A quick survey of South America’s World Cup Qualifying

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Now past the half-way post on South American qualifying, three nations have distinguished themselves as favorites to qualify for Brazil 2014. Argentina, led by a captain (that guy to the right) that has closed his club-country divide, is four points at the top (24 through 11 games). Ecuador, who qualified for two World Cups before missing out on South Africa, sit second and have a game in hand on Argentina. Colombia, also with a game in hand, sit one point back of their neighbors. The trailing pack of Venezuela, Chile, and Uruguay are each at least four points back, and each have played one more match than the pair from the north.

Look at the underlying numbers and you find little reason to think the lead three can be caught. They’re the only teams in the qualifying tournament with positive goal differences (Argentina having posted a remarkable +16 through 11 games). Theirs have been the three best defenses on the continent as well as the three best attacks. A serious drip in form will need to happens for any of the top three to miss out on Brazil.

That leaves the region’s other six aspirants vying for two spots: one an automatic qualifier; the other going into a playoff against an Asian nation. Paraguay’s been miserable, collecting only eight points (and eight goals) from 11 games. They have no real chance of returning to the finals, nor do Bolivia, who sit one point higher thanks to their draw on Tuesday with Argentina.

As far as the remaining contenders are concerned, they would each bring a unique and compelling story to Brazil, though only two of them (at most) will qualify.

Chile, one of the quiet darlings of the last World Cup, sit fourth thanks to Tuesday’s win over visiting Uruguay. After the departure of Marcelo Bielsa in Feb. 2011, the nation had struggled to maintain the momentum they carried out of the 2010 qualifying cycle. With former Universidad de Chile head coach Jorge Sampaoli having taking the reigns earlier this year, optimism is starting to return, even if Chile suffered a mild setback Friday at Peru (1-0 loss).

Venezuela, the only nation in this tournament to never qualify for a World Cup, sits fifth. For the first time in their history, they were actually expected to compete for a spot in the finals, their semifinal appearance at the 2011 Copa America crystallizing the ambitions of an emerging soccer nation. Unfortunately, those ambitions haven’t translated into goals, with the Vinotinto having found the net only nine times in 11 games. Salomón Rondón and Juan Arango have combined for six of them.

As Michael noted, Uruguay sits on the outside looking in as of now, and while they’re only two points back of an automatic qualifying spot, their poor form fuels the notion the South American champions could be left out. It’s been six rounds since La Celeste won, with Friday’s home draw against rock bottom Paraguay cementing the notion this team’s experiencing more than a slump. Fortunately for Óscar Tábarez’s side, a process that could qualify over half its teams is ultimately a pretty forgiving tournament (just ask Diego Maradona).

And finally, there’s Peru, who haven’t qualified for a World Cup in over 30 years. Like Venezuela, they were surprise semifinalists at the last Copa, and like Venezuela, they’re having trouble scoring goals in qualifying. But a Friday win over Chile puts them in a similar boat as Uruguay. They’re a little farther back (four points instead of two), but if they find the form that carried them two summers back in Argentina, Sergio Markarián’s team can make it back to the finals. At a minimum, they can put themselves in position to team advantage should others slip up.

New York Red Bulls ink goalkeeper Luis Robles to new deal

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The “Iron Man” will keep up his amazing journey with the New York Red Bulls, after signing a new deal with the club on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Wesley Sneijder on verge of joining Los Angeles FC ]

Goalkeeper Luis Robles has extended his contract with the reigning Eastern Conference champions, as the American continues to raise his consecutive starts streak, which stands at 157.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed in the club’s release.

Robles joined the Red Bulls back in 2012 after playing in Germany, and the shot-stopper hasn’t missed a start ever since.

Report: Minnesota United adds Hearts midfielder Sam Nicholson

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Minnesota United has had its shares of ups and down in its debut MLS season, but the Loons are on the verge making an exciting young signing.

[ MORE: Wesley Sneijder closing in on Los Angeles FC move ]

ESPN FC is reporting that Minnesota will sign Hearts winger Sam Nicholson from the Scottish Premier League on a deal that makes him a Loon until 2019.

The young attacker is expected to join the MLS side when the summer transfer window opens on July 10.

Nicholson, 22, has played with the Edinburgh side since his youth days, and made his senior debut with the club in 2013. During his time at Hearts, Nicholson scored 16 goals in all competitions for the team.

Last season, Nicholson missed 16 matches due to a significant knee injury.

According to the report, Scottish sides Rangers and Aberdeen were also among those interested in acquiring Nicholson, while English Championship clubs Bristol City and Barnsley also reached out about the attacker.

Premier League vet Scott Parker calls quits on playing career

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Scott Parker has announced his retirement from soccer after a stellar 20-plus year career in England.

[ MORE: Chile bests Portugal on PKs to reach Confed Cup final ]

The 36-year-old spent almost the entirety of his career in the Premier League, and played with seven teams during his time on the pitch.

“I believe now is the right time to move on to the next chapter in my life and career,” Parker said in a statement.

“I feel incredibly honoured and proud to have enjoyed the career that I have and I’ve loved every moment of it.”

Parker began playing with Charlton after coming up through the team’s youth academy, before completing a move to Chelsea in 2004.

Throughout his career, Parker also spent time at Newcastle, West Ham and Tottenham, before finishing up at Fulham this past season.

Three storylines when Mexico meets Germany in Confed Cup semis

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With a place in the final on the line tomorrow afternoon, it’s all or nothing for Mexico and Germany as they meet in the second semifinal at this summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup.

The two nations have had very similar paths in reaching the final four, after both accumulated seven points during the group stage and showed signs of improvement with every match.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s FIFA Confederations Cup action ]

Here are some of the key battles to watch on Thursday when Mexico and Germany square off for a place in the final.

How does Germany’s youth hold up vs. Mexico’s experience?

Even when Jurgen Low released his roster heading into the Confederations Cup, much was expected of the Germans. After a strong run of play during the group stage, Low’s men have lived up to the billing with an exciting young attack and an improving backline to match.

When Germany meets Mexico though, the defending World Cup champions will be taking on an El Tri side that has loads of international experience, and similar to that of Chile, the Europeans will surely receive all that they can handle.

At the tender age of 23, Julian Draxler captains the Germans and has been challenged with leading his nation throughout the tournament. The PSG attacker has been quality thus far, but he and his side will take on a whole different task on Thursday against a quick, feisty Mexican group.

Will Hirving Lozano be the difference in the attack?

Injuries and a key suspension will certain hinder Mexico in the semifinal round, but the bigger question is: how will Juan Carlos Osorio’s side cope with the losses?

El Tri know it will be without winger Andres Guardado due to yellow card accumulation, while striker Javier Hernandez is in question ahead of the Germany clash after reportedly training by himself on Monday.

Although Hernandez likely just needed rest after a busy season of matches in the Bundesliga, Mexico is still seeking a quality playmaker to replace Guardado on Thursday, one that they’re hoping with be Hirving Lozano.

The newly-signed PSV man has quickly become one of the top young faces in global soccer, and with three international goals for El Tri dating back to 2016, Lozano is the spark that Mexico needs.

El Tri must start fast

In all three of Mexico’s group stage matches Osorio’s side fell behind during the first half. While El Tri managed to come away unscathed to remain perfect in group play, it’s difficult to imagine that they will be able to pull off the same feat against a quality German side.

On the other hand, Mexico’s resilience has been impressive. In their opener against Portugal, El Tri pulled off a late winner against the reigning European champions, a result that likely set the tone for the team’s ensuing comebacks versus New Zealand and Russia, respectively.