Falcao, Pekerman have Colombia slowly changing South America’s landscape

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Radamel Falcao’s running out of ways to react. Scoring has become such a frequent occurrence, the Colombia star has had to find new ways to describe his goals.

After a double on Friday, Falcao resorted to comedy.

“[T]he right leg is getting jealous,” he said after scoring twice with his left in Colombia’s 2-0 win over Paraguay.

“Paraguay were a very tough obstacle to break down,” according to Falcao. “We had to really fight hard to get the job done.”

The performance wasn’t as convincing as last break’s blowout of Uruguay. Colombia struggled through the first half against a dogged but unthreatening Paraguay.

Seven minutes into the second, Falcao broke through.

“Thank God my goals (got us the win), but it was the work of the whole team … I’m very happy with the win and the goals.”

Both have been coming in bunches for Falcão. The Atlético Madrid striker has scored eight times in six Liga matches. He’s bagged another five in qualifying. Just as the Atleti sit second in Spain, the Cafeteros are behind only Argentina in South America.

“Our goal is the World Cup and it is a long way there,” Falcao said Friday. “We must continue with the same intensity and mentality (to achieve this goal.)”

At this point, Colombia missing out on Brazil would require a major dip in form, even if they’re only five points up on sixth place Venezuela. Four CONMEBOL teams will earn automatic qualification for the 2014 World Cup, with the fifth place team destined for a playoff against a representative from Asia.

In 2010, Colombia finished seventh in qualifying, scoring only 14 goals in 18 games while coming up one point short of the playoff spot. After qualifying for every World Cup in the 1990s, Colombia has missed out on the last three finals.

With a new decade has come a new regime and new hope. In January, José Pekerman became Colombia’s third coach of the decade. Under the former Argentina boss, the Cafeteros are a changed team, having already matched last cycle’s goal output during a 5-2-1 start.

Along with Falcao’s emergence, Pekerman’s presence is reason to believe this is more than just a hot streak for Colombia. Pekerman’s successes with Argentina’s youth teams (three U-20 World Cups) along with a strong showing with the senior team at the 2006 World Cup make him one of the most respected coaches in South America. His failures in Mexico (with Toluca and Tigres) did little to dampen his reputation, making his capture by Colombia a minor coup.

Pekerman made an immediate impact, leading the team to a 2-0 win over Mexico in his debut, implementing more proactive tactics that took advantage of talents like Falcao, Porto’s James Rodríguez, and Napoli’s Juan Camilo Zuniga. In defense, Colombia has moved even more stingy than the previous cycle, their goals allowed rate dropping from one per match to 0.75.

The Cafeteros‘ improvement makes an already crowded South American scene almost unfair. Even though the number of World Cup spots available to CONMEBOL has increased from 4.5 to 5.5 (with Brazil already awarded one), two good teams from South America are destined to miss out on the finals.

Paraguay, participants in four-straight World Cups, will almost certainly miss 2014. Friday’s match was viewed as make-or-break for a team that had lost its four previous qualifiers. While they were able to take a scoreless tie into halftime, the second half showed a Paraguayan team that has regressed starkly from last cycle. After the loss in Baranquilla, they sit in last place with only four points through eight matches.

Venezuela may be the team most hurt by Colombia’s resurgence. After a strong showing at the 2011 Copa America, the Vinotinto was picked by many to make their first finals in 2014. Halfway through the qualifying tournament, César Farías’s team sits sixth, one point out of a playoff spot. With only seven goals through eight matches, their troubles emulate Colombia’s during the 2010 cycle. Aside from 23-year-old striker Salomón Rondón, no Venezuela player has scored more than one goal in the tournament.

That Ecuador (like Colombia) is also experiencing a surge makes it even less likely Venezuela will break through for 2014. But unlike the Ecuadorians, who could push a team like Chile or Uruguay into the intercontinental playoff, Colombia’s rise looks like more like an awakening than a run. The second-most populated country on the continent, Colombia has always had the resources to challenge the big two. The only thing they lacked were the roots to cultivate those resources.

Thanks to Pekerman and Falcao, Colombia has awaken from a dormant decade. They’ve risen into the top 10 of FIFA’s world rankings, and while that may flatter the still improving team, Colombia may yet develop into the giant many used to see emerging.

MLS Snapshot: Jozy double downs Dynamo, Toronto wins 2-0

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The game in 100 words (or less): Toronto FC had too much firepower for defensively challenged Houston, and the hosts carved up the Dynamo for a 2-0 win north of the border. Giovinco was creative and flashy if not sharp, and Jozy Altidore was the benefactor as the American bagged both goals. After an early spell of Houston possession off the opening whistle, Toronto dominated from start to finish, with the midfield bossing the game.

Three moments that mattered

16′ – Raheem Edwards on the ball out wide, he burst into the box and – seeing Giovinco draw 2 defenders in an offside position – he cut back for Altidore who finished cooly from the spot. Too easy for the opener.

32′– Jozy doubled his lead as he played an absolutely brilliant one-two with Giovinco. The Italian popped it over the top as Altidore slipped through the line, and the USMNT star had the simplest of finishes.

85′ – Houston looked to get back into things by pouring men forward, but to no avail. The closest they came was off a corner as Alex ripped off a shot that sailed over the bar.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Victor Vazquez/Marco Delgado

Goalscorers: Jozy Altidore (16′, 32′)

Juventus bumped by Atalanta at the death

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Juventus is still in firm control of the Serie A title race, but they were dealt a slight setback as Atalanta secured a 2-2 draw with a dramatic 89th minute equalizer in Bergamo.

Dani Alves had given Juventus the lead in the 83rd minute on a header after a brilliant far-post cross by Miralem Pjanic, but Remo Freuler answered late as he grabbed a point.

The goal came on a fortunate bounce as Pjanic and substitute Stephen Lichtensteiner got tangled up on the ball and failed to clear, and the ball squirted to Freuler who suddenly found himself free in front of Gianluigi Buffon. The Juventus keeper came off his line to smother the chance, but he failed to completely collect, and the ball again popped free. Freuler followed up the loose ball, and with a trio of Juventus defenders flying in, the 25-year-old Swiss attacker knocked it in.

The draw was deserving for Atalanta, who had controlled the game for much of the first half, and went ahead just seconds before the break on a goal by Andrea Conti. Atalanta outshot Juventus 7-4 in the first half, 3-1 on shots on target. Juventus took over control in the second half, and got back on level terms just five minutes after the break as Juventus loanee Leonardo Spinazzola put one in his own net.

Alves’ goal put Juventus in front, but that lead only lasted six minutes. Juventus goes nine points clear at the top of the Serie A table with the draw, but Roma has the chance to cut that to six if they can beat Lazio at home on Sunday.

MLS Week 8: Litmus tests across the board

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Week 8 in MLS action could teach fans a lot about clubs with plenty to prove.

With questions still abound regarding teams like NYCFC, New England, Seattle, Portland, and New York Red Bulls, all those teams have a chance to make statements regarding their potential strength this season.

[ MORE: Week 8 MLS Power Rankings ]

In addition, struggling teams such as Los Angeles, Minnesota, and Montreal all have opportunities for much-needed points against arguably weaker opposition.

Let’s take a look at the weekend slate chronologically:

Toronto FC vs. Houston Dynamo
7:30 p.m. ET Friday

Toronto got a pair from Giovinco last time out, and sitting near the bottom of the crowded East mid-tier, they need points fast to avoid finding themselves in a hole behind the top of the table. There’s goals in this one, with Houston defensively challenged and Cubo Torres on fire to start the year.

Montreal Impact vs. Vancouver Whitecaps
3:00 p.m. ET Saturday

An all-Canadian clash actually serves as a vitally important match for both clubs. With each side near the bottom of their conference standings, they both need a result badly to jump-start the campaign. A draw does nobody any good here moving forward.

Orlando City vs. Colorado Rapids
4:00 p.m. ET Saturday

The Lions are one of 2017’s surprises, and Cyle Larin is on an absolute tear. Unfortunately, so far, anyone who shuts down Larin shuts down Orlando City. That said, good luck to Colorado shutting down an early MLS Golden Boot challenger.

Cyle Larin has 6 goals in 6 games this season (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images).

NY Red Bulls vs. Chicago Fire
7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

New York has seen bumps on the early-season road, but overall remains a strong Supporter’s Shield contender. They face a big test against another strong Eastern Conference side, and a win here would make it three straight, all over good competition. Chicago is reeling after its defeat to Toronto, out-shot 9-1, but has another chance to pick up a road win before heading back home.

Columbus Crew vs. NYCFC
7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Columbus has been poor on the road, but they return home to Mapfre Stadium to take on a strong NYCFC side. This game could potentially teach us a lot about whoever comes out on top, as both look to build separation from the rest of the pack in the East. Both have lost two of three, but both still appear strong up front, and three points in this game could prove to be a marquee win to point to later in the season.

Minnesota United vs. San Jose Earthquakes
8:00 p.m. ET Saturday

Minnesota United, owners of one of the worst starts to the season, has shown signs of life. Can they keep it going against another team struggling for points?

FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers
8:00 p.m. ET Saturday

This is a marquee matchup, and with FC Dallas unbeaten so far, represents a huge test but also a huge opportunity for Portland to announce itself as a true top contender in the West. They’re top of the table, but have played at least one more game than most teams just below them. Can the Timbers find a way through the strong Dallas D?

Sporting KC vs. Real Salt Lake
8:30 p.m. ET Saturday

A big rivalry game with big table implications, Sporting KC has the unfortunate luck of catching RSL after hiring Mike Petke and not before. This should be a fun one.

Seattle Sounders vs. New England Revolution
10:00 p.m. ET Saturday

We still don’t know exactly what New England is. For every step forward they’ve taken one back, and for every setback they’ve had they’ve found a way through. This is a fantastic test. There are plenty of excuses for a potential loss with the team going cross-country to face one of the league’s best attacks, but a result could be a true statement.

LA Galaxy vs. Philadelphia Union
10:30 p.m. ET Saturday

With Philadelphia struggling and now traveling a long way, this should be a chance for the Galaxy to turn things around. Should be.

Atlanta United vs. D.C. United
3:00 p.m. ET Sunday

Atlanta is back home for the first time in over a month. They have slipped a bit since the torrid start, but still appear a dangerous club. D.C. will have its work cut out.

Asian FIFA executive pleads guilty to bribery charges

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A guilty plea was entered early Friday by senior Asian Federation (AFC) official Richard Lai to bribery charges, leading FIFA to suspend the 55-year-old indefinitely.

Lai has served as the head of the Guam FA since 2001, and is a member of the FIFA audit and compliance committee. He was also formerly a member of the AFC executive committee, and currently sits on the AFC marketing committee. Lai is a United States citizen.

The guilty plea confirms more than $1 million in bribes accepted by Lai, including those from Kuwaiti officials looking to increase their influence over FIFA voters in the confederation. Two unnamed AFC executives, including one Kuwaiti, were also named as co-conspirators.

“One of the functions the defendant Richard Lai performed for Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 in exchange for the funds they sent him was to advise them on who was supporting which candidates in AFC and FIFA matters, including elections, and who Co-Conspirator #2 and Co-Conspirator #3 should recruit to support their chosen candidates,” a Department of Justice document published on Friday said.

That wording seems to indirectly implicate Qatari executive Mohamed bin Hammam, who was banned for life by FIFA in 2011 for bribery.

“I would like to thank the American authorities for their continued efforts to stamp out corruption from football,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in a statement following the plea. “I am happy to confirm once again, that FIFA will provide whatever assistance is needed by the U.S. and any other authorities around the world.”

Lai has also been provisionally suspended by the AFC.