Monday, March 28, 2011

Time to move on from the Saturday afternoon Blackout

I realise that I’m not the first person to go down this road. The UK TV broadcasting embargo has been a matter of consternation since John Logie Baird chucked the corpse of the real inventor of television into a bottomless pit. Recently, many people in the football blogosphere have argued both for and against the embargo with equal eloquence. But things have changed over the last few months raising the whole issue of the embargo and it may well be that a decision needs to be made about whether or not it should continue.

In summary, for those of you emerging from a bottomless pit with a headache, none of the Saturday 3pm fixtures can be broadcast live on UK TV. This is to protect lower-league and non-league clubs from losing revenue potential should spectators decide to stay home and watch top-flight football rather than popping along to see their local club. The English and Scottish FA Cup Finals do not count because it, traditionally at least, takes place after the final round of league fixtures. Controversially, the recent match between England and Wales appears to be exempt, presumably on the basis that upper levels of the professional leagues in England and Scotland are not playing due to the international break..

This doesn't stop rights holders from selling the Saturday afternoon games to overseas broadcasters. In fact for many years that is precisely what they’ve done. Up until recently, this arrangement seemed relatively uncontroversial but of late the Blackout is becoming increasingly difficult to regulate. Through the miracle of broadband internet it is becoming a rule that is, to quote the Bard, “more honoured in the breech than the observance.”

To illustrate, let us use a case study: “T” is a handsome and virile football fan and season-ticket holder for his local club. When his team are away he likes to go to non-league games or stay home and watch coverage of the English matches via Soccer Saturday on Sky Sports with broadcasting legend Jeff Stelling and his motley bunch of ex-professional footballers watching the games and describing the action. However, recently he has started making friends on Twitter with a number of North American soccer fans. Those fans spend their Saturday afternoons watching Premier League football on their TV screens in their houses. “T” thinks to himself “Hang on, this is a bit rum. How can they watch football taking place thousands of miles away when I can’t watch the same game that’s taking place in the same country as me?”

Anyway, it turns out that some of his friends can’t afford the subscription fees for the channels that carry these games so they watch them illegally on the internet. And being the friendly type who love to share things, they hook “T” up with a feed and so he can watch the game as well, albeit on a feed of hideous quality with shitty banner ads plastered all over their browser and goodness knows how many bits of Malware settling in nicely to his computer’s registry (yes, yes Mac Users, I know).

But “T” can’t bare watching the game on a tiny window on his laptop, he decides to go down to his local boozer where the game is on live thanks to an independent satellite system and decoder card acquired from Greece or Italy or any broadcaster within the European Union. This allows the pub to screen overseas TV channels broadcasting football matches. The commentary may not be in English (although that isn’t always the case) but that doesn’t matter because “T” doesn’t hold commentators in that much regard being something of a know-it-all.

This was allowed to happen thanks to the hard work of a very nice lady from Portsmouth called Karen Murphy who stood up to the Premier League who fined her for showing foreign broadcasts of English matches.It looks very likely that the EU courts are going to find in her favour and from now on Nova Sport or Sky Italia or whoever can be sold legally within the UK.

Now it’s worth pointing out that my case study is purely anecdotal. However, I’m not about the let the lack of empirical evidence interfere with my opinion and am going to suggest that the above scenario is not an unusual one among a growing number of people who fall within the Premier League target demograph. Sooner or later, the reality will have to dawn on the powers that be that the black out is becoming obsolete thanks to improved communications and legislation. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that overseas broadcasters will seek to sell subscription packages directly to the consumer. If Sky and ESPN (the other live Premier League rights holders in the UK) are not careful, their heavily invested in business model will be affected as some of their existing customer base, anxious to cut back on their monthly expenditure in these difficult economic times, seek a cheaper way of watching football.

How Sky and ESPN plan to respond to this is not a question I can answer. Who knows what depraved thoughts go through the mind of your average TV sports executive? However, it would be astonishing to imagine that UK broadcasters (including BBC and ITV who hold live TV rights for other domestic competitions) won’t argue strongly for the lifting of the Blackout. They’ll say that to allow foreign broadcasters to sell subscriptions that include Saturday afternoon games is unfair. They’ll say it’s anti-competitive and that they should have the chance to compete on a level playing field.

And of course, they would be right, annoyingly. This is why I think that in due course, the Blackout will become a thing of the past.

So where does that lead the clubs in League 1 and 2 in the lower leagues? Well, I think it might be time for another case study:

Earlier this season I went to Carshalton Athletic for an FA Cup qualifying game against Chelmsford Town. After the game, myself and a few others retired to a local pub to play bar billiards and drink beer. Briefly, we discussed the Blackout and the feeling was that most of us would be at home watching the Premier League if it was on the telly, rather than going to the match and spending money in the pub after. On that basis it was decided that the Blackout was a good thing for clubs and local business and we all had another drink. What we did not ask ourselves was if the match we’d just seen had kicked off at 1pm and the Premier League was on the telly in the pub, would we still have gone. Given that we lived within a train ride from the ground, there is a good chance that we would have said 'yes'.

I think there is a strong case for breaking with the 3pm tradition and moving lower league matches to different times of the day. They do this in Germany and while it’s not possible to measure its success, the 2. Bundesliga, 3-Liga and Regionalliga still exist and people still go to the games. It must be acknowledged, however, that Second Division kick-off times in Germany are a big issue among fans of clubs from that division.

I know of two non-league clubs in my area that moved their kick-off time last Saturday to 1pm to accommodate the Wales v England game which was screened on the telly in the club bar. I’ll wager that this arrangement was replicated all over the England and went down pretty well, assuming those bars have got access to Sky Sports.

Another option would be to keep the kick-off times and make the best of it. Dave Boyle, the CEO of Supporters Direct argues that lower league clubs have an opportunity to reach out to a wider audience by broadcasting their games via TV or the internet and conceivably monetising their coverage.

“... the abolition of the 3pm rule offers an opportunity. For starters, all those fans a club might have who simply can’t get to games can now watch the team and pay for the privilege, bringing new income to the club. It also gives a chance to build a brand. Every club has a brand of course – it’s just that the brand is geographically limited. You’re a club playing in a certain place, mainly for people who live there, or used to. Whilst everyone else has similar brands – before the advent of TV – that’s not so bad. But when TV gives your competitors a chance to develop their brand regionally, nationally and internationally, it gives you a problem you simply can’t bridge. No wonder people would rather watch the big club on TV rather than watch you in the flesh. But now everyone will have a better chance.”

Of course, there are contractual issues but from Boyle’s perspective the lifting of the Blackout gives smaller clubs the freedom to broaden their fan base beyond their immediate location.

The final option is probably the least controversial and that is to preserve the Blackout and move the Premier League and perhaps the Championship to Sundays. That will serve to protect lower league clubs from dropping attendances but won’t actually stop the transmission of matches from other leagues in Europe, or other matches from the lower leagues.

In truth, I suspect that all three options will be used to a greater or lesser degree. Some clubs and leagues will move times, some will not and the Premier League and Football League will experiment with moving the Saturday fixtures to Sunday or later in the same day. As much as it goes against my leftist grain, I suspect that the market will decide. That between them, the supporters, the TV companies, the leagues, the FA and the Police will work something out.

Ultimately, this is all Sky’s fault for charging pubs too much money to show football. If they’d been more reasonable, it is likely that Karen Murphy would not have sought a cheaper alternative and then not gone to court. The Blackout existed on the basis of a consensus, because all the relevant stakeholders derived value in maintaining it. Sky’s (and in turn the Premier League’s) avarice has resulted in one group of stakeholders losing faith in that consensus and has ended up with it breaking down. The challenge now is to adjust and form a new consensus. A good way to start would be by calling time on the Saturday afternoon Blackout.

Midweek TV Preview: 28 March - 31 March 2011

Monday 28 March

19.45 Oldham Athletic v Tranmere Rovers, League One, Sky Sports 1/HD1
It's business as usual in League One, and on Monday night Tranmere travel to Oldham with hopes of taking a step towards safety and dragging their hosts back into the heart of the battle for survival. Athletic have lost their last six in a row and haven't won in 11.

Tuesday 29 March

19.35 Republic of Ireland v Uruguay, Friendly, Sky Sports 2/HD2
Ireland edged past Macedonia in European Championships qualifying on Saturday, with goals from Aiden McGeady and Robbie Keane securing a 2-1 win in Group B. That victory took Giovanni Trapattoni's men to the top of the group, and they celebrate with a run out against a Uruguay team that impressed hugely last summer.

19.45 Northern Ireland v Slovenia, Euro 2012 Qualifier, Sky Sports 1/HD1
Their neighbours might be in non-competitive action, but north of the border it's all business with the visit of Slovenia to Windsor Park. Northern Ireland have won just one qualifying game so far in this cycle, but that did come against the Slovenians. Corry Evans' strike in Maribor opened the Irish campaign with a bang.

19.45 Germany v Australia, Friendly, ESPN/ESPN HD (Option 1)
It's viewer's choice on ESPN on Tuesday, and Option 1 is Germany v Australia. Germany are in fine competitive form and have won all five Euro 2012 qualifiers so far, with Thomas Mueller and Miroslav Klose getting two each against Kazakhstan on Saturday. Australia will still be sore from the 4-0 thumping dished out by Jogi Low's side in South Africa.

19.45 France v Croatia, Friendly, ESPN/ESPN HD (Option 1)
Option 2 is France v Croatia from Paris. Laurent Blanc's men defeated Luxembourg by the princely total of 2-0 on Friday, the goals coming from Philippe Mexes and Yoann Gourcuff. Levan Kobiashvili's last-minute goal saw Georgia upset the Croatians in Tbilisi on Saturday. These two met, of course, in the World Cup semi-final in 1998.

20.00 England v Ghana, Friendly, ITV1/ITV1 HD
After England defeated Wales on Saturday, several senior members of the squad were released to rejoin their clubs ahead of European competition in the coming weeks. Fabio Capello is a lame duck, and if Ghana play to their best then England could be in for a turning over at Wembley on Tuesday.

Wednesday 30 March

00.50 (Thu morning) Internacional v Jorge Wilstermann, Copa Libertadores, Premier Sports
The witching hour brings Copa Libertadores action on Premier Sports (no, me neither). This week, Brazilian giants Inter meet Bolivian side Jorge Wilstermann, who are just making up the numbers in Group Six. Jorge's Juan Brown scored at both ends in the first 16 minutes when these two met earlier this month - Inter went on to win 4-1.

Football Americana Week 2: Real Salt Lake mark their territory

Week 2 in Major League Soccer was characterised by game-changing red cards and one or two goals worthy of any league in the world. Real Salt Lake made the biggest mark on the weekend, thumping LA Galaxy to make sure the big boys know they're still around and still among the best. You can see all the action here.

Houston Dynamo opened the Week 2 scoring in MLS, going into a 1-0 lead against Seattle Sounders. The Sounders had the better early chances but Geoff Cameron put the Dynamo ahead with an extremely fortunate goal after penalty box chaos from a free kick. Seattle saved a point with a little over ten minutes left on the clock, Steve Zakuani knocking in the easiest goal he'll ever score. Tally Hall had a fantastic game in the Houston goal.

After losing to expansion opposition last week, Toronto FC made amends with a home win over Portland Timbers. Javier Martina (pictured) got both goals in TFC's 2-0 win and the second was a brilliantly taken lob after a long pass over the top by goalkeeper Stefan Frei. The Timbers made their presence felt though, both in terms of chances and a bizarre red card to Mikael Yourassowsky, who picked up a second yellow card for time-wasting as he strolled off the pitch to be substituted.

Vancouver Whitecaps were unable to match their Week 1 victory, losing 1-0 to Philadelphia Union in their second game. The Whitecaps designated player Eric Hassli saw red in this one. He picked up his first yellow card for a petulant trip on Danny Califf with the ball safely in the hands of Union goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon, and his second was a lunge at Carlos Valdes and just as unnecessary. The Union took advantage with a Carlos Ruiz tap-in 13 minutes from the end.

Just like the Caps, Sporting Kansas City had a designated player dismissed and followed victory with defeat, theirs against Chicago Fire. Omar Bravo was sent off after a little over half an hour for a professional foul on Gaston Puerari after working back from an free kick that he had taken, and Diego Chaves blasted in the penalty. Puerari got the second himself six minutes later, slotting neatly past Jimmy Nielsen.

KC fought back and made it 2-1 through Matt Besler just after the break, but Marco Pappa's unbelievable solo dribble and finish restored the Fire's advantage. Teal Bunbury made it 3-2 by finishing a one-on-one with the goalkeeper but Chicago took all three points.

DC United felt aggrieved after their 2-1 defeat at New England Revolution because the Revs were lucky to be 2-0 up after quarter of an hour. Referee Baldomero Toledo missed a clear handball by Zack Schilawski as he controlled the ball to make it 1-0, and the penalty that Shalrie Joseph converted was questionable (but probably fair). The Revolution had started far more brightly but DC went on to play some good football and will be disappointed that they didn't find the net until the last couple of minutes, when Charlie Davies made it three goals in two sub appearances, this one again from the spot. United' Dejan Jakovic picked up a spectacularly harsh red card in the dying moments.

At Crew Stadium Columbus Crew and a weakened New York Red Bulls side had to settle for a goalless draw. Columbus had the better chances (although Will Hesmer had to make the best save of the match) but New York defended doggedly when called upon and deserved their point on the road.

An early Chris Wondolowski double saw San Jose Earthquakes to a 2-0 away victory at FC Dallas. He controlled, turned and lashed in his first superbly after just four minutes, and by the mid-point of the first half had made it 2-0 with a glancing header past Kevin Hartman. Milton Rodriguez missed a couple of golden opportunities to reduce the difference.

Real Salt Lake destroyed LA Galaxy at Rio Tinto, beginning the rout by racing into a 2-0 lead inside ten minutes. Andy Williams knocked in the first after 75 seconds and Javier Morales (pictured) got the second from the penalty spot, but not before a deflected David Beckham free kick had cannoned off the post. Morales get a second before half time, firing home an unstoppable drive from a throw in from which the Galaxy gave him far too much room.

Paulo Junior got the fourth, tapping in from Fabian Espindola's low cross, and there was nothing left for LA but a consolation, which Juan Pablo Angel passed into the net to open his account for the Galaxy.

Robin Fraser's Chivas USA slumped to their second defeat, losing out to Colorado Rapids on the night that Gary Smith's side unveiled their 2010 MLS Champions banner. Quincy Amarikwa's finish after springing the offside trap made the difference for the Rapids.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Weekend TV Preview: 25 - 27 March 2011

Friday 25 March

19.30 Austria v Belgium, Euro 2012 Group A Qualifier, ESPN/ESPN HD
It finished 4-4 when these two met in October. Austria were leading 3-2 midway through the second half when West Brom's Paul Sharner was given a straight red for head-butting. Belgium scored twice in the last five minutes to lead, only for Stuttgart's Martin Harnik to equalise in injury time. Belgium will sorely miss Everton's Marouane Fellaini for this one.
19.30 Serbia v Northern Ireland, Euro 2012 Group C Qualifier, Sky Sports 1
Both sides are stuttering after good starts. Serbia's last two games in this campaign have seen them lose badly away to Italy and at home to Estonia, while Northern Ireland's inability to score persists: they've been unable to get more than one goal in any of their last 16 games and have failed to score ten times.
19.45 Slovenia v Italy, Euro 2012 Group C Qualifier, ITV4/ITV4 HD
A win for Slovenia would see them joint top of the group with the visitors whose only stumble so far has been the draw with Northern Ireland last October

Saturday 26 March

15.00 Wales v England, Euro 2012 Group G Qualifier, Sky Sports 1/HD1/3D
In the midst of all usual hoo-har that accompanies England internationals the midfield battle of Ramsey v Wilshere will be especially intriguing for Arsenal fans. Ramsey has been selected as captain for the welsh, while Wilshere's inclusion is rumoured to be hastening an international retirement for Frank Lampard. A win for England will see them join Montenegro at the top of the table on ten points. Wales are still looking for their first points.
16.45 Bulgaria v Switzerland, Euro 2012 Group G Qualifier, Sky Sports 2/HD2
The two teams separating England and Wales in Group G come together. A promising looking Switzerland side would have been seen as the likeliest side to join England from this group, though with the early good form of Montenegro they already face an uphill task to qualify.
19.00 Germany v Kazakstan, Euro 2012 Qualifier, ESPN/ESPN HD
Another perfect start to a German qualification campaign. Difficult to see anything but a comfortable win here in Kaiserslautern.
19.45 Republic of Ireland v Macedonia, Euro 2012 Qualifier, Sky Sports 2/HD2
Ireland are third, two points behind Russia in the only group without an unbeaten side. What's the betting the Aviva Stadium is just Paul Whitehouse in a wig and a prosthetic nose.
21.30 Palmeiras v Bragantino, Paulista A1, Premier Sports
With just four games to go, second in the table Palmeriras look to seal their semi-final spot with a win against mid-table Bragantino.

Sunday 27 March

14.00 Brazil v Scotland, International Friendly, ITV1/ITV1 HD
Free-scoring Scotland take on the Brazil in their second home - the Emirates Stadium.
16.00 Huddersfield v Notts County, League One, Sky Sports 1/HD1
When County were enjoying their cup run it seemed as if they were in a false position hovering just above the relegation zone. Sadly, since then it seems that it wasn't such a false position after all. Second place Huddersfield need every point they can get with a tough run-in including games against promotion rivals Milton Keynes, Peterborough and Brighton.

Friday List of Little or No Consequence #181

Enter the dragon
19 Players That Have Captained The England Team Against Wales Since World War II

1. George Hardwick, Middlesbrough (2 times: 1946, 1947)
2. Billy Wright, Wolverhampton Wanderers (10 times: 1948-1958)
3. Alf Ramsey, Tottenham Hotspur (1950)
4. Ronnie Clayton, Blackburn Rovers (1959)
5. Johnny Haynes, Fulham (2 times: 1960, 1961)
6. Jimmy Armfield, Blackpool (2 times: 1962, 1963)
7. Ron Flowers, Wolverhampton Wanderers (1964)
8. Bobby Moore, West Ham United (9 times: 1965-1973)
9. Martin Peters, Tottenham Hotspur (1971)
10. Emlyn Hughes, Liverpool (2 times: 1974, 1979)
11. Alan Ball, Arsenal (1975)
12. Kevin Keegan, Liverpool (2 times: 1976, 1977)
13. Gerry Francis, Queens Park Rangers (1976)
14. Mick Mills, Ipswich Town (1978 - shown above)
15. Phil Thompson, Liverpool (2 times: 1980, 1982)
16. Dave Watson, Southampton (1981)
17. Peter Shilton, Southampton (1983)
18. Ray Wilkins, Manchester United (1984)
19. David Beckham, Real Madrid (2 times: 2004, 2005)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Get rid of Match Of The Day!

I’m at a stage in life where watching football on Saturday nights is something that generally happens to other people. It’s one of the reasons why I never took to Spanish football and is why I don’t watch the BBC’s weekly Premier League highlights package, Match Of The Day.

That’s not to say that I don’t watch it at all. In fact I usually sit down on a Sunday morning with tea, crumpets and eggs and watch it on delay thanks to my PVR. The best part of this, aside from experiencing the joy of an over-easy egg yolk dripping down the side of a hot buttered crumpet while watching football, is I get to fast wind through the boring bits, and before you say it, I’m not talking about Stoke City. I am of course talking about the bits in between the games where those funny-looking blokes talk on those uncomfortable looking sofas.

This is not a personal attack. I have no particular beef with Messrs Lineker, Shearer, Dixon, Lawrenson and Hansen. This is mainly because I’ve never met them and have always believed that you should never make personal remarks about people you’ve never been in the same room with, Graeme Souness being the exception to the rule.

I’m also not going to sit here and rant about the various broadcasting crimes they may or may not have committed. The reason for this is because I’ve already done it, recorded it and published it in a podcast. Suffice to say I don’t find the current crop of BBC pundits terribly interesting and am quite prepared to accept that the reason for this may be because I’m sick to death of staring at their ugly faces and I’m bored rigid of the same old format.

Every week it’s the same. 'Welcome to the show: Here’s the match we think you want to see the most; here are the players; here’s Mike Phelan; here’s the lightweight punditry mixed with a stubborn refusal to understand the latest interpretation of the offside rule or what sort of foul constitutes a yellow and red card (at least one person is contractually obliged to point out that “he clearly got the ball”); here’s the next game we think you want to watch after the first game' and off we go again until the show’s over or you’ve been carted off to hospital after consuming too many undercooked fried eggs, whichever comes first. To mis-quote Simon Rattle, I am cast adrift on a sea of infinite pundality.

The narrative to football coverage is tedious, circular, predictable and boring. We live in a world of interaction and engagement where people can create their own media and express their passions, where we can watch football in crystal clear high definition and in some cases 3D. Technology is re-presenting the beautiful game but mainstream broadcasters are still stuck in the same old rutt churning out a presentation format that has barely changed since the 1960’s. Man sits in studio trying to look excited while talking to other men about football. It’s a scene repeated in the few remaining pubs left up and down the country that haven’t been converted into hideous night clubs, embarrassing karaoke bars and over-priced eateries, which isn’t many.

So this is what I propose: By the end of 2012, the whole of the United Kingdom will have switched over to digital TV. Even with the basic digital solution there are opportunities to produce interactive content. Give us all football highlights via the Red Button (a free optional service which allows viewers to access additional content). Add punditry if people want it, let people choose which game they want to watch first themselves and ultimately, GET RID OF MATCH OF THE DAY. It’s archaic and Stalinist!

There are, of course two major flaws in my deranged plan. The first is that Sky own all the interactive rights to Premier League coverage so the BBC are unable to provide additional content. The second is that it would be an incredibly unpopular idea.

The first point is easy to address if incredibly difficult to achieve. The broadcasting contracts for the Premier League are renewed every three years. On the next renewal, the BBC should compete for the interactive rights, either to hold them exclusively or even better, share them with a satellite broadcaster (Sky/ESPN). They could even sacrifice the weekly terrestrial highlights package (which allows them to produce MOTD) and allow another channel to show their own version and take weekly highlights football shows to strange new places (although this is an extremely unlikely outcome, in my opinion).

The second point is harder to address. Match Of The Day is a very popular. It gets millions of viewers (but not as many as you may think). It’s a broadcasting institution. The theme tune is part of the very fabric of the game. Not everyone is like me and wants to choose their own running order, they prefer the BBC to set the agenda for them because, let's face it, they have more important things to do. All of this is true.

But it’s for their own good!

Sometimes these things just have to be done, arbitrarily. Football fans need to be set free from the banal consensus driven by a broadcast media who find it much easier to trawl out hackneyed cliches on a weekly basis. Fans deserve the chance to apply their own narrative, to set their own agenda.

The tools exist, in football, for fans to find out about that new French striker themselves without waiting for a highly paid pundit to tell them that he’s never heard of them. They need to be encouraged and enfranchised, not spoon-fed cliches like 'it was a game of two halves' and 'they had the lion's share of the possession' and 'he got the ball, I don’t see what the problem is'.

And moving everything to the Red Button will clear BBC1’s Saturday night TV schedule for the benefit of all people in the UK who only take an interest in football every other Summer which, it must be said, is the majority.

Of course it will be tough at first but in time no-one will miss it. In fact, I’d give it about three weeks before the first nostalgia websites for MOTD crop up on the Internets. After six months we’ll look back on the days of Match Of The Day and laugh at our naivety.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Bundesliga Show Episode 15 - Andy James and that Coach's Carousel

Bundesliga commentator and reporter Andy James joined Jon Hartley and Terry Duffelen for the latest edition of the Bundesliga Show.

Together we discuss the seemingly ever changing situation with Bundesliga clubs and their head coaches. With Michael Skibbe the latest to be sacked (from Eintracht Frankfurt) we try to make sense of what's going on with the men at the top.

We also look ahead to the German National Team's forthcoming international fixtures against Kazakhstan and Australia.

Click here to listen to the podcast or right click on the link to download it.

Alternatively, subscribe to the podcast feed here or the iTunes feed here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Football Americana Week 1: Dramatic Davies double delights DC

Major League Soccer 2011 is here and in Week 1 has already thrown up some fantastic stories. You can see them all unfold before your very eyes by watching the highlights.

The season got going with a meeting at Qwest Field between Seattle Sounders and an injury-hit LA Galaxy side with something of an Indian sign over the Washington team. Seattle had a few decent chances in the first half, the best falling to a lively Fredy Montero but saved superbly by stand-in goalkeeper Josh Saunders. Just before the hour it was LA who scored the only goal of the game. Todd Dunivant surged forward and picked out Juninho (left) 25 yards from goal, and the Brazilian's strike swerved wickedly before finding the net. Kasey Keller will be hugely disappointed with his attempt to stop it, but he was well beaten five minutes later when Landon Donovan rocked the crossbar.

By Saturday evening, Seattle had lost their first two games of the season. New York Red Bulls hosted Sigi Schmid's side and looked ominously good in patches against a side who looked equally dangerous on the break. 18-year-old Juan Agudelo proved the difference, latching onto a through ball and showing great strength before smashing home a lovely finish to settle another 1-0 defeat for the Sounders.

LA also had a second game, but they had to settle for a 1-1 draw with New England Revolution in tricky conditions on Sunday evening. The Revs led after just two and a half minutes, skipper Shalrie Joseph nodding in the opener from close range. The Galaxy had a couple of goals disallowed in the first half but Juninho equalised with his second goal of the campaign, a strike even better than the one that embarrassed Keller at Qwest. Designated players David Beckham and Juan Pablo Angel linked up later for a third disallowed goal after Joseph had struck the foot of the post for New England.

Vancouver Whitecaps started MLS life with a bang, beating Toronto FC 4-2. Designated player Eric Hassli took just 14 minutes to smash in the Caps' first goal of the new era and it was the beginning of a fantastic game at Empire Field. Dwayne De Rosario's equaliser was the league's 8000th goal, but 8001 was rolled in by local boy Terry Dunfield to restore Vancouver's lead just minutes later.

After the break, Hassli had a second goal disallowed by Atiba Harris soon made it 3-1, poking home after TFC failed to clear a corner. Hassli did get his second, taking the Caps into a three-goal lead with the easiest finish he'll ever score in MLS after Wes Knight's unselfish assist. Maicon Santos' consolation was a powerful left-footed strike from outside the box but it was Vancouver's day in the first MLS Canadian derby.

It was an emotional night at RFK Stadium, where two goals from debutant Charlie Davies (right) helped DC United to a 3-1 victory over Columbus Crew. Josh Wolff gave DC the lead after they failed to make the most of their chances in the first half, starting the second with a neat finish after Jed Zayner's pass. He celebrated in spectacular fashion, stripping off his shirt and jumping into the Barra Brava.

The wonderful scenes didn't end there - Davies came on as a substitute to mark the culmination of his recovery from the horrific injuries he suffered in October 2009. Chris Pontius was fouled in the box after 61 minutes and the on-loan Sochaux striker rolled in the penalty to spark wonderful celebrations. And wouldn't you know it, he got another too. He rounded Will Hesmer in the 77th and finished neatly to make it 3-0 to DC. Crew got their consolation thanks to Robbie Rogers' spot kick after a soft handball call against Dejan Jakovic.

Philadelphia Union started their second season with an away win, beating Houston Dynamo 1-0 at Robertson Stadium. The goal came early, Danny Califf pouncing after Sebastien Le Toux's shot came back off the bar. Huge credit to Sheanon Williams, whose long throw caused the problems for the Dynamo defence. Carlos Ruiz was lucky to escape a red card 20 minutes into his Union debut for a horrible elbow on Andrew Hainault. Dominic Oduro missed a sitter in the second half for the Dynamo.

The league's other expansion club, Portland Timbers couldn't match Vancouver's start and went down 3-1 against Colorado Rapids. The champions races into a 3-0 lead in the first half hour, with Jeff Larentowicz tapping in the first after great work from Omar Cummings, who got the second himself after a lucky ricochet off goalkeeper Adin Brown. Jamie Smith's third was a thumping strike that went in off the bar that left Brown utterly helpless. Kenny Cooper did get the Timbers off the mark with their first MLS goal, a long distance free kick that deflected into the bottom corner.

Two goals in quick success saw FC Dallas and Chicago Fire draw 1-1 at Pizza Hut Park. Diego Chaves bagged the Fire's first of the season in the 17th minute, tapping in after Kevin Hartman was unable to make the ball safe in the six yard box but the lead lasted less than a minute. Milton Rodriguez's delicious backheel left Sean Johnson with no chance. The real downside for Dallas was the dismissal of Brek Shea, playing at centre back for the first time in MLS, who was caught out by Gaston Puerari and could only bring him down as he looked to race through on goal. Chicago failed to take advantage, thanks in large part to Hartman.

Real Salt Lake's rain-sodden visit to San Jose Earthquakes was settled by a solitary goal from captain Kyle Beckerman in the middle of the second half. Found on the edge of the area, the dreadlocked RSL icon swept the ball into the bottom corner despite a touch from Quakes goalkeeper Jon Busch. With Busch's opposite number Nick Rimando struggling badly with the conditions, Jason Kreis will be delighted with the way his side survived the final 25 minutes with the lead.

Rebranded Sporting Kansas City began a lengthy run of away games (while their stadium build is completed) with a win over Robin Fraser's Chivas USA. Rookie CJ Sapong took just 100 seconds to bag his first MLS goal, lashing home after a poor piece of defending. KC's first designated player, Omar Bravo, lobbed in the second goal in first half stoppage time with Zach Thornton in no-man's land.

Chivas captain Jimmy Conrad, who left KC in the close-season, scored from a corner to make it 2-1, but Bravo doubled his tally with 16 minutes left. The Mexican had been booked for a nasty body check on Conrad but a tidy finish for 3-1 showed us the better side of his game shortly afterwards. Six minutes from time Ben Zemanski set up a nervy finish for Sporting by making it 3-2.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Football Blog Carnival: World Poetry Day

Today is a momentous day for two reasons: firstly, it's World Poetry Day, a day designated to promote the reading and writing of poetry around the world. Secondly, Football Fairground is playing its part in the first Football Blog Carnival - a scheme whereby football bloggers can regularly write on a common subject and cross-promote each others work.

Many other football blogsites are taking part in the first Football Blog Carnival by writing a poem about the beautiful game during the course of the day. Our contribution, written by Chris O, is as follows.

Callow Glory

I knew them all
My heroes' names
Etched into my sunshine paltry days

Ready for dispatch
Ball at feet
A vista of local green before me

My friend in spirit
Takes the ball
Kicks it beyond distance and memories

Our game begins
We are our heroes
Adulation silent from unknown thousands


The next blogsite to publish its contribution to the Blog Football Carnival on World Poetry Day is Northern League Day at 6pm today (Monday 21 March 2011)... check it out!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

French Football Weekly: Episode 7

As Andrew Gibney heads back to Blighty after his recent marital excursion to Jamaica, Chris O helms the good ship FFW for one final time on his own to bring you all the latest action across the Channel.

As Lille retain top spot, could Lyon or Rennes keep up the pressure as they faced each other at the weekend? Could Arles-Avignon secure a second win of the season? Could Chris get through another podcast without getting his words in a muddle?

Find out in episode 7 of the French Football Weekly...

You can listen to the podcast here, or by right-clicking that link, you can save the MP3 to your computer.

The podcast is also available via iTunes here.

Any thoughts or feedback – please leave a comment below, or contact us on Twitter: @frenchftweekly.

For more French football news, visit the French Football Weekly website.

Midweek TV Preview: 21 - 24 March 2011

Monday 21 March

15.30 Krylya Sovetov v CSKA Moscow, Russian Premier League, ESPN/ESPN HD
The Armymen of Moscow travel to Samara hoping to climb aboard the Wings of the Soviets. If they succeed, CSKA will soar to the top of the fledgling table.
19.45 MK Dons v Peterborough United, League One, Sky Sports 1/HD1
Posh have scored nineteen goals in the last five games and have won their last two trips to the Winkledome. The evil MK Dons are are doing pretty well themselves so a reasonably entertaining game is in prospect for those who can be bothered.

Tuesday 22 March

19.45 St Johnstone v Brechin, Scottish Cup 6th Round, Sky Sports 1/HD1
St Johnstone have become draw specialists of late and may be vulnerable to a decent lower division side. Brechin are third in the Second Division table but their form is poor. Still, if you can find generous odds on an away win it may be worth a punt on an upset.

Wednesday 23 March

14.00 Duisburg v Everton, UEFA Women's Champions League Quarter Final, British Eurosport
Everton are 3-1 down from the first leg against the 2009 UEFA Cup winners so it would be an unlikely upset at the PCC-Stadion.
19.35 Northern Ireland v England, Victory Shield, Sky Sports 2
A chance to see the stars of the future before they get the spirit and technique kicked out of them by English football.
00.50 Fluminense v América, Copa Libertadores, Premier Sports
The Mexicans have lost their last two domestic games but are second in Group 3. Fluminense are yet to win in the Libertadores.

Thursday 24 March

19.30 Barnet v Nottingham Forest, Women's Premier League Cup Final, ESPN/ESPN HD
Forest should be the favourites for this game but bottom-of-the-table Barnet have won their last two league games so should be up for this cup match in front of the cameras. Expect more Women's football on ESPN over the summer when the new FA WSL kicks off on 13 April.

Rethinking Robbie Savage

Personally, I try to avoid him on the radio but there is no doubt that, despite the views of the overwhelming majority of my Twitter timeline, Robbie Savage is a popular guy.

Yes. It's true.

If he wasn't then presumably no-one would listen to him on BBC Radio Five Live and ESPN would stop asking him back on the telly for live Cup games. It's also true that his cheeky laddish sense of humour mixed with his TalkSport manner isn't easy to do.

No really, think about it. How many ex-players do you see who can string a coherent sentence together? Robbie Savage can. In fact the reason why so many people find him objectionable is what makes him a good broadcaster. He has the ability to articulate and express himself in front of a microphone. As an amateur podcaster myself, I can assure you that it is quite hard to articulate pub boorishness. I'm working on it though.

Last weekend, I had the chance to see Robbie in his other job as professional footballer when Derby County came to Selhurst Park to play Crystal Palace. The only other time I saw Savage play in the flesh was at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium for an FA Cup semi final against Arsenal. Savage was a Blackburn player and came on as a sub. If I remember rightly, the Welsh international was on his way back from injury and it certainly showed. He was sluggish, weak in the tackle and Patrick Vieira made pretty short work of him.

Whenever I'd seen him play on the telly, in his pomp, he was tigerish and quick to the ball. At Selhurst he was neither of this things but what struck me about his game was what a superb passer of the ball he is. He rarely played a misplaced pass and always knew how to switch play easily. A more confident team would have made more from the ammo he supplied.

His shooting wasn't that great and I don't remember him making too many tackles but in my opinion he was, technically, the most proficient player on the pitch. It was only his lack of pace and defensive play that let him down. As a central midfielder he wasn't able to screen the defence very well. The match ended as an error-strewn 2-2 draw.

It is easy to forget that under that thick veneer of cheesy showbiz patter there is still a decent footballer enjoying the autumn of his career. In the future, when I hear him on the radio, I won't think of him as an easily opinionated populist rent-a-mouth but as a good footballer in his own right...

... for about five seconds.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday List of Little or No Consequence #180

David 1 Goliath 0
9 Examples Of A European Top-Flight Club Being Knocked Out By A Team From A Lower Division In The Main Cup Competition Of Their Home Country This Season 

1. Baník Ostrava (v Slavičín (T3) lost 5-4 on pens after 0-0 a.e.t., Czech Republic Football Cup)
2. Brøndby (v Varde (T3) lost 4-2, Danish Cup)
3. Hannover 96 (v SV Elversberg, (T4) lost 5-4 on penalties after 0-0 a.e.t., DFB-Pokal)
4. Monaco (v Chambéry (T5), lost 3-2 on pens after 1-1 a.e.t., Coupe de France)
5. NEC Nijmegen (v Dordrecht (T2) lost 4-3, KNVB Cup)
6. Newcastle United (v Stevenage (T4), lost 3-1, FA Cup)
7. Racing Santander (v Córdoba (T2) 3-3 on agg, lost on away goals rule, Copa del Rey)
8. União de Leiria (v União da Madeira (T2) lost 2-1 a.e.t., Taça de Portugal)
9. Zulte Waregem (v White Star Woluwe (T3) lost 2-1, Belgian Cup)

Key: T2 = Tier 2, T3 = Tier 3, etc.

Weekend TV Preview: 18 - 20 March 2011

Friday 18 March

19.30 Kaiserslautern v Borussia Moenchengladbach, Bundesliga, ESPN/ESPN HD
Friday night's Bundesliga match pits (slightly) resurgent Gladbach against (utterly) free-falling Kaiserslautern. The hosts' win over Freiburg last Saturday ended an eight-match winless run that stretched back to the last game before the winter break. Gladbach have won four times since the start of the year.

19.45 Crawley Town v AFC Wimbledon, Blue Square Bet Premier, Premier Sports
I made my first visit to Kingsmeadow in its blue and yellow guise on Saturday, and Wimbledon were outplayed and out-battled by Kidderminster Harriers. That defeat helped to send Crawley clear and one has to think that a win for Steve Evans' side tonight would all but secure promotion to the Football League.

19.45 Chesterfield v Rotherham, League Two, Sky Sports 2/HD2
In League Two, it's runaway leaders Chesterfield against playoff hopefuls Rotherham. The Spireites were promoted from the fourth division to the third ten years ago, after a season in which they were deducted nine points for financial irregularities, and are looking to confirm the same achievement in their new stadium this year.

Saturday 19 March

12.00 Kilmarnock v Motherwell, Scottish Premier League, ESPN/ESPN HD
Killie were just three minutes away from a draw with Rangers last Sunday, but Tim Clancy's own goal put the Gers within striking distance of the top. Before that, the hosts had won two consecutive games. Motherwell come to town on the back of a league defeat by Inverness Caledonian Thistle and a cup draw at Dundee United.

12.45 Tottenham Hotspur v West Ham United, Premier League, Sky Sports 2/HD2/3D
The Premier League returns with a lunchtime London derby on Saturday. Harry Redknapp's Spurs will be well-rested after their Champions League heroics against AC Milan, while the Hammers had to battle Stoke City in the FA Cup during Tottenham's weekend off. A win for the visitors would create genuine hope of a revival.

17.20 Southampton v Sheffield Wednesday, League One, Sky Sports 2/HD2
Two of tier three's giants meet in the late afternoon kick off in League One, and it's Southampton who are having the better of things at present. Saints are in great form, highlighted by last weekend's victory over fellow promotion chasers Bournemouth. Wednesday's season, meanwhile, is beginning to drift into nothingness.

17.30 Everton v Fulham, Premier League, ESPN/ESPN HD
In any other season, this match would be seen as a mid-table meeting of little real consequence. However, even Everton in ninth are just six points clear of the drop zone ahead of the weekend's matches. Fulham are four points from the dreaded dashed line, but have lost in the league only twice in 2011.

19.00 Barcelona v Getafe, La Liga, Sky Sports 4
Athletic Bilbao's last-minute equaliser on Monday cruelly took away what Getafe thought was their first win in five, and they won't be getting that elusive victory in their next game either. Barcelona settled for just the three goals when these sides met at the Alfonso Perez in November.

19.45 Palermo v AC Milan, Serie A, ESPN/ESPN HD
Sunday was a bad day at the office and Milan will be looking to bounce back against Palermo. They needed a late equaliser from Bari native Antonio Cassano to win a point against the southern side in a match that saw Zlatan Ibrahimovic sent off for striking Marco Rossi. Mid-table Palermo lost at Genoa later that afternoon.

21.00 Atletico Madrid v Real Madrid, La Liga, Sky Sports 4/3D
It's the Madrid derby on Saturday evening, and Real won't necessarily have it all their own way as they continue their epic pursuit of Barcelona. They almost threw away a 3-0 lead on their last league visit to the Vicente Calderon, but haven't lost there since 2004.

21.30 Bragantino v Santos, Paulista Championship, Premier Sports
For those of you lucky enough to have Premier Sports, there's a chance to indulge in some action involving one of Brazil's giants, Santos, in the Paulistao. Bragantino are minnows by comparison but do appear on Carlos Alberto Parreira's CV. Mauro Silva's too.

Sunday 20 March

11.30 Fiorentina v Roma, Serie A, ESPN/ESPN HD
The Rome derby last weekend was settled in the most traditional fashion: two goals from the iconic Francesco Totti. Juventus lost points and therefore ground on the Giallorossi, who travel to Florence to face a side just beginning to find its feet again.

13.30 Sunderland v Liverpool, Premier League, Sky Sports 1/HD1/3D
In the league, Liverpool have won two and lost two of their away matches since Kenny Dalglish returned to lead his wandering subjects back to some undefined and unattainable promised land. His predecessor watched on as Steven Gerrard's equaliser earned a point against the Black Cats at Anfield in September.

14.00 Inter Milan v Lecce, Serie A, ESPN/ESPN HD
Inter are matching leaders Milan stride for stride at the moment, right down to dropping points on the same weekends. They'll need to take advantage of every opportunity in order to catch them - the Rossoneri are five points clear. The derby will take place on 2nd April.

15.00 Celtic v Rangers, CIS Insurance Cup Final, BBC1 Scotland
Scotland's footballing BFFs meet in the League Cup final on Sunday and will no doubt be on the very best of behaviour. Traditionally, this is Gers territory - they've won this competition no fewer than 26 times compared to Celtic's 14. They're also defending champions, but these two met at Hampden in the final two years ago and it was the Bhoys who triumphed.

16.00 Chelsea v Manchester City, Premier League, Sky Sports 1/HD1/3D
Chelsea have won five Premier League games out of nine so far this year, but are beginning to show occasional signs of life. A home win over Manchester City would take them past Roberto Mancini's side into third, but they couldn't manage it in a heated encounter last season.

16.30 Stuttgart v Wolfsburg, Bundesliga, ESPN/ESPN HD
It's been a wretched season for Stuttgart and Wolfsburg, but while the Wolves sit second from bottom Stuttgart have won three on the spin, beating Eintracht Frankfurt, Schalke and St Pauli - not a bad mini-turnaround by Bruno Labbadia, Die Roten's third coach of the campaign.

18.00 Athletic Bilbao v Villarreal, La Liga, Sky Sports 1/HD1
If watching parts of football matches is your bag, you're in luck with this one. Sky Sports will join this match after just 30 minutes. I doubt they'll put up a false score of 5-3 when they switch, but maybe they should.

19.45 Napoli v Cagliari, Serie A, ESPN/ESPN HD
Ezequiel Lavezzi's suspension is spent, and the Vesuviani are back in business. A scintillating comeback against Parma last weekend revitalised Napoli's Champions League hopes and Cagliari will be fearful after a thrashing from Udinese last weekend.

20.00 Valencia v Sevilla, La Liga, Sky Sports 1/HD1
Third-placed Valencia are fully 16 points behind Real Madrid in second. They last met Sevilla in November, when Mehmet Topal's early sending off set up a win for Los Rojiblancos.

21.30 Sao Caetano v Palmeiras, Paulista Championship, Premier Sports
More action from the Paulistao as 2004 winners Sao Caetano host Luiz Felipe Scolari's Palmeiras. The Alviverde have won the regional championship 22 times, second only to Corinthians.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Bundesliga Show Episode 14 - Andy Brassell and the Champions League

The Bundesliga Show returns after a one week hiatus. Jon and Terry are joined in the Zeitgeist Pub in South London by their guest, European football journalist Andy Brassell.

This week they look back on Borussia Dortmund's surprise defeat to Hoffenheim before turning their attention to the managerial merry-go-round that is in full swing in the Bundesliga.

Then it's time to take a break and watch the Bayern v Inter Champions League game before looking back on that extraordinary match and looking ahead to the next weekend of Bundesliga fixtures.

Click here to listen to the podcast or right click on the link to download it.

Alternatively, subscribe to the podcast feed here or the iTunes feed here.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Midweek TV Preview: 14 - 17 March 2011

Monday 14 March

19:45 Norwich City v Bristol City, Championship, Sky Sports 1/HD1
The Robins continue their belated surge back up the table with a game against the team just outside the automatic play-off places on goal difference. Bristol City have won their last four in the league, averaging nearly three goals per game. Norwich, however, have lost only one of their last eleven. A fascinating battle of wills looks set to ensue.

Tuesday 15 March

15:30 Al Gharafa v Foolad Sepahan, AFC Champions League, British Eurosport 2
Group A in the 30th AFC Champions League and Sepahan are already top of the table following their opening 2-1 victory over Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia. Al Gharafa drew their first match  1-1 against Al Jazira. No details available about whether David Frost was playing in goal for the latter.

19:45 Man Utd v Marseille, Champions League, Sky Sports 2/HD2/3D
An away goal could make things interesting for Didier Deschamps' men (what with the opening leg finishing goalless), but our money's on Man Utd following their professional dumping of Arsenal out of the FA Cup at the weekend.

19:45 Bayern Munich v Inter Milan, Champions League, Sky Sports 4/HD4
So Van Gaal's leaving Bayern at the end of the season and the pressure's suddenly off. A 6-0 thrashing of Hamburg at the weekend could conceivably be followed by a favourable result against an Inter side that drew 1-1 against next-to-bottom Brescia on Friday. The Germans lead 1-0 from the first leg.

01:30 (Wednesday morning) Seattle Sounders v LA Galaxy, MLS, ESPN/ESPN HD
As our MLS correspondent Chris Nee mentioned only last week, it's now or never for the Galaxy. Seattle, meanwhile, are Terry's tip for success, all of which you'll have known if you'd read the first part of Chris Nee's excellent preview to the 2011 MLS season.

Wednesday 16 March

10:45 Yokohama F Marinos v Omiya Ardija, J League Cup, British Eurosport 2
We're listing this despite Eurosport's insistency on listing matches in its schedule which clearly have no likelihood of reaching our screens. Both teams drew their opening games last week, but the F Marino's should prevail here on home advantage if nothing else.

18:00 FCF Juvisy v FFC Turbine Potsdam, UEFA Women's Champions League, British Eurosport
A tokenistic mention for the women's game which stands even less chance of appearing on Eurosport than the aforementioned J-League match. Let's hope it survives the indecisiveness of Eurosport's programme schedulers.

19:45 Chelsea v Copenhagen, Champions League, ITV1/ITV1 HD
The Blues lead 2-0 from the first leg and a similar scoreline looks likely against the plucky Danes.

19:45 Real Madrid v Lyon, Champions League, Sky Sports 2/HD2
Lyon are clocking up the points like no-one's business in Ligue 1 and are a very likely contender for the title. Like their rivals Marseille, Lyon have away goal potential here tonight. Ironically, Karim Benzema has hit form with both goals in Real's win over Hercules at the weekend, so a great game looks in prospect at the Bernabeu.

00:45 (Thursday morning) Colo Colo v Santos, Copa Libertadores, Premier Sports
The Chileans could go top of Group 5 with a win over the All Whites, and we're not talking about the New Zealand football team, either. That would just be silly.

Thursday 17 March

18:00 Man City v Dynamo Kiev, UEFA Europa League Last 16 2nd Leg, ESPN/ESPN HD
Two goals down from the first leg, it's time for Mancini's men to show their real strength in depth (if they have any). A morale-boosting 1-0 win over Reading in the FA Cup yesterday should be more than enough to carry them through to a historic victory over their Ukrainian counterparts... it says here.

20:05 Villarreal v Bayer Leverkusen, UEFA Europa League Last 16 2nd Leg, ESPN/ESPN HD
The Spaniards lead 3-2 from the first leg and this could be similarly tight again, especially given how similar recent form is for both sides. Home advantage could be key for the Yellow Submarine.

20:05 Liverpool v Braga, UEFA Europa League Last 16, FIVE/FIVE HD
It wasn't a good week for English teams in the Europa Cup last week, but at least Liverpool are capable of breaching a single goal deficit against the Portuguese here. Another one of those Classic European Nights at Anfield © should be just what the doctor ordered.

Football Americana: 2011 MLS Season Preview (Part 3)

Our MLS season preview continues. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Starting from scratch

One of the most exciting aspects of this Major League Soccer season is the pair of new teams joining the league in the Pacific Northwest. Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps represent a more welcoming approach to the heritage of the North American Soccer League and, more importantly, the revitalisation of a three-way rivalry that could ignite MLS. Neither the Timbers nor the Whitecaps are expected to make the instant impact on the pitch that their Seattle rivals did in 2009, but in the stands it's a whole new ball game. These are soccer cities and between them they'll really add a new dimension to the league.

In Portland, John Spencer has made Jack Jewsbury captain of a side that boasts Kenny Cooper and highly-rated rookie Darlington Nagbe (currently recovering from a hernia) but will face an uphill battle to guide his team to a high enough position to scrape into the playoffs. The Whitecaps will be led by Jay Demerit and have a number of talented players but seem to lack a little bit of punch. First draft pick Omar Salgado is ineligible until September but should be a solid selection in the long run.

On the west coast there's a new face in the Chivas USA dugout. Robin Fraser earned his coaching spurs with Jason Kreis during a successful spell with Real Salt Lake, and the former LA Galaxy defender returns to California as the top dog at Chivas. Fraser's hotly tipped to become an excellent coach and has already strengthened his side after a disastrous 2010. Jimmy Conrad, Heath Pearce and rookie Zarek Valentin make the team's defensive offering look more reliable in front of 'keeper Zach Thornton. Up front, new signing Alejandro Moreno and loanee Marcos Mondaini will duke it out with Víctor Estupiñán, the Ecuadorian striker who might just go down in MLS folklore for failing emphatically to live up to the expectations he's set for himself.

There's also a new-but-not-new club in MLS this season, so they're sort of starting from scratch. Sporting KC's future is bright. LIVESTRONG Sporting Park (yes, it has to be written like that) will be a fitting home for MLS in Kansas City but it's on the pitch that Sporting have a few players worth keeping an eye on. English observers might be interested in the fortunes of Craig Rocastle and Ryan Smith, and US international Teal Bunbury could be the most anticipated player in the division after a breakout season last time out. He'll also be the centre of attention when the USA play Canada, the country he turned down to play for the States, in the first game of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Lurking in the shadows

With the playoffs effectively extended to ten teams this season it's difficult to see any other outcome for San Jose Earthquakes than qualification. They did so last season and Frank Yallop's squad has kept all its important figures. Chris Wondolowski, Jon Busch, Brandon McDonald, Jason Hernandez and Ryan Johnson are all vital players for the Earthquakes and have stayed put through the close-season. Steven Lenhart has joined San Jose from Columbus Crew and provides an alternative up front, as the Crew used wisely in 2009 in particular. It could also be worth keeping an eye on rookie Anthony Ampaipitakwong who, as well as having the best name in the league, could develop into the kind of midfield string-puller that good teams can be built around.

The Quakes' good form dates back to the back end of the 2009 season, when a team with nothing to play for except pride got their heads down and did just that.

Of all the teams in MLS, Chicago Fire might just be the one subject to the most questions. Carlos de los Cobos will quickly be under pressure if the Fire look like repeating last season's failure to make the playoffs, their first since 2004. The loss of Brian McBride (who retired along with CJ Brown last season) and a couple of other high profile departures have left the club with a little uncertainty ahead of the 2011 season. However, in Patrick Nyarko, Baggio Husidic and Marco Pappa, Chicago have players who can make things happen. De los Cobos will be desperate for them to do so.

That's it. Every team previewed, every big move judged on nothing more profound than face value. Welcome to MLS 2011.

French Football Weekly: Episode 6

Manning the fort once again, Chris O brings you a whistle-stop tour of all that's been going on in Ligue 1 this weekend, including another dramatic last-minute winner for Lille and a slip-up for Rennes.

Plus there's the chance to marvel at Chris' complete inability to read his own hand-written notes... what a professional...

To listen to the podcast, click here or right-click the link to save the file to your computer.

You can download the podcast via iTunes here.

Any thoughts or feedback – please leave a comment below, or contact us on Twitter: @frenchftweekly.

For more French football news, visit the French Football Weekly website.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Weekend TV Preview 11 - 13 March 2011

Friday 11 March

19:45 Brescia v Inter Milan, Serie A, ESPN/HD
So the weekend of football kicks of with a clash between draw specialists, Brescia and... er... win specialists Inter. Only one winner there, then.

Saturday 12 March

12:45 Birmingham City v Bolton Wanderers, FA Cup Quarter Final, ESPN/HD
Despite the romance of the Cup it is hard to imagine that this is an welcome fixture for both clubs who have unsettled business in the Premier League.

17:15 Man Utd v Arsenal, FA Cup Quarter Final, ITV1/ HD
Personally, I'm sick to the back teeth of the both of these clubs, not to mention a portion of their respective fans trolling around Twitter, bitching about how badly treated they are by the media. We need another Vietnam to thin out their numbers.

17:30 Werder Bremen v Borussia Monchengladbach, Bundesliga, ESPN/HD
Was delighted to learn that a much used phrase by myself is not made up and is actually used in the German lexicon. Hence this match is a classic sechs punkter.

19:00 Real Madrid v Hercules, La Liga, Sky Sports 3
Jose Mourinho's Real take on Kevin Sorbo's Hercules. Well I had to get that gag in sooner or later.

19:45 Cesena v Juventus, Serie A, ESPN/ESPN HD
There's a Juve cafe bar in Rathbone Street, Central London where exiled fans of the Old Lady gather to do that funny hand gesture that Italians use when things are going badly and swear a lot. If Juve mess up again this weekend then the local A&E had best prepare themselves for a spate of sprained wrists.

21:00 Zaragoza v Valencia, La Liga, Sky Sports 3/3D
If La Liga's third placed team can't beat Schalke over two legs then La Liga is horrifically over rated. Presumably Valencia have enough nouse to beat fourth-bottom Zaragoza.

21:30 Santos v Botafogo, Brazilian League Football, Premier Sports
It's that start of the season feeling in Brazil. Mind you, from what I can work out, football is like their telenovellas: it never ends.

Sunday 13 March

06:00 Brisbane Roar v Central Coast Mariners, Hyundai A League Grand Final, Sky Sports 1/HD1
First plays second in the climax of what has been a difficult season Down Under, financially. Brisbane are the heavy favourites after coming into this match on the back of a 27 (TWENNY-SEVAN) game unbeaten streak. I'm sticking a couple of quid on the other fellas.

11:30 AC Milan v Bari, Serie A, ESPN/HD
It's Scudetto or bust for the Rossonieri after getting knocked out by Harry's All-Stars in the Chumps League during the week. Bottom club Bari should prove a flimsy barrier.

13:15 Dundee Utd v Motherwell, Scottish Cup Quarter Finals, Sky Sports 1/HD1
With only four games to go before the Clausura, both teams are cutting it a bit fine if they want to avoid the cut.

14:00 AS Roma v Lazio, Serie A, ESPN/HD
Definitely the choice of the discerning viewer. Two big city rivals seperated by five points and two places in the league. Lazio should edge it with the bookies but Roma are finding themselves after Ranieri's departure, in the League at least.

14:00 Stoke City v West Ham, FA Cup Quarter Final, ITV1/ITV1 HD
I understand that the home side have yet to fill their allocation. Can't blame them really. After all, it's only the Quarter Final of the Cup.

15:30 Inverness CT v Celtic, Scottish Cup Quarter Finals, Sky Sports 1/HD1
They'll be packed in at the Cally Stadium for this one. As always, on paper the Glasgow club will be favourites but as we know, they have come a cropper in recent Cup campaigns.

17:15 Man City v Reading, FA Cup Quarter Final, ESPN/ESPN HD
The conquerors of Everton travel to the vanquishers of Villa's reserves. Both teams are in good nick (although City lost in Europe on Thursday) and Reading are turning into a proper Cup side. Got the makings of an unlikely classic.

18:00 Villarreal v Sporting, La Liga, Sky Sports 1/HD1
Plenty of time for the Yellow Submarine to recover from their 3-2 Europa League ding-dong with Leverkusen. A win keeps a firm cushion over Bilbao in fifth place. All being well, Villareal will be back in the Champions League next season.

19:00 Mirasol v Corinthians, Brazilian League Football, Premier Sports
The away side welcome back Portuguese international ringer Liedson after a glittering career in the Motherland.

19:45 Parma v Napoli, Serie A, ESPN/HD
Dropped points against Milan and Brescia are putting the skids on Napoli's title tilt. If they can't beat Parma at home then they don't deserve to win the title.

20:00 Sevilla v Barcelona, La Liga, Sky Sports 1/HD1
So long as Barca can defend corners, they should be fine.

Friday List of Little or No Consequence #179

No Man United is an island?
7 Teams That Have Won The Island Games Football Competition Since It Was First Held In 1989

1. Faroe Islands (1989, 1991)
2. Gibraltar (2007)
3. Guernsey (2001, 2003)
4. Isle of Wight (1995)
5. Jersey (1993, 1997, 2009)
6. Shetland (2005)
7. Ynys Môn (1999)

The next Island Games will be held on the Isle of Wight from 25 June 2011.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Football Americana: 2011 MLS Season Preview (Part 2)

Our MLS season preview continues. You can read Part 1 here.

Building from the bottom

Rarely before has the term "basement club" been more apt; DC United's 2010 season was not only in the basement but chained high on the wall with rats nibbling at its toes. A league-worst 21 goals in 30 games tells its own story, and coach Curt Onalfo didn't see out the season. His replacement, United legend Ben Olsen, took the reins permanently during the winter break and appears to be working seamlessly with the DC front office to work systematically to fix the problems of the past couple of seasons.

There are enormous positives in the capital, and plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Their headline signing is US striker Charlie Davies, who joins on a year-long loan from Sochaux as he looks to step up his recovery from the injuries sustained in a car accident in October 2009. Davies went through a week of training under Olsen's watchful eye and even at 75% of his best would bring goals and pace, surely both priorities for the new coach after assessing his squad through the back end of 2010.

The real lucky break probably came way back on Expansion Draft day, when FC Dallas left midfielder Dax McCarty unprotected and Portland Timbers, after selecting him first, moved him on to United before Olsen could say "yes, please, one of the most complete young midfielders in MLS would be lovely." McCarty's energy is second-to-none, and he offers both the quality and dynamism to improve on last season's appalling showing. It's difficult to tell where DC will end up come October, but it most likely won't be bottom. Mind you, it's all upside from the basement isn't it?

Something to prove

2010 was a difficult season for Houston Dynamo, and the departures of Rico Clark and Stuart Holden combined with injury to Geoff Cameron to leave La Naranje's midfield looking far weaker than it had in 2009, a relatively successful season at Robertson Stadium. Having broken ground on their own soccer-specific stadium in February, the Dynamo will be desperate to improve this term and at least pick up a playoff spot. If Cameron can remain fit, he's exactly the kind of player that can effect such a change.

However, the striker pool seems a tad empty. Everybody knows about Brian Ching's capabilities (and limitations), but while rookie Will Bruin offers decent backup, Cam Weaver and co will need to step up their game if Ching can't play through the whole season. The other question mark hovers over the goalkeeping position, where veteran Pat Onstad finally hung up his gloves - temporarily, as it turns out - to leave Tally Hall and Tyler Deric with a lot of responsibility on their shoulders.

There's also plenty to prove for Steve Nicol and the New England Revolution. Nicol has been head coach at Gillette Stadium since 2002 and has taken his side to MLS Cup final four times, losing in '02, '05, '06 and '07. It was a remarkable run but Nicolball, the Scot's pragmatic style of play, has come under scrutiny after the Revs failed to make the playoffs for the first time under his tutelage last season. New England have lost some leaders lately, with Jay Heaps, Steve Ralston and Taylor Twellman retiring. Shalrie Joseph's discipline takes the edge off his leadership qualities. Questions can and will be asked of the Krafts, but the same is true of Nicol and 2011 will be a big season for him.

Toronto FC came into the league in the 2007 in a blaze of red, civic pride and supporter bluster. They seemed to have it all: a soccer-specific stadium, passionate support and the attitude of a noisy underdog. They are, however, yet to qualify for the playoffs and after four attempts it wasn't suprising to see owners MLSE cut all ties with Mo Johnston, a man who failed to achieve success as both coach and director of soccer, back in September.

Now, Jurgen Klinsmann is knocking around the club as a consultant and Aron Winter is the new head coach and technical director, with an immediate backroom staff of Paul Mariner and Bob de Klerk. It's an experiment for TFC, an attempt to bring a little of the Ajax structure to Canada. It might be just what they need, and if it is then the impact must be immediate. A fifth failure out of five doesn't bear thinking about.

It's also a big season for Robert Warzycha's Columbus Crew. The Crew won MLS Cup in 2008 and the Supporters Shield in both 2008 and 2009, but had to settle for second in the East and an early playoff exit in 2010. It's not a dramatic decline by any stretch of the imagination, but with other teams strengthening it's difficult to see how Columbus can re-establish themselves as a leading team in MLS. As if to illustrate the point, Real Salt Lake demolished them in the second leg of their CONCACAF Champions League tie recently.

It's also worth noting that Guillermo Barros Schelotto, a crucial player for the Crew, is no longer at the club. The 37-year-old former league MVP wasn't in the best of form last year before he returned to Argentina for a last hurrah with his first club, Gimnasia la Plata, but his skill and influence will be very difficult to replace. Without him, someone else will need to step up into a vital role for the club. Frankie Hejduk has also departed.

With pride at stake, Philadelphia Union could do with significant improvement this season. Joining the league in between Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, it seems as if Philly are strangely forgotten as an expansion club and a poor first season on the field won't have helped that. Despite bringing in Faryd Mondragon in goal, the Union could still be too reliant on Danny Mwanga and Sebastien Le Toux - fine players both, but they can't do it all themselves. The addition of Carlos Ruiz clearly strengthens that, but further suggests that the Union are a little top-heavy in talent terms.

That's it for part two. Part three will be with you in a few days' time. In the meantime, let us know what your predictions, hunches and opinions are ahead of MLS 2011. Comments are most welcome below.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Midweek TV Preview: 7 - 10 March 2011

Monday 7 March
20.00 Blackpool v Chelsea, Premier League, Sky Sports 1/HD1/3D
Chelsea are back, aren't they? And they have the faintest glimmer of being back in the title race - though of course, being at Blackpool, anything could happen. Torres will score tonight - there, I've said it.

20.00 Dundee United v Aberdeen, SPL, ESPN/ESPN HD
Do they still call this the New Firm? Much like New Coke, I'm guessing.

Tuesday 8 March
19.45 Barrow v Altrincham, Blue Square Premier League, Premier Sports
Relegation scrap from the bottom of the Blue Square. Both sides are level on points fourth and third from bottom respectively. Barrow haven't had a win in nine games.

19.45 Barcelona v Arsenal, Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg Leg (1-2), Sky Sports 2/HD2
Both teams have key players missing: Barcelona will have almost a second string defense while Arsenal are missing Van Persie and Song. Arsenal will only have a chance of holding on if they can score - it's very unlikely they'll keep a clean sheet.

19.45 Shakhtar Donetsk v Roma, Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg Leg (3-2), Sky Sports 4/HD4
Shakhtar's domestic season kicked off again last week with a last minute win at Sevastapol (putting them 12 points clear at the top). Roma are still throwing leads (including one in the first leg here) despite the departure of Claudio Ranieri.

Wednesday 9 March
19.45 Tottenham Hotspur v AC Milan, Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg (1-0), ITV1/ITV1 HD
A lead, an away goal and home advantage. Should be a formality for Spurs. Shouldn't it?

19.45 Schalke v Valencia, Champions League Round of 16 2nd Leg (1-1), Sky Sports 2/HD2
Raul's second half equaliser in the first leg has really set up this tie. After a desperate season in the League, Felix Magath could end up with a Champions League quarter final place as well as a German Cup Final. Valencia are of course no mugs and have already earned draws at Old Trafford and Ibrox in this competition this season.

22.30 Peñarol v LDU Quito, Copa Libertadores Group 8, Premier Sports
Nice to see a Copa Libertadores fixture with either or both sides NOT coming from Brazil or Argentina. Two games in, all teams in this group have one win and one defeat. Quito though rely on home advantage to get anywhere in this competition having lost just once in the past five years - not so clever on their travels though - their last win being three years and eleven games ago.

Thursday 10 March
18.00 Braga v Liverpool, UEFA Europa League Round of 16 1st Leg, FIVE/FIVE HD
With the obvious exception of their 3-0 defeat to Shaktar, Braga's home form has been near faultless in Europe this season: five wins from six with the Ukrainians the only ones to score. Arsenal, Sevilla and Celtic have all returned from their impressive stadium empty handed. Expect Liverpool to adopt the same dull tactics they employed away in the last round.

18.00 PSV Eindhoven v Rangers, UEFA Europa League Round of 16 1st Leg, ESPN/ESPN HD
After their last minute heroics in Lisbon, Rangers will go into this in positive mood. PSV lead the table in the Netherlands but needed the help of a second half sending off to get past Lille in the last round.

18.00 Bayer Leverkusen v Villarreal, UEFA Europa League Round of 16 1st Leg, ITV4/ITV HD
While 4th in La Liga, Villareal are in a period of very indifferent form. A distant second in the title race in Germany, this competition represents a strong Leverkusen side's best chance of winning something this season.

20.05 Dynamo Kiev v Manchester City, UEFA Europa League Round of 16 1st Leg, ITV4/ITV HD
FIFA ban snoods the week before City travel to play in Kiev in temperatures of -6C. Coincidence? I couldn't possibly say.

20.05 Ajax v Spartak Moscow, UEFA Europa League Round of 16 1st Leg, ESPN/ESPN HD
Spartak are still in pre-season, their first league match being next week. Ajax don't seem to be struggling in front of goal without Luis Suarez - having scored nine in their last two home games.

Football Americana: 2011 MLS Season Preview (Part 1)

So, here we all are then. Another close-season is banished to the record books and Major League Soccer's 2011 campaign is but a matter of weeks away. This has the potential to be something of a low-level watershed for MLS, with the new homegrown players rule arguably edging American football to a brave new era. Arguably.

Of course, with a new season of Major League Soccer comes a new season of Football Americana. Every week I'll be rounding up the latest action from around the league and trying not to be too sarcastic or pro-DC United. There's no doubt that overseas MLS writers like myself observe the American game through a weird lens, but it's one that I feel offers a different perspective. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say the league's fan base is growing in the UK, but it seems to be subject to more curiosity on our humble island than ever before. That can only be a good thing.

Like last year, Football Americana will begin the season with a preview of what lies ahead. It's by no means exhaustive; I won't be breaking down the rosters, predicting the ten playoff qualifiers one by one or nailing my colours to the mast in terms of an MLS Cup winner or a likely league MVP. This is very much a snapshot of where the stories might emerge once the league has returned with the Ides of March. What it will do is look beyond David Beckham and Thierry Henry and share a little more of what MLS has to offer. I won't spend the season evangelising on behalf of the league but I will say this before it gets underway: join in - you won't regret it.

Here's how things are shaping up.

Heading for the top

It's success or bust for LA Galaxy, who are clearly gunning for the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup double with little regard for what other teams might attempt around them. David Beckham remains the headline-maker, of course, with a well-rested Landon Donovan adding guile and pace to LA's midfield. They were both there last season but both had a 2010 interrupted by some combination of injury, loan spells and World Cup preparation. This year, they should be ready to hit the ground running for First Kick.

Bruce Arena's determination to achieve success is demonstrated by the acquisitions he's made over the winter. Experience has been added all over the pitch, bringing in players who know MLS inside out, know what it takes to win and are proven beyond doubt to be capable at this level. Chad Barrett moves to California after being traded away by Toronto in January, and will provide useful back-up to the first choice striker, who will presumably be former New York man Juan Pablo Angel. The Colombian played over 100 times for New York, scoring 58 goals in the process. With Beckham and Donovan providing the service he might just defy his age and notorious wastefulness to take his place in the top few goalscorers for another season.

But perhaps the signing most indicative of LA's intentions is Frankie Hejduk. He joins the Galaxy after being selected in the Re-Entry Draft by Kansas City and then quickly traded away. Hejduk oozes experience, with over 200 MLS appearances, 85 USA caps and a handful of injury-hit years with Bayer Leverkusen to his name. He's added some trophies lately, too; in 2008 he won the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup with Columbus, and the Shield followed again the following year.

The team Angel leaves behind will be favourites to challenge his new club for the title. On star value alone, you have to give New York Red Bulls a chance, but Thierry Henry's got some way to go if he's got any intention of proving he actually wants to be there. Rafa Marquez clearly brings a lot to the table too, but in truth it's some of the Red Bulls' other players that could make all the difference. Striker Juan Agudelo is as exciting a young player as you'll find in the US, while Dane Richards and Joel Lindpere are the men who really have the ability to make this team tick going forward. Tim Ream had a storming first season at the back and will likely be joined by Marquez at centre back.

There will be plenty of eyes on John Rooney and (in England at least) Luke Rodgers, but the likes of Agudelo, Ream and Matt Kassel are probably a more thrilling trio on which to spend your time. The weak link, unfortunately, might well be Bouna Coundoul. The New York goalkeeper is the archetypal average stopper, capable of brilliant saves but equally susceptible to horrible errors. He's certainly got a few blots on his copybook.

Seattle Sounders might be an outside bet at this stage, but Sigi Schmid's men should not be written off in their third season in Major League Soccer. They now know the league, and have strength in depth as well as some fantastic talents. Fredy Montero, the influential Colombian playmaker, has rightly been promoted to Designated Player status, and Steve Zakuani really began to come of age in 2010. Blaise Nkufo has plenty of backup up front, with O'Brian White looking like a shrewd signing. Erik Friburg strengthens the midfield, and holding on to Kasey Keller for another year provides mostly reliable support for a defence boasting Jeff Park and the talented Jhon Kennedy Hurtado.

Searching for continuity

Gary Smith's Colorado Rapids obviously fall into the 'continuity' category after winning MLS Cup last season. The collapse of Omar Cummings' loan move to Aston Villa leaves the champions with Conor Casey continuing to bang in the goals up front. Whatever else the Rapids have going for them (and there's quite a bit), the core of Pablo Mastroeni and the metronomic Jeff Larentowicz is a crucial asset. It seems strange to describe a reigning champion as a dark horse, but this is MLS and that's what the Rapids are. I won't be writing them off for a repeat, but they'll have to improve on last season to do so.

One individual certain to be desperate to continue his form is the 2010 MLS MVP David Ferreira (pictured below) of FC Dallas. The Colombian attacking midfielder was the driver of FCD's superb unbeaten streak and run to MLS Cup final, where the Rapids eventually triumphed. He's a great selling point for the league, being the elusive scorer of great goals and an obvious natural footballer. His play is stylish and incisive, and Dallas would be a very different team without him. There is also a section of MLS fans that would argue that without Dax McCarty, Ferreira might be a very different player.

From their base in Sandy, Utah, Real Salt Lake have grown into a genuine force in MLS without excessive use of the designated player rule. Their 2009 MLS Cup win will have surprised anyone in the UK who tuned into ESPN in the middle of the night to see Beckham stoop to allow Don Garber to place a medal round his neck, but it was a deserved accolade for Salt Lake despite their losing record that season. Last year, they were much better and the credit for both has rightly been given to head coach Jason Kreis, who stepped right into the job after his retirement.

However, there was also a great deal of respect from the players and inside the club for his assistant, Robin Fraser, who got his just reward this winter with the top job at Chivas USA. CJ Brown has stepped into his shoes, but there will be plenty of intrigued onlookers eager to find out exactly what the balance of brainpower was at Rio Tinto Stadium.

That's it for part one. Part two will be with you in a couple of days' time to further whet your appetite. In the meantime, I'd love to know what your predictions, hunches and opinions are ahead of MLS 2011. Comments are most welcome below.

French Football Weekly: Episode 5

With Andrew Gibney safely packed off to ponder his nuptials, it was down to Chris Oakley to provide a whistle-stop review of all this week's action from across the Channel.

There's news of a dramatic last-ditch win for Lille to keep them top of Ligue 1 while Lyon thumped the hapless Arles-Avignon 5-0 in a weekend where goals were somewhat of a rarity.

Elsewhere, there's the sad acknowledgement of Chambery's Coupe de France campaign coming to an end, plus the mouth-watering prospect of a potential Lille-PSG Final.

All that, plus a look ahead to PSG's Europa League visit to Benfica... in this week's French Football Weekly.

Click here to listen to Episode 5 or right-click on the link to download it.