Five U.S. stars who’ve emerged during World Cup qualification

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After yet another “Dos a Cero” win against Mexico in Columbus on Tuesday night, the U.S. national team qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

The USA’s qualification has been all but secured for quite some time now, but you never know until that fat lady starts flexing her vocal chords… Last night she sang loud and proud in Ohio.

So, now that the U.S. is officially heading to Brazil for the big dance next summer, let’s take a closer look at the qualifying campaign that got them over the line. One thing that popped straight into my mind is that plenty of USMNT players, who are now starters, weren’t even in the picture when WC qualifying began in 2011.

(MORE: Dos a Cero again! … United States qualifies for 2014 World Cup after 2-0 win over Mexico)

Let’s find out who which players have propelled themselves into the spotlight during the USA’s domineering display in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. There’s still two games left in October… but I think it’s safe to say that these guys have made a good impression.

And remember, these are five names who previously were out of the picture. But if we were looking for revival artists, Eddie Johnson, Kyle Beckerman and Clarence Goodson have all shone.

source: Getty ImagesMatt Besler

On January 29, 2013 Besler made his U.S. debut in a dour -0 draw with Canada in Toronto. And ever since then, the Sporting Kansas City defender has looked as solid as a rock as the starting left center back. Having dueled against Besler as a youngster at Notre Dame, I’ve always rated his ability to read the game and step in where necessary to stop plays developing. But the most impressive aspect of his play since being called up to the U.S. squad is that his physical presence and pace hasn’t been lacking. In the crucial 0-0 draw at the Azteca in March, Besler was incredible in keeping Javier Hernandez off the score-sheet and stepped in to help the USA bring home Gold Cup success during the knockout stages. He’s an old head on young shoulders and the partnership he has with Gonzalez has seen them both flourish as defenders of international caliber. One question mark surrounds his experience heading into the World Cup, after Costa Rica’s Joel Campbell tricked the referee into giving Besler a yellow card to leave him suspended for the Mexico clash. But Besler will pick that experience up over the coming years where he will surely be a regular for the USMNT.

source: APOmar Gonzalez

Klinsmann’s overhaul of the central defensive position continued with another young defender from MLS stepping in to excel; step forward Omar. The 24-year-old LA Galaxy center back has formed a formidable partnership with Besler at the heart of the USA’s defense. Gonzalez’ stock has risen considerably since being drafted out of Maryland and recently he was handed a Designated Player contract by LA to keep him in the league. The towering Mexican-American defender has flourished with the increased amount of pressure on his shoulders and has hardly put a foot wrong since starting alongside Besler against Canada back in January. That “Why not?” interview about possibly representing Mexico at national team level seems a long time ago as Gonzalez has solidified himself as one of the essential parts of the U.S. roster heading to Brazil.

source: Getty ImagesGeoff Cameron

In Major League Soccer circles we all knew exactly what Cameron was capable of after being solid and dependable for the Houston Dynamo. Yet his move to Premier League Stoke City last August really caught Klinsmann’s attention after not appearing for the U.S. once in 2011. Able to play in a variety of positions, Cameron is to the USMNT what Owen Hargreaves was to England; Mr. Versatile. However he’s really made the right back slot his own during this qualifying cycle and a calamitous fall from grace aside, Cameron will be play plenty of minutes in Brazil. Some pundits aren’t big on Cameron stepping into midfield as a backup holding midfielder, and he has been shaky in recent games playing in that role. The loss to Costa Rica last Friday saw Cameron have a poor game and give possession away cheaply but his role for the U.S. going forward will surely be at right back instead of in midfield. He has a fantastic engine and epitomizes the team spirit Klinsmann has engineered over the last 12 months.

source: Getty ImagesGraham Zusi

Okay, some of his sparkle may have vanished in recent qualifiers… but it’s still been a breakout few years for Graham Zusi. The 27-year-old Floridian ousted Landon Donovan out of Klinsmann’s plans for most of 2013, and that takes some doing. But apart from that Zusi has matured and adapted to the pace of playing at international level and proved to be a valuable asset for the USA. As I mentioned, the Sporting KC winger lost his starting spot to the more experienced internationals in the 2-0 win over Mexico but he’s still a regular in the squad and has gone from a U.S. maybe to important squad member in the space of six months. Zusi made his full national team debut in 2012 and has definitely used this World Cup campaign to springboard himself into the World Cup picture. Training stints in Europe over the offseason put his MLS future in doubt but the Maryland product has since signed a new deal with SKC. A bright future lies ahead for Zusi as his battle with Donovan for a starting spot intensifies.

source: ReutersFabian Johnson

We all knew the Hoffenheim man was available and impressing in Germany but he was hardly a regular in the U.S. setup before this qualifying campaign began. One of the much talked about German-Americans Klinsmann helped bring into the squad, Johnson has been the biggest success story out of the likes of Timmy Chandler, John Brooks, Danny Williams and others. 25-year-old Johnson made his debut against Guatemala on 12 June 2012 and has been around ever since switching his allegiances from Germany in 2011. Now he’s a starter and richly deserves the chance to play in the World Cup in Brazil after switching . Johnson has operated in a variety of positions during the Hex, twice filling in a right back against Mexico to varying degrees of success but mostly starring down the left-hand side as a defender or pacey winger. Not afraid to take on a full back or whip in an inviting cross, Johnson’s link up play with the U.S. forwards has been key throughout qualifying success. A shoe-in for the left hand side when the USA lineup in Brazil next year.

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.

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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.