Talking points: Ghosts of World Cup qualifying finally fade for Mexico

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One hundred eighty minutes into Mexico’s 2014 World Cup, and let there be no doubt: Any allusion to El Tri’s qualifying form is now an anachronistic one. The troubles the team had before Miguel Herrera took over? They’re irrelevant in the face of what we saw today in Fortaleza.

Drawing the tournament favorites on their home soil, Mexico rekindled memories of 2011, when the team’s quality was living up to its golden generation hype. Under Miguel Herrera, the team has finally moved beyond its soul-crushing qualifying cycle, discarding the shackles that paralyzed the team after winning that Gold Cup. Instead of being frozen by the prospect of failure, Mexico’s played to its talent.

Granted, it was only a 0-0 draw, and if somebody were inclined to take up the Selecao’s case, they could point to Brazil’s 6-2 edge in shots on target and argues the host nation was the better side. And they’re probably be right, but that’s not the point. The point is Mexico, a team that carried huge doubts after its three-year identity crisis, is back. They may not be on Brazil’s level, but as they’ve shown throughout the last decade, they can compete over a give 90 minutes. Though it’s one game, Mexico showed it may finally be back on Mexico’s level.

That’s exactly what El Tri did in Fortaleza. After the team’s energetic start, Brazil adjusted, but the underdogs kept competing. In the second half, that tenacity gave them a spell of control, one in which they nearly crafted a winning goal. And in the match’s final throes, once Brazil had regained its footing, the team’s restored confidence allowed it to withstand the favorites’ last push.

[MORE: What do you think this means for Brazil?]

In the process, we saw flashes of that golden generation resurface, and while the team may not be fully back to its 2011 self, again, that’s not the point. After today’s result, Mexico has discarded the hollow version of itself that nearly slept-walked out of the 2014 World Cup.

Here are some other talking points after today’s result in Fortaleza:

1. Guillermo Ochoa made a lot of money  – Go to your social media vacuum of choice and do a quick search. You’ll see people marveling at the former Ajaccio goalkeeper, whose six stops included a number of the point-blank variety.

Currently out of contract, the former Club America star is benefiting from some fortuitous timing as well as the injury to José de Jesús Corona, whose absence has allowed the former El Tri number one to resume his place in the team. On Tuesday, Ochoa made the most of his opportunity, likely drawing the attention of a club willing to see if his international form can be replicated during the upcoming European season.

[MORE: Ochoa the talk of Twitter during game]

source: AP
Mexico’s Hector Herrera leaps over Brazil’s Marcelo during the match between Brazil and Mexico. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

2. Questions and answers in midfield – José Juan Vázquez was a revelation at the base of midfield against Cameroon, but el Gallito was less convincing on Tuesday. Instead, it was Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado picking up the slack in the midfield, particularly in the second half. Though the trio had trouble getting a grip on the game during the first 35 minutes, the team’s ball retention and push from the middle improved in the second. Even Vázquez was able to get forward and threaten goal twice, barely missing his target each time.

The trio will never be confused for one of the tournament’s best, but given Mexico’s injuries in midfield, that’s unrealistic standard. Instead, Mexico’s goals should be more modest: Can the trio keep Mexico in matches, provide something going forward, and establish a level of cohesion that allows them to make adjustments?

We saw all three of those qualities at various points on Tuesday. It’s just a matter of getting those various points to last closer to 90 minutes.

3. Defensive issues, or the quality of Brazil? – Based on what we know about these teams, it’s probably a little of each, but both the quality and quantity of chances Brazil created on Tuesday were problematic. “Thank God for Guillermo Ochoa” is something you neither want to or can say after every match.

Perhaps swapping the Selecao for Croatia on Monday will provide a solution, but this isn’t the first time Mexico’s back line has looked vulnerable. El Tri survived Neymar and Oscar, but against relentless a player like Mario Mandzukic, those deficiencies could again be exposed.

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.

Argentina closes in on Sampaoli, according to FA boss

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The Argentinian FA is hoping to convince Jorge Sampaoli to abandon Sevilla and take the opening in his home nation.

President Claudio Tapia confirmed that Sampaoli is their top target, calling the 57-year-old their “chosen one” in an interview with ESPN.

“We have chosen a coach that has a contract,” Tapia told ESPN. “We want to be respectful and wait because he has a release clause which is once the tournament ends. We will communicate it to the club and we will sit down and negotiate his departure and release clause. We want things to go well in the final games he has left.”

Argentina dismissed coach Edgardo Bauza after the country fell to fifth in CONMEBOL World Cup qualification following defeats to Paraguay, Brazil, and Chile over the past six months.

Sampaoli is under contract with Sevilla until the summer of 2018, but has a $1.6 million release clause, to which Tapia was referring. Sevilla sits in fourth position in the La Liga table, level on points with Atletico Madrid but behind significantly on goal differential. The club finishes its league season on May 21st against Osasuna, and Argentina’s next game is a friendly on June 9th at home against Brazil. The next World Cup qualifier is in August against Uruguay.

Samapoli has been with Sevilla since since last summer in his first European club job, but the Argentinian has ample experience to take over for his home country. He managed Chile for four years, winning the 2015 Copa America in Chile. He resigned in early 2016 due to a contract dispute, paying a heavy price to do so as he gave up bonuses to wriggle free of his contract.

Argentina’s desire to secure Sampaoli as coach is nothing new, as the man himself confirmed an offer for the job a week ago, but said he would not consider it until the end of the season. It appears now that a deal is likely, and he will have a very short turnaround to get his first look at the team against a fierce continental rival.