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Historic comeback sees France into World Cup 2014, Ukraine denied place in Brazil

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If reaction to last week’s loss in Kiev seemed over-the-top to you, know that no team had ever come back from a 2-0, first leg loss in a UEFA playoff. So while the reaction to France’s two-goal loss last Friday may have carried a tinge apoplexy, it was justified. History told us France, one of handful of most talented teams in world soccer, was virtually done, set to be to 2012 what the Netherlands were to World Cup 2002.

Virtually, however, is the key word. France was not dead, a point Didier Deschamps hammered home post-match last Friday. Although the French public were dubious, figures like Zinedine Zidane picked up the flag, trying to rally the spirits of what was anticipated to be a circumspect Paris crowd. And after today’s performance at the Stade de France, they were vindicated for doing so.

With first half goals from Mamadou Sakho and Karim Benzema, Les Bleus had climbed out of their hole, and when the Liverpool defender completing his unlikely double in Tuesday’s second half, France’ re-wrote European qualifying history. Becoming the first team to overturn a two-goal, first leg deficit, France is into their fifth consecutive World Cup, sending Ukraine home after today’s 3-0 result in Paris.

Deschamps’ team, who held 68 percent possession and outshot Ukraine 24-9, joins Portugal, Croatia, and Greece as fellow playoff qualifiers from Europe. With Africa seeing Ghana and Algeria qualify earlier today, Brazil 2014 is up to 30 confirmed teams, with Mexico (up 5-1 over New Zealand) and Uruguay (up 5-0 on Jordan) likely to complete the field.

[MORE: Ronaldo topples Zlatan: Real Madrid star’s hat trick sends Portugal past Sweden, into the 2014 World Cup]

[MORE: Europe World Cup playoff roundup: Greece, Croatia complete UEFA’s field for Brazil 2014]

Coming off their first leg disappointment, France made five changes to their starting XI. Sahko and Raphael Varane came in for Eric Abidal and the suspended Laurent Koscielny in defense. Oliver Giroud and Samir Nasri gave way to Karim Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena in attack, while Yohan Cabaye’s inclusion at Newcastle teammate Loic Remy’s expense completed Deschamp’s makeover, changing his formation from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3.

The new team was dominant from the opening moments, not unexpected considering the margin Ukraine had earned in Kiev. But with an early chance from Franck Ribéry and the constant, niggling tests of Ukraine goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov, Les Bleus quickly showed their control would be about more than possession. Had the Shakhtar backstop not made some good early reads, Saint-Denis would have exploded early.

Instead it took 22 minutes for France to scratch the surface, Sahko’s first goal of the night capitalizing on a hard shot from Ribéry. Culminating play that began from a deep restart, Pyatov could do little but lay Ribéry’s shot out for Sahko, whose conversion brought France within one.

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Didier Deschamps (right) won a World Cup as a player in 1998. Now he’s set to return as manager of France, having guided his national team through its playoff with Ukraine. (Photo: Reuters.)

Eight minutes later, France had their equalizer. Moments after being erroneously ruled offside, Benzema benefitted from the linesman’s flag mistakenly staying down, his harnessing of some penalty box chaos from an offside position making it 2-2 (aggregate).

One minute into the second half, fortune found France again, this time through the boots of defender Yevhen Khacheridi. The Ukraine center back slid threw Ribéry just after the half’s opening whistle, earning his second yellow card of the night. Though the visitors nearly took a surprise lead moments later, the loss of a man doomed their World Cup hopes.

In 73rd minute, France finally punched their ticket. Sakho, again cleaning up close to goal, converted from five yards out, the former Paris Saint-German man’s second goal sending France back to the World Cup.

The match’s final chapter was one-way traffic, France constantly pushing Ukraine’s backs against their own goal. With the talent to hold the ball and the intent to put the playoff out of reach, Les Bleus were intent on grabbing a fourth. Though the insurance goal never came, France were still able to kill off the match’s final 20 minutes, allowing them to survive a second straight World Cup qualifying playoff.

Along the way, Les Bleus made history, becoming the first team to overcome that 0-2 opening leg deficit. They also grabbed something that’s been absent over the past four years: Some real positive momentum.

Though a run of good results under Laurent Blanc had allowed them to move on from their disaster at South Africa 2010, France still proved relatively meek at Euro 2012. Now, having faced this worst-case scenario and prevailed, a young, talented generation of club-level stars may be set to transfer their potential onto the international stage.

At a minimum, they have something positive, unifying to build on. It’s not every playoff that ends with this type of accomplishment.

Goal-line technology to be used at Copa America

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 07: The goalline technology is tested prior to the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Swansea City at the Boleyn Ground, May 7, 2016, London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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CHICAGO (AP) — Hawk-Eye will be installed for next month’s Copa America, marking the first use of goal-line technology by the soccer’s governing bodies for South America and for North and Central America and the Caribbean.

The 16-nation tournament will be played at 10 U.S. sites from June 3-26.

Organizers also announced the match officials Wednesday. Three of the 18 referees are from the United States: Mark Geiger, Jair Marrufo and Armando Villarreal. Geiger officiated three games at the 2014 World Cup, including a second-round matchup between France and Nigeria in which he became the first American to referee a knockout stage match at soccer’s top tournament.

The other referees are Joel Aguilar (El Salvador), Jose Argote (Venezuela), Julio Bascunan (Chile), Enrique Caceres (Paraguay), Victor Carrillo (Peru), Andres Cunha (Uruguay), Roberto Garcia (Mexico), Heber Lopes (Brazil), Patricio Loustau (Argentina), Yadel Martinez (Cuba), Ricardo Montero (Costa Rica), John Pitti (Panama), Wilmer Rodan (Colombia), Gery Vargas (Bolivia) and Roddy Zambrano (Ecuador).

Aguilar officiated the 2013 Snow Classico World Cup qualifier between the U.S. and Costa Rica in Commerce City, Colorado, a match played in a snow storm.

Sebastian Giovinco says he was “upset” about being left off Italy’s Euro roster

TORONTO, ON - MAY 07:  Sebastian Giovinco #10 of Toronto FC comes close to a goal during the first half of an MLS soccer game against FC Dallas at BMO Field on May 7, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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When asked about leaving Toronto FC star Sebastian Giovinco off his Euro 2016 roster, Antonio Conte had some fightin’ words for Major League Soccer.

“When you make a certain choice and go to play in certain leagues, you do so taking it into account that they could pay the consequences from a footballing viewpoint,” Conte said.

Giovinco isn’t not just playing in MLS, he’s tearing up the league, winning the MLS MVP and Golden Boot last season and continuing that form this year. Naturally, the 29-year-old didn’t take kindly to Conte’s decision or his justification.

“I was upset. I need to keep improving so I can find my place back on the national team,” Giovinco said. “I’ve said before, the league is continuing to grow and it’s a beautiful league.”

However, Giovinco stopped short of criticizing the national team’s manager. “At the end of the day, you need to understand what the coach says when he chooses the team. It can be right and it can be wrong, but it’s not really my place to say. I think that he knows best, and I think it’s a good decision if he says so.”

Not all is lost, however. Toronto FC will keep its superstar through the Euro tournament, a positive for manager Greg Vanney. “Seba has done everything he can to show his worth,” Vanney told the Toronto FC official website following training on Tuesday. “I am sad for him, but at the same time, we have him here with us and we stand to benefit from this.”

His teammates shared the sentiment. “Obviously we feel for Sebastian, we wanted him to go and play for his national team,” said Toronto midfielder Will Johnson. “I don’t think playing in MLS in any way takes away from the player that he is.”

Bradley captain, Dempsey striker for USMNT vs Ecuador in final Copa America warmup stretch

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 29:  Michael Bradley #4 of the United States Men's National Team controls the ball against Guatemala during the FIFA 2018  World Cup qualifier on March 29, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The United States defeated Guatemala 4-0.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Tonight begins the final stretch for the US National Team before the Copa America begins on June 3.

With the “transitional roster” from the Puerto Rico match gone and most of the regulars here, it’s time for the team to get things right with the South American powers coming to town. They take on Ecuador tonight in Frisco, TX with kickoff set for 8:00 p.m. ET.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: USMNT on Twitter ]

There are few surprises in this lineup. With Geoff Cameron nursing a slight injury, he was expected to rest before the tournament begins. In his place is Steve Birnbaum, with John Brooks expected to start throughout the Copa America. Fabian Johnson is one of the best wingers in the US pool, but with nobody else to take the left-back spot, Jurgen Klinsmann is forced to play him along the back line.

The midfield is as expected as well, with Kyle Beckerman sitting deep and Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones providing the link-up between the back and the front. Bradley has returned to the captaincy, with Alejandro Bedoya rested after holding the armband against Puerto Rico.

In the attack, it’s a bit surprising that Bobby Wood hasn’t started after looking good against Puerto Rico, as Clint Dempsey is alone up front. Gyasi Zardes and Graham Zusi provide support along the flanks, leaving some US fans disappointed that young sensation Christian Pulisic didn’t get a look on the flank.

Finally, US Soccer announced that William Yarbrough is on hand to replace Zack Steffan, as the latter suffered a hamstring injury.

LINEUP

United States: Guzan; Johnson, Brooks, Birnbaum, Yedlin; Bradley, Beckerman, Jones; Zardes, Dempsey, Zusi.

Ecuador: Domínguez; Paredes, Achiller, Erazo, Ramírez; Montero, Noboa, Gruezo, Mena; Bolaños, E. Valencia.

Jozy Altidore’s foundation funding Copa America watch parties in Haiti

TORONTO, ON - MAY 07: Jozy Altidore #17 of Toronto FC looks on during the second half of an MLS soccer game against FC Dallas at BMO Field on May 7, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Jozy Altidore has never shied away from his Hatian decent, and while the 26-year-old will miss the Copa America, but his second home certainly won’t.

Altidore’s charity organization the St. Luke Foundation has set up watch parties across Haiti so the island nation can watch all the United States and Haiti matches, as well as the semifinals and finals.

In a phone interview with Sports Illustrated, Altidore cited that Haiti had not been invited to a major international tournament since 1974, and that the country should be able to watch. According to SI, the watch parties will allow those in the country to watch who otherwise would be unable to do so.

“I thought this would be something cool knowing how much Haitian people love their national team” Altidore told SI, “to have thousands of people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to see the matches broadcast the group games and see them perform.”

Haiti plays in Brazil’s Group B along with Peru and Ecuador, with group stage games on June 4, 8, and 12.

[ MORE: Copa America Group B preview | USA in Group A ]

Altidore will miss the tournament due to a hamstring injury which will take 6-8 weeks to recover from.

The New Jersey product has been very active with charity work in Haiti in the past, mostly through his foundation. Altidore’s parents were both born in Haiti. He said he hopes that the Haitian team “can surprise some people” in the upcoming tournament.