In some ways, the FA Cup (The Football Association Cup) is the finest of all soccer competitions in the world. It brings together English clubs from each of the tiers, with exciting play where lower teams have a chance to topple larger clubs. Many of these matches will be absolute crackers, with teams you’ve never heard of stepping up to bravely take on some of the biggest names in the sport. For the back history on the FA Cup, check the wikipedia page.
Throughout the full soccer season, these English clubs battle their way down to the final match in May. This weekend, we hit the Third Round of proper competition, so you’ll see clubs from the Premier League and Championship League battling for dominance in knockout rounds to stay in the competition.
Here are the matches I’m really looking forward to:
Brighton v. Sheffield Wednesday. You know I’ve got to support the Owls. It is still (as I write this) 0-0 at the beginning of the second half. I’d have thought Wednesday would be a bit stronger than they’ve looked, but Brighton seems to be full of surprises.
Reading v. Blackpool. At the half, Blackpool was up by a goal. This match feels more evenly spread between the teams.
Man City v. Port Vale. This will be a fun game to watch, though City may absolute destroy Port Vale. I love watching smaller teams play the big boys. Port Vale have nothing to lose and I hope they play with a strong heart.
Chelsea v. Nottingham Forest. This is going to be a match of pure fun too. I watch a lot of Nottingham’s matches and I think they’ll give Chelsea a good run. But, I ultimately hope Chelsea pulls it off.
Crystal Palace v. Derby County. Derby has Wayne Rooney on their side. This should be an absolute smash-up.
Gillingham v. West Ham. Up the Hammers, of course.
Arsenal v. Leeds United. I’m anticipating Leeds makes it up the Premier League next season as they currently sit atop the Championship League table. It’ll be a good test of Arsenal’s metal to see if they can make it past Leeds United.
The first day of 2020 brings us a full day of Premier League, thank goodness. Here’s the schedule and if for some unfathomable reason, TheBlackPitch.com is your main source of soccer insights AND you’re a Chelsea fan, I hope you have some other reminder to wake up early for the first match, because we’re only hours away at this point, and you’re likely still out in the streets, whooping it up and drinking yourself into the abyss that was 2019.
PSA: Don’t drink and drive. If you’re gonna drink, don’t drive and if you’re gonna drive, don’t drink.
Of course, tomorrow (or today, depending on when you’re actually reading this) will be a good day to have NBC Sports Gold Premier League Pass. The Watford v. Wolves match should be interesting, as should the West Ham v. Bournemouth. It’ll be West Ham’s first match at home with newly-reappointed manager David Moyes. Typically, you’d expect a bit of a rebound bounce from a club bringing in a new manager, so we’ll see what the actual turnaround might look like for The Hammers. Of course, the standard NBCSN lineup will provide plenty of fun for the day, as I anticipate you, like me, won’t be leaving the couch.
2020 New Year’s Resolutions
The bigger thing I’ve been thinking about is resolutions for the new year, as it relates to my indulgence in soccer/football/the beautiful game. Here are my Top 5 Resolutions for 2020.
Make a better effort to consistently catch the NWSL and Women’s FA club matches. As much as I’ve caught matches here and there, both leagues haven’t been in my regular rotation as much as they should be. Part of this was tracking down a better way to watch, which I think I might have a solution for, but some of this really comes down to putting together a viewing calendar to make sure I’m not tuning in last minute, all of the time. I do this for Premier League, Bundesliga and MLS, so I simply need to add these leagues to the rotation.
See at least four of the Des Moines’ Menace’s home matches this season. I like the Menace. I have a ton of fun watching the lads, especially in recent seasons. Part of being a supporter of local soccer is getting out to the soccer you have in your community. Sometimes, and this is me being totally transparent, but our local club can be a bit of out-of-sight, out-of-mind for me, and remember, soccer is my favorite sport. Part of this is the ease of watching the bigger clubs with the better viewing options. While it allows me to be a soccer fan and digest a lot of matches, it also allows me to be a lazy fan. I have to be out supporting the community in which I live if I hope that we ever have a real chance at fostering a club in a larger league in the Des Moines area.
Regularly watch USL Championship and USL One matches on ESPN+. While these aren’t new additions to ESPN+ (I believe), I simply need to add them to the rotation. In recent months, my attention has turned to interests in the more localized/regional soccer options. These are all great clubs and I don’t mean this in any type of disrespect, but it’s simply easier to be a fan of the biggest clubs in the world. Soccer has to be, first and foremost, local for it to grow and flourish. So, while our Menace will be playing at the League Two level and I’ll have to see it in person, I can help the audience grow by watching the matches on ESPN+.
Watch at least half as many Sheffield Wednesday matches as I watch Chelsea FC matches. One of these days, the Owls will be in the Premier League. Then, my heart will be tugged into two parts. But, until that day, I need to do a better job keeping up with SW.
Finish hanging my new Chelsea FCand Sporting KC flags in my home office. Typical me. Received two brand-new, beautiful flags to hang in the home office, but both are sitting, folded neatly on my desk. There’s got to be a break in the action on New Year’s Day, right?
Goodness, where to start. First and foremost, I finally picked up an Apple TV and installed NBC Sports Gold – Premier League Pass and ESPN+, so I’m literally swimming in leagues and matches, which is fantastic. If you’re thinking about streaming options for league play, the Apple TV makes it super easy. I’m already getting my fill of many of the Premier League matches on NBC Sports and NBC, Bundesliga on Fox channels, but my sweet spot in football match-ups is in the Championship League, so I finally have a better way to keep up with the league. Still watching #WSL on the FAPlayer, which is fine, but I’m hoping they have a better streaming option that I can connect via the Apple TV in future seasons, and I’m anticipating the return of MLS and NWSL (I picked up the Yahoo Sports app).
In the meantime, back to this past week’s match-ups.
Surprises: ManCity drawing away against Newcastle, Arsenal drawing away against Norwich City and ManUnited drawing at home against Aston Villa.
Liverpool took out Brighton by a goal (thought this would be a bigger spread)
West Ham got the best of Chelsea (see the previous post)
And the Premier League sort of resets with sacked managers, soon-to-be sacked managers and clubs in flux.
Liverpool still leads the run 8-points clear of Leicester City (#2). Chelsea is clear 6-points of Tottenham. Norwich City, Watford and Southampton carry on their woes at the bottom of the table. Hopefully, West Ham is showing a turnaround and maybe Pellegrini keeps his role as manager. Arsenal and ManUnited seemingly have plateau’d their performances, but are still on rather shaky ground. Everton appears to be in dire straits at #17.
I mentioned earlier some clubhouse shake-ups with managers in the Premier League. This feels like it’s happening more quickly than it has in recent seasons and honestly, I hope this is a trend that doesn’t continue. At the beginning of September, Watford sacked Javi Garcia who had spent 594 days with the club. They then bring in Quique Flores, who was sacked today at 85 days. (Goodness.) Mauricio Pochettino had more than 2,000 days with the club before being sacked in favor of bringing in Jose Mourinho. Arsenal dismissed Unai Emergy who had 555 days with the club. His former assistant manager and club legend, Freddie Ljungberg is running as the interim manager. Flores was the 24th casualty in the English leagues in the 2019/2020 season. Sheesh.
English Women’s FA League
West Ham’s club was on a roll, gaining the three-points against Manchester United earlier in the day. Chelsea destroyed Birmingham City with six goals and a clean sheet.
Chelsea still has their week 8 match to play and potentially score another 3-points to put them back at the top of the table.
Sheffield Wednesday visited Charlton Athletic and stole the match with three-points. It was still 1-1 after the half, but Sheffield Wednesday turned up the heat and knocked in two more shots. Brentford’s home match against Luton Town should have had mercy rules, as L-Town walked away with a thorough thrashing 7-0. Leeds United beat Middlesbrough (not a huge surprise against the very bottom of the table) and hold the top of the table with five wins in their last five appearances.
Inter took out SPAL at home and has the top of the Serie A table. Juventus missed a prime opportunity to take the top spot with a draw against Sassuolo. Fiorentina took a tough defeat against Lecce and Franck Ribery and had to have assistance walking off after suffering a serious ankle ligament injury, one that may keep him off the pitch for the remainder of the season. Atalanta, Torino, Roma, Milan, Lazio and Bologna also carried away 3-points over the weekend.
Premier League will have a lot of mid-week action to tune in for.
And the award for taking the fun out of the beautiful game goes to…Premier League refs’ inability to use VAR correctly.
Here’s the thing, proper football/soccer is a sport about feel and drama. The use, or misuse, of VAR simply sucks the life out of the sport. Measuring millimeters through the sideline cameras and 3D rotations to see where the attacker’s toes were cut the game down to battles of nuance.
For a game that allows 3 minutes of extra time to, on occasion, run into 4-minute territory, VAR is a slap of the hand with a wooden ruler. The more football associations leverage the technology over the feel of on-field refs, the more they drain the life out of the game.
A brand new manager, an away match to prove themselves and regain the trust of the fans. Today was a big day for the Spurs. After Week 12, they had found themselves slumping in the table rankings with less and less hope. Then, the owner sacked their previous manager and brought in Jose Mourinho, a somewhat divisive manager that can either turn a club around or make things much worse. (And this isn’t to say that Mourinho is a bad manager, but things do get awfully dramatic when he’s steering the ship.)
So, today’s Week 13 match placed the Spurs against West Ham United (#COYI). The Hammers have been hanging around the bottom of the table (currently in the 16th spot). This would normally be a blow-out match for Tottenham.
Ok, the obvious first. Tottenham won. They had essentially two days to pull it together with their new manager. But, also remember, this is a champion-level team. It’s shocking how close the stats look. Moreover, the Spurs appear to have had a great first 50 minutes and then gave the Hammers the opportunity to bring it back together. The amount of possession that the Hammers carried was simply amazing when you consider the last 20 minutes of the match. West Ham’s passing accuracy was incredible consider the Spurs should be a “defender” style team. On target shots to shots overall would be 40% for the Spurs and 36% for West Ham United.
Bottom line: Both of these teams have been playing below their caliber. Hopefully, both can turn it around in the coming weeks. I’d like to see the Hammers get back up to mid-table, but at least the Spurs pulled this one off. Jose was in rare form as an apparently supportive manager on the sidelines, not doing the usual sulking he’s known for. At the very least, the rest of the season will be interesting to watch.
The saga with Bury FC, the expelled English League One team, continues.
As detailed in the BBC’s article:
A letter sent to the EFL, FA, and minister for sport demands a revamp.
And if reforms are not made, the government has been asked to intervene.
A three-page letter from Conservative MP Damian Collins, who is chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, was also sent to Jonathan Taylor QC, who is overseeing an independent review of the regulations and procedures concerning the financial sustainability of clubs.
Collins has called for “urgent action” to prevent other clubs following Bury into financial trouble and added that the league has to “share the blame” for the Shakers’ turmoil.
Other major reforms recommended by the committee are:
The FA, EFL and Premier League should establish a supporters’ ombudsman to hear concerns about how clubs are being run.
Reformed owners’ and directors’ test would disqualify a buyer with record of corporate insolvency.
Clubs would be banned from borrowing against fixed assets such as stadiums.
Formal and enforceable licensing system for professional English football clubs, as recommended in 2011 report on Football Governance.
Financial issues are just specific to Bury, or even Bolton (a team that somehow hasn’t earned the ire of the pundits). Outrageous spending is a real thing, and the Premier League doesn’t really carry salary caps. Between expensive stadiums, growing player purchases and other aspects of the game, there are tons of teams that have toed the line of becoming insolvent. Meanwhile, this may be the end of Bury FC. Time will tell. Its a real shame for the town and its supporters.
Yeah, we’re nearly halfway through the season, but maybe you’re brand new to the most beautiful game in the world, or like many fans of the biggest clubs in England, you’re ready to drop kick your old reliable because of their recent descents into darkness. Have no fear, this incredibly biased perspective will help you figure out which team is worth your time.
Do You Like Winners? Since 2010, six clubs (The Big 6) have historically been at the top of the table, including Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham. As you’ll see below, the recent descent into darkness has had Arsenal, Manchester United and (recently) Tottenham in a tailspin and Manchester City has been enduring more hiccups than usual during the past two months of matches.
Arsenal: Arsenal is a North London club, and has carried the longest winning streak of any club in the Premier League. Their home stadium is Emirates Stadium. They have fans across the world, due largely to their mainstay as one of the Premier League’s top teams. Their current manager is Unai Emery, who’s been on since Spring 2018, after long-time manager Arsene Wenger stepped aside. The 2019/2020 season has been rocky for the Gooners, but they’ll likely maintain a stay in the league even if their performance totally falls apart, since a bad season is still a good season for many other clubs.
Aston Villa: AVFC is a club from Birmingham. The club bounces between the Championship League and the Premier League, as it is what is known as an in-betweener. It’s not a solid enough team to maintain it’s position in the Premier League for more than a few seasons at a time and will typically return to the Premier League after gaining their footing in the Championship League (1 tier below the Premiership for you new football fans out there). West Bromwich Albion has been its biggest rival throughout the years and the club boasts at least four main hooligan firms. Oh, you hooligans. Being an Aston Villa fan means you’re comfortable with turning your attention from the big stage to following the team to the Championship League and watching some of your favorite players jump ships.
AFC Bournemouth: Bournemouth also are a relatively new entrant to the Premier League. They see Southampton as their biggest rivals and can be a surprise to upper-tier and mid-tier clubs in the Premier League who expect them to be complete pushovers. They’re nicknamed The Cherries, due in part to their red and black kits. They’re another deep cut for Premier League clubs. Following Bournemouth is a good way to show that you’re not another fly-by-night fan who’s jumping on the Big 6’s fan bus.
Brighton and Hove Albion: Hailing from Brighton, this club has hung around the relegation cut-off for a while now. If you go back nearly 20 years, they were nearly out of the whole stratification of English clubs, but have since come back up through the ranks to the Premiership. Their big rival is Crystal Palace, but BHA is the perfect club for someone who loves the fear and anxiety of waiting for their club to potentially fall off the trapeze, as compared to a real run for the title.
Burnley: Burnley is an interesting club. Here is another club that has dropped all the way down the English ranks to the fourth tier, but climbed its way back up to the Premiership since it bottomed out in 1987. This is important to note, because it has a very strong following among the clubs of England’s Northwest, with attendance north of 20k within a town of 73k. Not a bad supporter ratio at all. If you like cheering on the underdog, Burnley is not a bad place to be.
Chelsea: Ok, full disclosure, Chelsea is my favorite team, so this summary will be extremely biased. What can I say, beyond “Blues ’til I die.” Chelsea is another extremely successful London club from London’s west end, with rivalries with Arsenal and Tottenham. They’re owned by Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich, which means they’ve had a healthy appetite for bringing in top-class players and having one of the finest stadiums in the league (Go Stamford Bridge). Recently, they were valued as the sixth most valuable team in the world and eighth highest earning club. Their current manager, Frank Lampard, is a club hero having played as the club’s highest goal scorer. As a side note, Chelsea maintains both stellar women’s and men’s teams, though to see the women’s matches, you’ll need to pick up the FAPlayer app, which is free. What can I say, they tend to win alot, have explosive and fast speed of play and their kits are typically stellar. You can’t miss by being a Chelsea FC supporter. You’ll be joined by a solid fan base across the world.
Crystal Palace: Crystal Palace is a South London team, where there are shared rivalries with Millwall and Charlton Athletic. They also have a fierce rivalry with BHA. Since 2014, they’ve held their spot in the Premier League, but admittedly they tend to be a mid-table team, finishing south of the 10th rank over the past few years. Their kits are decent enough, they tend to pull out surprise wins and they seem relatively stable as a team. Crystal Palace is a team that you won’t expect to win the league, but you’ll see a lot of fine match-ups. If you’re looking for a non-Big 6 team to support, you could do a lot worse than Crystal Palace.
Everton: Everton FC is another top-tier club (they’ve been in the top league since the mid-50s), sharing a Liverpool home with Liverpool FC, across the way in Goodison Park. Nicknamed The Toffees, EFC is one of the most solid teams to support in the Premier League. And, with a long-history of quality football, you’re nearly assured that each season will find Everton’s matches televised across the world. It’s also a relatively drama-free club, so if you prefer your sport over the salacious gossip in the papers, this is a good team to follow.
Leicester City: If you’ve heard anything about The Foxes and aren’t a die-hard supporter, it’s likely that you heard about Leicester City’s incredible 2015/2016 run to take the Premier League title, after returning to the top-tier just a season before. Leicester became known for their counterattacking style of play, “incredible pace in the areas it is most essential” and defensive solidarity. Forward Jamie Vardy was instrumental in many of the wins in the 2015/2016 season and beyond. At the moment, Leicester City is in second place in the tables, following behind Liverpool and separated from Chelsea by +11 points in goal differential. So far this season, they’ve only lost to Liverpool and, somehow, Manchester United. Another solid team for supporters to get behind.
Liverpool: Liverpool are honestly the darlings of the Premier League. It’s hard to hate against them, unless you’re an Everton fan. Lead by manager Jurgen Klopp (Captain Hugs for his notorious celebratory player hugs), the club has been on a hot streak. And though they haven’t won the Premiership since the 1989/1990 season, they’ve brought home their fair share of silverware from European contests since. Liverpool currently has one of the most cohesive teams in the league, with players who actually seem like a coherent family. They’ve got killer merch, a great slogan (You’ll Never Walk Alone) and pull out some of the most powerful wins of any current Premier League club. Plus, they’re from Liverpool. It’s what would have been if The Beatles had been a football team rather than a smashingly good pop quartet. They’re also playing at a pace and quality that they may have the title wrapped up well before the season ends.
Manchester City: I compare ManCity to the Boston Red Sox. They’re a powerhouse, but for some reason, this season, they’ve just lost a little steam. Still an incredible team and a much better choice to follow than ManUnited (read more about this dumpster fire of a team below). Under the management of Pep Guardiola they won the Premier League in 2018 becoming the only Premier League team to attain 100 points in a single season. Again, jumping on the ManCity bandwagon is like jumping on the Red Sox wagon; you’ll see a ton of great matches, but everyone will think you’re just picking a winner (which you sort of are).
Manchester United: I’m just going to put this out there. ManUnited has been a terrible pile of trash for several years. This season is the first time we’re actually seeing them falling down toward relegation territory, which would serve them right since they are loosing some matches against teams that should win on paper. Yeah, they’re still part of the Big 6, but you wouldn’t recognize them from the team from a decade ago. It’s as it a few seasons ago, the whole team woke up and had simply forgotten how to play the game. They’ve had issues with players, managers and even a solid chunk of their supporters seem to be dwindling in faith. They also seem to have recently developed an uncanny knack at spending outrageous amounts of money on players that simply don’t fit the team. I could go on, but it would be a waste of both of our time. Jumping on this ship should be an indicator that there is something wildly wrong with your understanding of sport. Still, go Devils?
Newcastle United: Newcastle is a classic yo-yo team. On average, they’ve hovered around the bottom third of the Premier League table, with a few exceptions when the wagon wheels just fell of and they dropped to the Championship season for a moment and then returned to start that plummeting effect all over. Obviously, they’ve have cool sponsorships and coordinated kits. For all of that, they have an incredibly strong following, with average attendance in the 50k range for the past 8 years. Sting, from The Police, is a huge fan.
Norwich City: Nicknamed The Canaries, Norwich City rejoins the Premier League this season since dropping down to the Championship in 2016. Some may suggest the club’s best days are well behind it, with stronger contention for the League between 1987 and 1993, yet they’ve never won the top-tier’s trophy. It feels mean to kick a smaller team, but Norwich City is interesting to watch, even in their green kit on green pitches.
Sheffield United: Sheffield United is the second best team to hail from the Sheffield, England area (Sheffield Wednesday being my favorite team currently in the Championship league). All joking aside, SheffUnited have spent the bulk of the last three decades in the Championship league. So, their current run isn’t so surprising as they seem to have a lot to prove.
Southampton: The Saints have never won the Premier League title either, but they’ve been a solidly mid-level team in the league since their return to the top-tier in 2012/2013. The few years after their return signaled a climb to the middle of the pack, but has since dropped off. Consider this team as a deep cut for new fans, but don’t expect a ton of wins.
Tottenham Hotspur: The Spurs seemingly have been in a spiral this season, potentially stemming from some dismal competitions in the last season. Recently, they kicked their 5-year manager, Mauricio Pochettino, to the curb and brought in Jose Mourinho after the season had been falling apart, with a Match Week 12 ranking of 14th. (Woof.) The internet generally lost their mind with the incoming Mourinho who has a totally different style of play from the traditional Spurs’ aggressive play. The team has been technically proficient and has been in the top of the league since the early 60’s. My prediction is that they’ll continue to unravel, but hey, they do have the pedigree.
Watford: Elton John is a supporter, which might be the most interesting aspect of the team. They’ve been in the Premier League for several seasons since dropping down to the Championship for a while. Honestly, they’re simply a snooze and a bit irritating when they somehow pull off a win or a draw against one of your favorite clubs. If you’re a fan of pure vanilla VSCO-style stuff, yeah, give ’em a go.
West Ham United: WHU are known affectionately as The Hammers and use the slogan COYI (or Come On You Irons). West Ham would be a great team to follow and have generally held a mid-table spot in the Premiership, except for four various drops to the Championship. WHU has die-hard supporters and the most killer merch to prove it. If you’re a fan of Iron Maiden, you’ll recognize the crest on Steve Harris’ signature Fender Precision bass. They’ve never won the Premier League, but they have the greatest heart and passion of any club in the division, maybe second only to Liverpool.
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Meh. The Wolves are basically a tease, spending the better part of the past 30 years in the Championship league. They just returned to the Premiership in the 2018/2019 season. They’re currently eighth overall, but that’s not saying much. They draw more than they win. They’ve also been unable to put more than 2 points a match on the board. I’d rather support a team that can find the goal on a regular basis.