Argentina's Lionel Messi controls the ball against Bolivia's Walter Veizaga during their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match in La Paz

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.

Southampton: Van Dijk won’t leave, selling days likely done

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - MARCH 29:  Ralph Krueger the Southampton Chairman looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Newcastle United at St Mary's Stadium on March 29, 2014 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
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Ralph Krueger doesn’t plan on selling any more big Southampton stars, and there’s none brighter than Virgil Van Dijk.

The Dutchman is perhaps the best center back in the Premier League, regularly linked with transfers to anywhere from Manchester City to Liverpool.

[ MORE: Liverpool hires new CEO ]

But Krueger says Saints have had enough of selling big assets. Southampton has sold Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Sadio Mane, and Nathaniel Clyne in the past three seasons, and those are just the names to go to Liverpool. Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama have also moved on from St. Mary’s.

From Sky Sports:

“We would like to move away from that and we feel confident this summer will be a lot quieter in Southampton and we can keep the core of this team moving forward for a few years.

“That is going to be important when you see how excellent the group is right now and how exciting the football is. The game we are playing is a pleasure to watch and a pleasure to be part of.”

Saints were the more effective side in a 3-2 EFL Cup Final loss to Manchester United this weekend, but are well off the pace in the race to make back-to-back trips into Europe.

It will be hard to hold onto Van Dijk and even new bright light Manolo Gabbiadini without Europe, but Krueger is a strong leader with the ability to convince almost anyone to buy into a plan.

Real Salt Lake signs Plata to multi-year DP deal

Real Salt Lake forward Joao Plata (8) gestures while walking during an MLS soccer game against New York City FC Saturday, May 23, 2015, in Sandy, Utah. (Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP) DESERET NEWS OUT; LOCAL TELEVISION OUT; MAGS OUT
Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP
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SANDY, Utah (AP) Real Salt Lake has re-signed forward Joao Plata to a multi-year contract and he will continue to hold a designated-player spot.

The 24-year-old was acquired from Toronto FC before the 2013 season and he has 30 goals and 30 assists in regular-season play with RSL.

[ MORE: Liverpool flops vs LCFC ]

Plata ranks No. 3 on the team’s all-time assists list and No. 5 in goals. He has 33 goals and 35 assists during his MLS career.

Real Salt Lake begins the season Saturday when it hosts Toronto FC.

Gotze out indefinitely with metabolism disorder

ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - NOVEMBER 06:  Mario Goetze (R) and Ann-Kathrin Broemmel attend the MTV Europe Music Awards 2016 on November 6, 2016 in Rotterdam, Netherlands.  (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images for MTV)
Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images for MTV
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Mario Gotze’s last few seasons have not fulfilled the expectations thrust about the World Cup-winning attacker.

Gotze, 24, scored the 113th minute goal that lifted Germany past Argentina in the 2014 World Cup, but has endured successive disappointing seasons between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.

[ MORE: Liverpool hires new CEO ]

With just two goals this season, Gotze has played just 24 minutes since BVB came back from winter break. On Monday, the club revealed why: a metabolism disorder that will keep him out for an indefinite period of time. From Sky Sports:

“We are glad to know the reasons for Mario’s complaints and we are convinced that after recovering he will give us extra quality with his exceptional abilities,” said Dortmund’s director of sport Michael Zorc.

“Mario gets the full backing and maximum support from all of us at Borussia Dortmund on his way back.”

It’s been a while since we’ve seen Gotze at his best, and here’s hoping this problem is both curable and the reason for his struggles.

Liverpool hires EA Sports executive as new CEO

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Liverpool has named Peter Moore as the successor to chief executive office Ian Ayre.

Ayre, 53, is off to 1860 Munich this summer, and has stepped down early to allow Moore to take over.

[ MORE: Liverpool flops vs LCFC ]

A Liverpool-born executive, Moore was the chief operating officer at EA Sports and has also worked with Microsoft and SEGA.

The move “completes a transitional phase” which saw several new names join the fray. From The Liverpool Echo:

The appointment completes a transition plan by FSG which included appointing Michael Edwards as sporting director while Billy Hogan was promoted to the role of managing director and chief commercial officer.