Cups

In England, there is a pyramid of leagues with hundreds of clubs. The top four leagues contain 92 fully professional outfits; these four are the Premier League plus the three levels of the English Football League: The Championship, League One, and League Two. Below all of this lies a level of chaos and obscurity that I have barely begun to understand, despite attending more than 100 soccer games around the country.

Obviously, each club competes in its league, as well as for promotion to the upper league, and to avoid relegation to the lower (here is how all that works). Some of the top clubs also compete in European competitions, but we’ll leave that alone for a second. Ditto for the World Cup and other international competitions; we’re just talking about English clubs here.

In addition to the league campaign, clubs also compete in cup tournaments. You know how American teams compete in bowl games? Well, the English compete in cup tournaments, known just as cups, and there are two of them that matter here: The FA Cup and the League Cup.

The FA Cup involves pretty much everybody in the country — the 2020-21 version, the 140th go-round, involves 737 clubs! — but the League Cup is only for the 92 professional clubs in the English Football League and the Premier League.

How Does the League Cup Work?

I caught a League Cup game at the old Boleyn Ground, former home of West Ham United.

So, the bottom line: the League Cup is a tournament, that goes on during the season, for the 92 fully professional English soccer clubs. It usually starts in August and ends around the first of March, but in this year’s edition it is moving rapidly through the first several rounds in September. (Here is the full 2020-21 EFL Cup Schedule.)

There is no bracket, and no seedings. Basically, everybody goes into a pot, and names get pulled out at random: home team first, away team second. There are, of course, some exceptions:

  • Premier League clubs not playing in Europe enter in the second round.
  • The two highest-ranked Championship clubs from last year — i.e., those that finished 18th and 19th in the Premier League — also enter in the second round.
  • The Premier League clubs playing in Europe — that’s seven of them for the 2020-21 season — enter in the third round
  • For the first round, clubs are divided between north and south, to cut back on travel expenses for the clubs and their supporters (you know, back in the days when supporters attended games).

This all starts with the first round draw in June; those games are played in early August, right after the league season starts. Games are typically played on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so they don’t conflict with league games on the weekends. Right after the first round, all the winners go into the pot, with the teams entering for that round, and the draw is done again — this time without the geographical restrictions.

It goes on like this until the semifinals, which are usually (but not this season) played as two-legged ties at each stadium. The final of this year’s League Cup is at Wembley Stadium on February 28, 2021.

Here is the Schedule for This Season’s League Cup

Why Should I Care?

Most people kind of don’t, to be honest.

The East Stand at Old Trafford, home of Manchester United. Upper Deck is all Sunderland fans.

The big clubs consider the whole thing something of a distraction, and they usually play all their reserves in the League Cup. Some smaller clubs consider it a way to make some money (share of the gate at a big club, or another home game), and perhaps even get their fans a day out at Wembley, so they take it more seriously. And, like the college basketball NIT in the States, everybody starts taking it seriously somewhere around the quarterfinals, when it occurs to them they might win the thing.

As a neutral, however, there are several reasons to enjoy the League Cup (and the FA Cup, for that matter):

  1. Tickets are easier and cheaper than for league games, so this may be your best chance to get into places like Arsenal, Chelsea, etc. I’ve only made it into Liverpool twice, for example, both for cup games.
  2. Cup rules dictate that the home team give up to three times as many tickets to away supporters as they would for a league game, so the atmosphere can be a lot of fun. I saw 9,000 Sunderland fans in a semifinal at Manchester United, for example.
  3. Sometimes you get derby matches between rivals who are in different leagues and therefore don’t play very often. This, combined with the above, can be a lot of fun. In the 2017-18 League Cup second round, Blackburn Rovers got matched with Burnley; trust me, they don’t like each other.
  4. The mid-week games mean that planning a trip for the right time can lead to seeing a lot of games. I typically pick a stretch of two weekends with midweek games, so I can be in the country for around 10 nights and potentially see seven games. But I’m insane.

What Other Cups Are There?

Magnificent Wembley Stadium hosts most of the cup finals.

Well, there is the FA Cup, which is much bigger — but has still been downgraded a bit by the big clubs not taking it too seriously. It’s open to the top 10 levels of the pyramid.

Otherwise, you have:

  • The EFL Trophy, for League One and League Two. It’s now known as the Checkatrade Trophy for a kind of English Angie’s List. It has really been downgraded in most people’s eyes since Premier League and Championship clubs were allowed to put their under-21 sides in it.
  • The FA Trophy, for levels 5 through 8, some 275 clubs.
  • The FA Vase, for levels 9 and 10 — about 500 or so clubs.
  • And a whole bunch of others, including regional competitions. The most interesting of the rest is probably the Sunday League Cup, for the low-level amateur clubs (including many, many pub teams) that play on Sundays all over the country. For a taste of this, next time you’re in London on a Sunday, go to Hackney Marshes.

Learn more about English soccer.

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