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Three huge positives to take from USA’s convincing win over Panama

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In a match that sent the United States to the top of the hexagonal table, Jurgen Klinsmann’s men showed they belong in the group’s elite.

With the 2-0 win over Panama, not only are the Stars and Stripes primed to control their own destiny on their way to Brazil 2014, but the numbers are with them as well.  According to ESPN’s Soccer Power Index, which uses computer simulations to predict outcomes, the United States now have a 98.5% chance to qualify for the World Cup. I’d say those are pretty good odds.

As the hosts held home turf yet again, Seattle showed their atmosphere is possibly second to none despite a bit of controversy surrounding the venue prior to kickoff. Nothing is a given in the Hex on the road, but at home, the United States has done their job.  They’re undefeated in World Cup qualifiers since 2001, going 22-0-2 during that span. Tuesday night was no different.

It was a total dominance, as Panama had difficulty establishing a presence, and other than a short period before halftime and another short spell before the final whistle, they offered little in the attacking third.

Even though the visitors offered little quality to challenge the U.S., there were still things to be learned about the squad.

1) Role players are ready to step up anywhere they’re needed

With Graham Zusi and Jermaine Jones out, a couple of players shuffled positions with positive results.  Geoff Cameron played out of his mind in the holding midfielder role, allowing Michael Bradley to venture up forward.  This had a positive effect on the club in two separate ways.

First, Cameron’s ball-winning skills were on display.  He stepped in front of countless passes, and made tackles to keep Panama from building.  A quality holding midfielder can have a massive effect on a match, usually quite under the radar, because when there is no buildup it often goes unnoticed.  Cameron kept Panama from even attempting to create many chances.  His passes were off on occasion, especially in the beginning, but he gets a pass on that (sorry, that was awful) because of his absolutely brilliant ball to Eddie Johnson for the second goal.

Second, Bradley in the attack was a welcome sight for USMNT fans.  He had a number of venomous shots on goal from distance, including one that would have gone in had Clint Dempsey been gifted with reflexes just a split-second quicker.  In addition, Bradley’s chance creation skills were beautifully displayed all match. For example, in the 79th minute Bradley played a long ball out to Altidore, who connected with a running DaMarcus Beasley in search of a third goal, although the shot clanged off the post.  With Cameron back, Bradley grabbed the limelight – exactly how Klinsmann drew it up.

Whether it’s a first-team regular or an injury replacement, Klinsmann’s shown he’s willing to ride the hot hand, and between Cameron, Beasley, Altidore, Besler, Zusi, and both Fabian and Eddie Johnson, he’s got those who are clicking on the pitch out there and it’s working. The bossman will need more of the same against Honduras as Beasley will miss the next match due to yellow card accumulation.

2) Jozy Altidore is bursting with confidence

The 23-year-old forward, with the monkey off his back, has now scored in three straight international matches.  It started with the goal against Germany, a straightforward yet difficult volley into the top corner off a wonderful cross.  That goal has done a world of good for Jozy’s confidence, and it grows with every match.

It’s no coincidence the New Jersey native continues to find space in the box for these shots – Jurgen Klinsmann even mentioned in the postmatch press conference Tuesday night about how Jozy’s now not only using his vision to find space, but using his body as well.  Klinsmann said he spoke directly with AZ Alkmaar technical director Earnie Stewart – a Dutch-American with 101 USMNT caps to his name – about improving Jozy’s physical presence, and it’s working wonders.

Need proof? There were two obvious moments in the Panama match.  First, his goal.  A cool finish from a tight angle, even with the goal gaping, any hesitation from that angle and he’s on SportsCenter’s Not Top 10 plays.  Instead, it’s cool as a cucumber for the opening goal.

Second, he had a chance to put the U.S. three up with a long-range strike that stung the hands of keeper Jaime Penedo.  The rebound fell to Clint Dempsey who bounced it just over with a volley.  Nobody takes that kind of distance shot without oozing confidence, which is exactly what Jozy did. ‘Nuff said.

3) The team doesn’t look at the clock or the scoreboard

I mean this in a very positive way.  2-0 up at home against a Panama side struggling mightily, Klinsmann could have easily shut down shop, putting on an extra defender and closing the book. Instead, he went for the jugular, and I love it.

The U.S. men could be 2-0 or 12-0 up and they’d be looking for more.  It almost cost a goal in stoppage time, but I think Klinsmann knows that inviting pressure with the intent of staving it off is asking for trouble, and goal difference could mean the world with the way the hex is shaping up. Keep it up boys.

Electricity restored at Maracana after some late bills paid

This Feb. 2, 2017 shows Maracana stadium with a dry field in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Stadium operators, the Rio state government, and Olympic organizers have fought over $1 million in unpaid electricity bills and management of the venue. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Rio’s electricity utility has turned the power back on at the famous Maracana stadium after it was shut off for almost a month in a dispute over $1 million in unpaid bills.

The utility on Thursday said power had been restored after the stadium operator paid 1.3 million reals ($430,000) in late bills from November through January. It was shut off on Jan. 26 in the dispute.

The utility said it is still negotiating for 1.8 million reals ($600,000) in unpaid bills from the organizing committee of last year’s Rio Olympics. Rio 2016 organizers still owe millions to companies which helped prepare the Olympics and Paralympics

The stadium has been vandalized over the last month with seats torn out, televisions stolen and the grass field left untended.

VIDEO: FC Dallas youngster Kellyn Acosta unleashes howitzer goal

Arabe Unido goalkeeper Miguel lloyd (1) reaches up to block a shot from FC Dallas as defender Rigoberto Nino (2) and FC Dallas' Kellyn Acosta (23) watch in the first half of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals soccer match, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 in Frisco, Texas (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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With FC Dallas taking on Panamanian club Aribe Unido in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, 21-year-old Kellyn Acosta grabbed a second for the Major League Soccer club 10 minutes past halftime.

It wasn’t just any old goal. It was a STRIKE.

The Texas native trailed the play, and with Roland Lamah shut off in the box by solid man-marking on the ball, Acosta was there to provide an outlet, and he blasted a vicious strike into the top-left corner. The find by Lamah was a smart one with a host of defenders closing in, and his calm demeanor was rewarded as his teammate launched a rocket into the back of the net.

The goal is a fodder for those who believe Acosta, who has played full-back for much of his career, should be a midfielder instead. His positioning and ability to trail the play with deadly accuracy is what makes this goal so special.

Acosta would bag a third in the dying minutes of the game, giving FC Dallas a 3-0 lead to take on the road as they travel to Panama for the second leg on March 1st.

Top Premier League Storylines – Week 26

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 08:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City speaks with his players during the break in extra-time in the Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round replay match between Leicester City and Derby City at The King Power Stadium on February 8, 2017 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
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Well. This weekend’s return of Premier League action was already slated to be an exciting one, but now with today’s enormous bit of breaking news, it has become even more intriguing.

[ WATCH: Previewing every match in Week 26 ]

There’s plenty to discuss at the top of the Premier League table, as Arsenal and Spurs look to heal their European wounds, but it’s what’s at the bottom that has everyone talking today.

How will Leicester City react after the firing of Claudio Ranieri?

Leicester City vs. Liverpool —  3:00 p.m. EDT Monday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Well. The Foxes had their work cut out for them coming into this match already, but now it has a whole new flavor. Claudio Ranieri has been dismissed just nine months after winning the Premier League title, and sitting just a point off the drop coming into the weekend (and inside the relegation zone coming into the match?) Leicester City will be lead into King Power Stadium by Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare and First Team Coach Mike Stowell.

Liverpool stopped a five-match winless streak last time out with a quality 2-0 win over Tottenham, but the Reds defense has been leaky all season, and if Leicester is to break its horrid 610-minute goalless streak, it would be here. The Foxes are without a win in five and have not scored a Premier League goal in all of the 2017 calendar year. Can they respond and begin to play for themselves rather than their former manager?

Can Dele Alli and Tottenham bounce back?

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Stoke City — 8:30 a.m. EDT Sunday on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Spurs looked like they had rediscovered their Champions League form with a comprehensive smothering of Championship side Fulham in the FA Cup. Then, they welcomed KAA Gent to Wembley and promptly lost their heads. Dele Alli was sent off for one of the worst challenges you’ll see, and Spurs were vulnerable as a result, crashing out of the Europa League.

Now, Mauricio Pochettino must regroup the squad and get them ready to host Stoke, a team they clobbered 4-0 in the third match of the season. The squad is still healthy, and the loss of European play may actually help them in the long run. Here, however, it provides them with negative form and a short prep time. They need this one badly to solidify a top four place moving forward, can Poch turn it around?

Can Sunderland get a result against surging Everton?

Everton vs. Sunderland — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Hull City hosts Burnley. Crystal Palace welcomes Middlesbrough. With those two fellow occupants of the relegation zone playing at home against lower-half sides, the spotlight is squarely on Sunderland. The Black Cats have a tough matchup, on the road at Everton.

The Toffees haven’t lost a Premier League match since falling to Liverpool in mid-December, and have scored 19 goals in the eight matches since that blemish. With that in mind, Sunderland must get some kind of a result to pull off the bottom of the Premier League table. Can they snatch points at Goodison Park?

EFL Cup final could leave Chelsea well out in front

Chelsea vs. Swansea City — 10:00 a.m. EDT Saturday on NBCSports.com

Chelsea is already eight points ahead of the pack and looks to be the clear favorite to win the Premier League title. It could get even clearer after this week. Manchester United is off, Manchester City is off, and Arsenal is off. Couple that with Tottenham struggling and Liverpool facing a desperate Leicester City side, and it’s entirely conceivable that a win for Chelsea over Swansea City could leave the Blues as far as 11 points clear at the top of the table, albeit a game ahead of some. That would all but wrap things up, wouldn’t it?

Mario Balotelli handed 2-match ban for abusing referee

FILE- In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016 file photo, Nice's forward Mario Balotelli, of Italy, reacts during the Europa League group I soccer match between OGC Nice and FC Salzburg, in Nice stadium, southeastern France. Nice striker Mario Balotelli’s teammate Alassane Pleas has confirmed he heard Bastia supporters racially abusing Balotelli with monkey chants during the league match on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)
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After being sent off for referee abuse in last weekend’s Ligue 1 win over FC Lorient, Nice striker Mario Balotelli has been handed a two-match ban.

Balotelli earned his second red card of the season in the 69th minute of a 1-0 win that kept Nice within striking distance of the leaders Monaco. It was his second straight red and third sending-off of the season, having already been dismissed in reverse fixture against Lorient after a pair of yellows in the final three minutes of the game.

After the mercurial Italian’s hot start to the season, he has just one goal in the last two months, the third in a 3-1 win over Guingamp. He has not scored a point-winning goal since bagging both in a 2-1 win over Dijon back on December 18th.

Balotelli’s agent, the well-known Mino Raiola, was so frustrated with his client’s continual dismissal problems that he told French media conglomerate RMC Sport that the solution to Balotelli’s problems is to “cut out his tongue.”

“I have already found the solution: you have to cut out his tongue,” Raiola said bluntly. “To play soccer, there is no need for language! In all seriousness, he knows he made a big mistake and he has no excuse. He knows he needs to improve that. He is very sad for him, for the team.”

The suspension leaves Balotelli on the sidelines for tomorrow’s match against 11th placed Montpellier and then on March 4th at 17th placed Dijon. Nice sits in third, level on points with 2nd placed PSG and three back of leaders Monaco.