Last stand in Denver? United States meets Costa Rica, with so much on the line in World Cup qualifying

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DENVER – Dicks Sporting Goods Park outside of Denver seems an unlikely place for a U.S. Soccer last stand – and yet here we are.

Technically, this does not qualify as “do-or-die” in ongoing World Cup qualifying; Jurgen Klinsmann’s team could fall tonight and then again Tuesday down in Mexico, and still have seven matches in this final round to gather up 15 or 16 points probably required for safe arrival into a seventh consecutive World Cup.

But this sure feels like a last stand considering injuries and absences to important figures, bubbling locker room issues and a final round schedule set-up that had this one tagged “critical” long ago. It has the weight of an Alamo-type stand, and the team would certainly drag a battered psychological state out of Colorado with anything less than victory here against Costa Rica.

(MORE: US team news, notes and quotes from Thursday’s final prep)

It’s no big stretch to say that Friday, in a very cold Denver suburb, the United States will either regain its footing in a march toward Brazil 2014 or see the effort possibly be mortally wounded.

So, yes, a sold out DSG Sporting Goods Parks in Denver (fairly light in U.S. national team history) is the site for the most pressure packed World Cup qualifier in at least 10 years. Kickoff tonight is set for 8 p.m. locally (10 p.m. ET) on ESPN.

“We’ve always come through when there’s pressure on,” veteran midfielder DaMarcus Beasley said. “It’s always been that way when I’ve been there, it won’t be any different come tomorrow. We embrace the pressure. We know we are at home, we know we need three points. It’s a very important match, even though it’s very early in the tournament. Everyone knows that. In qualifying you need to win your home matches, for sure. Tomorrow will be no different.”

The team chemistry isn’t right; we can still debate the level of tumult, but it’s safe to say there are issues that need sorting. A provocative Sporting News story put some things on the table, and at a nervous time when the United States faced a near must-win match anyway.

Lose tonight and the very real possibility exists of being 0-3 in final round CONCACAF qualifying; the Americans began this round with a loss in Honduras – where the young back line could not quite pass the test – and do battle down in Mexico next week at Azteca Stadium, where they have never won in World Cup qualifying. Never.

(MORE: Digging into the “Why?” over Klinsmann and his critics)

The sear of concern is particularly intense along a U.S. back line, where three starters are injured. Plus, former captain and stabilizing arm Carlos Bocanegra is not part of this camp, the latest in a series of Klinsmann’s controversial roster or lineup choices.

Tim Howard’s injury absence isn’t making anyone feel better about things, although backup Brad Guzan is having a wonderful season at Aston Villa and sure looks up for the job. As for Guzan playing behind a young and untested defense? He calls that a “Saturday.”

The mood of the camp seems typically relaxed, and even Klinsmann seems underwhelmed by all the ongoing talk of his performance. His response is more or less a shrug and smile and to say something about this being part of his job.

(MORE: Klinsmann responds to criticism and player unrest)

Besides, veteran players like Michael Bradley have come to his defense. So has Herculez Gomez. And from the center of it all, Bocanegra even had positive things to say about it all.

The U.S. attack, at least, is mostly intact, Landon Donovan and his ongoing sabbatical as the one obvious exception. Clint Dempsey has overcome a recent injury with Tottenham and looks set to start. He leads the team with six goals in 2014 qualifying, and has been named captain for this one.

Past the injuries and whispering malcontents in their midst, there is reason to like the U.S. chances here. The weather is to their liking; with more players who earn their living in Europe, they are presumably better equipped to deal with temperatures in the 30s and potential precipitation.

The United States’ dominance in home qualifiers cannot be understated. They have not lost one of these since 2001; the unbeaten streak has reached 22 matches (a 20-0-2 record).

(MORE: Most pressure on a World Cup qualifier in a decade)

The United States is 5-0-2 against Costa Rica in World Cup qualifiers at home. This Ticos version launched the final round with 2-2 draw at home against Panama, so there’s pressure in the Costa Rican camp, too. Plus, leading scorer Alvaro Saborio may have an injury concern, depending on which report you believe.

Either way, the Ticos have other attacking options.

(Look for more later today at ProSoccerTalk, including a lineup prediction)

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.

Argentina closes in on Sampaoli, according to FA boss

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The Argentinian FA is hoping to convince Jorge Sampaoli to abandon Sevilla and take the opening in his home nation.

President Claudio Tapia confirmed that Sampaoli is their top target, calling the 57-year-old their “chosen one” in an interview with ESPN.

“We have chosen a coach that has a contract,” Tapia told ESPN. “We want to be respectful and wait because he has a release clause which is once the tournament ends. We will communicate it to the club and we will sit down and negotiate his departure and release clause. We want things to go well in the final games he has left.”

Argentina dismissed coach Edgardo Bauza after the country fell to fifth in CONMEBOL World Cup qualification following defeats to Paraguay, Brazil, and Chile over the past six months.

Sampaoli is under contract with Sevilla until the summer of 2018, but has a $1.6 million release clause, to which Tapia was referring. Sevilla sits in fourth position in the La Liga table, level on points with Atletico Madrid but behind significantly on goal differential. The club finishes its league season on May 21st against Osasuna, and Argentina’s next game is a friendly on June 9th at home against Brazil. The next World Cup qualifier is in August against Uruguay.

Samapoli has been with Sevilla since since last summer in his first European club job, but the Argentinian has ample experience to take over for his home country. He managed Chile for four years, winning the 2015 Copa America in Chile. He resigned in early 2016 due to a contract dispute, paying a heavy price to do so as he gave up bonuses to wriggle free of his contract.

Argentina’s desire to secure Sampaoli as coach is nothing new, as the man himself confirmed an offer for the job a week ago, but said he would not consider it until the end of the season. It appears now that a deal is likely, and he will have a very short turnaround to get his first look at the team against a fierce continental rival.