Why Major League Soccer should not play this weekend

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There was a time when I partially defended MLS for playing through FIFA dates. Scheduling was just such a bugger for the league. Capping the gushers of financial losses was a priority, and prudent event scheduling was among the safeguards against larger losses still.

But we’re past that now. Or should be.

Major League Soccer has expanded the season window, which means they can and have provided some relief here and there during FIFA weekends, like the one coming up. The United States is one of many national teams in action this weekend and early next week.

So why is there a full schedule of MLS matches this weekend? The inertia on this matter is getting harder to accept.

The next matches for prominent leagues in Europe and Mexico? March 30. But eight Major League Soccer contests kick off Saturday or Sunday, smack between the pair of World Cup qualifier dates.

These MLS contests count! Some team will miss the playoffs in 2013 by a point or two, or miss out on higher seeding by a razor-thin margin. (If one of Houston’s draws at home last year had become a three-point victory, for example, MLS Cup 2012 would have been in Houston, not Los Angeles. And how different that match might have looked, eh?)

It’s just not right for MLS to position itself on one hand as a wanna-be top league around the world – but on the other hand plow stubbornly through competitive matches as clubs do without their valuable difference makers, the men away on international duty. Besides not being fair to ticket buyers and being a drag on quality (which ultimately affects everything), it just doesn’t feel right.

The problem, of course, is that going dark on more weekends means adding more of pesky mid-week matches. (Or expanding the playing window further still. But starting in March and ending in December looks like plenty to most of us, including Houston Dynamo GM Chris Canetti, who told me this weekend he thinks the nine-month window is stretched too far already.)

Too many MLS markets still have trouble selling mid-week matches. It’s changing. It gets a little better every year, and some markets manage pretty well now.

But MLS hasn’t reached the point just yet where enough fans in enough markets will fight through enough icky obstacles to make mid-week matches, or where enough hard-cores will make MLS matches a priority, whether it’s on Saturday night or some less-ideal time frame.

The other issues that once kept MLS from avoiding FIFA windows no longer apply. For instance, stadium availability was once a bugger, as so many teams shared a facility, almost always as second-fiddle or lower. Now all but four clubs exercise ultimate control over stadium dates, and even that foursome has favorable negotiating status.

Here’s where the pressure is building on this thing:

source: AP

As more high-quality talent migrates into MLS, more players will come up missing on these FIFA dates. So we’re not just talking about a few American stars.

L.A. plays Colorado this weekend, but will do so without its two best individuals, Irish international Robbie Keane (pictured) and U.S. center back Omar Gonzalez. Either one of them could have made a case for league MVP in 2012 – and yet the Galaxy is left without them. (OK, OK, I know there aren’t too many fans beyond Southern California crying for the two-time defending champs …)

And important Western Conference match will be fought between FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake. Only Dallas will be missing three internationals, including its starting goalkeeper and 2012 leading scorer; RSL will be without five international call-ups, including the team’s leading scorer, its goalkeeper and its heart and soul, Kyle Beckerman.

Suddenly, a pretty good match feels a little deflated. And that’s what MLS wants?

Neymar makes history in PSG’s 8-0 thrashing of Dijon

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A pair of statements which are both true, and not at all mutually exclusive, if you allow logic and balance to prevail: 1) Neymar and his friends at Paris Saint-Germain are quite good at the soccer; 2) they aren’t challenged enough in Ligue 1.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Of course, they’ll be challenged plenty during the latter stages of the Champions League (they drew Real Madrid in the round of 16), but on a weekly basis, the level of competition in their domestic league isn’t of a high standard to indicate just how good they are. That’s the new debate with regard to PSG — it’s no longer, “Are they good? Maybe they’re just a big fish in a small pond.”

On Wednesday, led by Neymar, the most expensive transfer signing of all-time, Unai Emery’s side thrashed 10th-place Dijon to the tune of 8-0. As mentioned, Neymar did slightly more than just pull his own weight — four goals to go with a pair of assists; he lent a direct hand in six of the eight goals.

[ MORE: Chelsea survive Norwich in PKs, reach FA Cup 4th round ]

Even the statistical whizzes at Opta appear somewhat stumped by such an abundance of goals.

Anytime the keepers of stats toss out a “since we started collecting data,” be proud of your achievement. Be very, very proud.

FA Cup: Chelsea, Swansea into 4th rd; B’mouth ousted by Wigan

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Two more Premier League sides booked their place in the fourth round of the FA Cup, courtesy of third-round replays, on Wednesday, bringing the PL’s total representation to 14 clubs…

[ MORE: Tuesday’s 3rd-round replay roundup ]

Chelsea 1-1 (5-3 PKs) Norwich City

Chelsea’s scoreless streak — for both themselves and opponents (three straight 0-0 draws across all competitions) — came to a merciful end on Wednesday, but not before surpassing the 300-minute mark. Michy Batshuayi — who, it must be said, struggled mightily in making just his third start (all in cup competitions) since mid-October — broke yet another scoreless deadlock in the 55th minute, ending the Blues’ scoreless run at 331 minutes.

With barely 30 seconds remaining in second-half stoppage time, 19-year-old left back Jamal Lewis brought the Canaries level with a thunderous header off the post.

Extra-time saw Chelsea reduced to 10, and then nine, men. Pedro was booked for diving just after the hour mark, and the Spaniard earned a second yellow card for a wild challenge in the 117th minute. Four minutes later, in second-half extra-time stoppage time, Alvaro Morata was booked for diving and proceeded to shout and gesticulate in the referee’s face. A second yellow was shown immediately.

Willy Caballero denied Nelson Oliveira on Norwich’s first attempt of the ensuing penalty shootout, giving the Blues the only cushion they’d need as Willian, David Luiz, Cesar Azpilicueta, N'Golo Kante and Eden Hazard all converted.

Chelsea will host Newcastle United in the fourth round on Sunday, Jan. 28.

[ MORE: Wednesday’s transfer rumor roundup | Tuesday | Friday ]

Swansea City 2-1 Wolverhampton Wanderers

Swansea faced the greatest threat of a Cupset on Wednesday but managed to come out on top, knocking off runaway Championship leaders and champions-elect Wolves. The Swans went ahead through Jordan Ayew in the 11th minute before the prolific Diogo Jota, who’ll be in the PL one way or another next season, brought Wolves back to 1-1 in the 66th. Three minutes later, Wilfried Bony bagged the winner to see Carlos Carvalhal’s side through to the next round.

Swansea will visit League Two side Notts County, who knocked off Championship playoff hopefuls Brentford in the third round, on Saturday, Jan. 27.

Wigan Athletic 3-0 Bournemouth

Bournemouth sat 32 places above Wigan in the English football pyramid when Wednesday’s replay kicked off, and it matter not a single iota, as Paul Cook’s side hammered the Cherries at the DW Stadium. Sam Morsy, Dan Burn and Callum Elder bagged the goals for the League One leaders (three points clear after 26 of 46 rounds played). Wigan have alternated each of the last four seasons, finishing 23rd in the Championship and leading/winning League One. It’s been five years since the Latics were relegated from the PL, in the 2012-13 season.

Wigan will host West Ham United in the fourth round on Saturday, Jan. 27.

Sir Alex’s son in trouble for saying he’d “shoot” refs

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LONDON (AP) It clearly runs in the family.

Former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson was known for having an explosive temper during his nearly 27 years at Old Trafford, and it seems he has passed it down to his son.

Darren Ferguson, who is the manager of third-tier English team Doncaster, is in trouble for saying he would “shoot” referees because of what he perceived as their poor standards.

Ferguson was charged by the English Football Association on Wednesday for remarks that “were improper and/or brought the game into disrepute.”

The 45-year-old coach has already apologized, saying it was a “tongue-in-cheek comment” and that “I do not advocate violence against officials.”

Ferguson was unhappy his team was denied a penalty in a 1-1 draw with Plymouth on Saturday.

“The referees are part-time and the standard is appalling, their fitness levels are a disgrace, I’ve had enough of it,” Ferguson said after the match.

“What can I do? Shoot them, it would be a good idea.”

Follow Live: Chelsea, Swans, Cherries in FA Cup replays

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Chelsea, Swansea City, and Bournemouth look to avoid upsets in replays of their third round FA Cup matches.

[ LIVE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

All three matches kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET

The Blues tangle with former Premier League peers Norwich City, this time at Stamford Bridge, in a bid to host a fourth round match with Newcastle United.

Antonio Conte‘s not messing around (too much) with the XI.

Swansea City and Wolves, meanwhile, are arguably battling for a bid in the fourth round, as a trip to Notts County is on the docket for the winner of Wednesday’s replay at the Liberty Stadium.

Bournemouth is at Wigan Athletic for a replay with the third-tier Latics, with the victor hosting West Ham United on Jan. 27.