Ferdinand retires from international soccer, what now for England?

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This morning Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand announced his retirement from international soccer.

Considering he hasn’t played for England in nearly two years, you can be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about.

But Ferdinand’s form for United this season has shown everyone that he still has plenty to give on the elite stage, with many believing the 34-year-old center back could still do a tremendous job for the Three Lions.

Ferdinand won 81 caps for England, scoring three times which included a goal in the last 16 win over Denmark in the 2002 World Cup.

In all he played in the 1998, 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cups and was named England captain in 2008.

After several injury hit seasons, the 2012-13 campaign saw him return to form and fitness, which resulted in a recall to the England squad under new manager Roy Hodgson. However Ferdinand ended up declining the call up, citing health reasons after a back injury. But created a furor after instead flying to the Middle East to cover the England games he pulled out of, as a pundit for a foreign satellite TV company.

Of course, England have plenty of players who can step in in central defense. But are any quite as good as Ferdinand?

They haven’t shown so yet.

As aforementioned, Ferdinand has not played since June 2011 for England. Since then Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson have used the likes of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill, Joleon Lescott, Michael Dawson, Ryan Shawcross and Steven Caulker at center back.

The fact that so many different players have been used, highlights England’s main problem. They haven’t been able to replace the solid partnership of John Terry and Ferdinand that stood as their foundation for many years.

But it isn’t as if Ferdinand is past it or melting into the background at United. This season he was arguably their most consistent performer and his place in the EPL team of the year cements that notion. He still has a lot to give for club and country, which is why this announcement is so disappointing.

(More: Ferdinand snubs England call up, after Hodgson extends olive branch)

In Ferdinand’s press release announcing his retirement, the London born defender had this to say. “I feel the time is right for me to stand aside and let the younger players come through.”

The sad fact is, for England fans, Rio has done that for the last two years and nobody has emerged as his successor. England’s defensive future remains unresolved.

Who would you like to see as the Three Lions central defensive pairing? Cahill and Jagielka? Smalling and Jones? Or perhaps Lescott and Dawson?

Whichever pair you chose, ask yourself this. Was Rio Ferdinand head and shoulders above them in his prime? Yes, will be the likely answer. And therein lies the problem for Hodgson and the English national team.

New York Red Bulls introduce space at RBA for autistic families

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HARRISON, N.J. (AP) The Red Bulls have announced plans for a permanent sensory-friendly space at their stadium for families impacted by autism.

Formerly executive offices, the space overlooking midfield is a calm area that is free from the crowds and the noise of Red Bull Arena during matches. Families can use it for free.

The team announced the new space on Saturday before the Red Bulls were set to host the Chicago Fire. It was Autism Awareness Night at the stadium.

“Families deserve to feel welcome and comfortable each time they step foot into Red Bull Arena, not just one night a year,” Red Bulls GM Marc de Grandpre said in a statement released by the club. “We hope all sports teams and entertainment venues are inspired to take similar action to provide comfort for families with loved ones on the autism spectrum.”

League Two game restarted in empty stadium after fans storm field

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LONDON (AP) An English soccer game restarted in an empty stadium after a pitch invasion led to the crowd being told the fixture had been abandoned.

There were five minutes remaining in Leyton Orient’s fourth-tier game against Colchester on Saturday when a sit-down protest was staged on the pitch by Orient fans against Italian owner Francesco Becchetti.

It forced the referee to take the players off the field. The protests lasted for more than an hour before the crowd was told the game had been abandoned and the stadium eventually cleared. The teams came out and finished the game.

Leyton Orient lost 3-1 a week after its relegation from the English Football League was confirmed after 112 years.

“A decision was taken with the police to announce that the game had been abandoned as it was felt this would help clear the pitch, which proved correct,” the EFL said in a statement. “However, it was deemed appropriate that the game needed to be played to a conclusion in order to maintain the integrity of the competition.”

La Liga: Barcelona, Real Madrid hold serve in tight title race

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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Super-duper Sunday preview — North London derby, plus 6 of top 7 ]

Espanyol 0-3 Barcelona

Barcelona are doing all they can do — win — in their bid to usurp Real Madrid in the race for the title. While they entered the weekend — and still are — ahead of their El Clasico rivals based on head-to-head results this season, Los Blancos still have a game in hand which will surely decide whether Madrid claim their 33rd top-division title, or a 25th for Barca.

On Saturday, Luis Enrique’s side had more than just the title at stake — also at stake: the Derbi Barceloni, against fellow Catalan side Espanyol.

For 45 minutes, the home side held firm and refused to break, but once Luis Suarez put the Blaugrana ahead in the 50th minute, that was all she wrote. Ivan Rakitic doubled the advantage in the 76th minute, and Suarez completed the scoring 11 minutes later.

Real Madrid 2-1 Valencia

By the time the derby kicked off, Madrid had already applied the pressure and gone three points clear with a 2-1 victory that was a whole lot closer than the final score indicates.

Cristiano Ronaldo opened the scoring just before the half-hour mark, and Zinedine Zidane’s side was well on its way to victory. Ronaldo followed up his opening goal with a missed penalty kick 10 minutes into the second half, and Daniel Parejo pulled the visitors level with a sensational free kick just eight minutes before the end of regular time. Points looked sure to be dropped, and the door opened wider for Barca, but Marcelo was prepared to play the part of hero on the day, and the Brazilian left back bagged one of the season’s more improbable goals, a right-footed strike from the top of the box, in the 86th minute.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Las Palmas 0-5 Atletico Madrid
Real Sociedad 2-1 Granada

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Osasuna vs. Deportivo La Coruña — 6 a.m. ET
Real Betis vs. Alaves — 10:15 a.m. ET
Eibar vs. Leganes — 12:30 p.m. ET
Celta Vigo vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:45 p.m. ET

Monday’s La Liga schedule

Malaga vs. Sevilla — 3 p.m. ET

Championship Focus: It’s all about the playoff places now

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With Brighton & Hove Albion and Newcastle United having already clinched the Championship’s two automatic promotion places, all eyes turn to the four teams behind them still jockeying for playoff positioning…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s coverage of the Championship ]

3rd — Reading — 82 points, +2 GD
4th — Sheffield Wednesday — 81 points, +16 GD
5th — Huddersfield Town — 81 points, +1 GD
6th — Fulham — 77 points, +27 GD

First of all, the Championship remains the least sensible league in the world. Disagree? Just try to explain the above wildly varying points totals and the corresponding goal differentials. Go ahead, I’ll wait

As for the weekend’s results, Reading and Wednesday did themselves major favors in the race for third with victories over Wigan Athletic (1-0) and Ipswich Town (1-0), respectively, while Huddersfield, who entered the weekend in that top playoff place, played 67 minutes with a man advantage against Birmingham City, and lost 2-0. All three of Reading, Wednesday and Huddersfield have clinched their place in the promotion playoffs, which begin two weeks from Saturday, on May 13.

[ MORE: PL Sunday preview — North London derby, plus 6 of the top 7 play ]

Given Leeds United’s 3-3 draw with Norwich City, a win would have clinched the fourth and final playoff place for Fulham, but the Cottagers dropped a pair of points themselves in a 1-1 draw with Brentford at Craven Cottage. Still, Fulham are all but into the playoffs with a three-point lead on Leeds, and a goal differential that’s 13 goals better.