CONCACAF upsets dot World Cup landscape, hinting the federation can play with the best


The beauty of knockout tournaments is that conventional wisdom goes out the window and storylines build themselves.

It’s often evident in environments such as the NCAA Tournament and professional sports playoffs, where teams built for long-term seasonal success face one-and-done situations that become their demise.

North and Central American teams from the CONCACAF federation are raising plenty of eyebrows this World Cup, giving fans of countries along the corridor plenty to smile about, and validation that their region is no laughing matter.

It’s also doing more than giving people notice – it’s earning them points, valuable points as they push towards unlikely knockout round positions.

Costa Rica was drawn into the “Group of Champions” alongside Uruguay, Italy, and England. They’re already into the next round.  The United States was apprehended into the “Group of Death” with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana.

Often dismissed as inferior by those following European and South American teams, the likes of Costa Rica, Mexico, and the United States at this point are…at risk of horrific jinx consequences…undefeated against the likes of Italy, Uruguay, Brazil, Ghana, and Cameroon.

That means 28th-ranked Costa Rica has beaten the 7th- and 9th-ranked teams, 20th-ranked Mexico held 2nd-ranked Brazil, and the 13th-ranked US exorcised awful demons against 37th-ranked Ghana and has the chance to make noise Sunday vs. 4th-ranked Portugal.

Only Honduras remains without a win, but even Los Catrachos showed signs of life in their 2-1 loss to Ecuador.

For more (current before the Honduras loss to Ecuador):

The real noise is made during the knockout rounds of course, but with Costa Rica already through, Mexico in a very solid position, and the United States has an opportunity to continue CONCACAF’s shocking run.

Costa Rica proved tactically superior to both Italy and Uruguay, as the genius of Jorge Luis Pinto befuddled Uruguay with a dangerous counter-attack and shackled the Italian stars with a structurally sound back five.

source: AP
John Brooks’ winner over Ghana set the United States up to potentially make serious noise against Portugal and Germany in the “Group of Death”

If the US can at least pull out a draw against Portugal, something which is not considered a long-shot but is by no means an expected result, CONCACAF teams will have secured at least eight points of a possible 12 against top-10 FIFA ranked teams, and as many as 10 of 12, an incredible result.

And if we’ve learned anything from Costa Rica’s pair of wins, it’s that superior tactics can often outweigh superior talent, something the United States will likely lean heavily on against both Portugal and Germany.

But will this be enough to have an impact on future FIFA rulings involving World Cup qualifications? A lot has been made of talk that Asia and Africa could be given another guaranteed spot, taking one from Europe. And that makes no sense – but would be very FIFA.

However, CONCACAF has not been quiet about its desire to earn its fourth qualification spot as guaranteed rather than stuck in the playoff with Oceania as it stands now. They lobbied for a fourth guaranteed spot back in 2011 but were denied the spot for this summer’s Cup.

While Oceania has never provided a challenge – a struggling Mexico side dominated New Zealand 9-3 over two legs – there is a certain pedigree about owning four guaranteed spots, the same amount that South America currently has.

There’s plenty more to be played, and two or three surprise performances don’t justify a jump in qualifying procedures, but if the federation continues to produce points and results, there could certainly be discussions for future tournaments.

CONCACAF is on the rise, there’s no question about it, but is the federation here to stay? The United States and Mexico both have chances to stake their claim to that question.

Juninho hoping Willian breaks his Champions League free-kick record

xxxx during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Southampton at Stamford Bridge on October 3, 2015 in London, United Kingdom.
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Willian has scored six goals for Chelsea this season, with all six coming from free kicks.

Four of those have been scored in the Champions League, as the Brazilian has tied the record for the most free-kick goals in a single UCL campaign.

[ MORE: Premier League roundup ]

Willian is tied with his fellow Brazilian Juninho, known as one of the deadliest set-piece takers of all-time, who scored four times for Lyon during the 2005-06 campaign.

When asked about the possibility of his record being broken, Juninho was glad it would be by another Brazilian player, and said Willian will likely surpass him in the coming matches.

It’s good it’s a Brazilian, and from this new generation of good players we have.

It is very gratifying for me because when I scored these four goals, no one said anything.

I’m being remembered by what Willian has achieved, and I think he has everything to beat the record. The Champions League has barely reached half way and Chelsea still have a few more games to play.

Willian has converted 6 of 12 free kicks this season, scoring at an unheard-of 50-percent clip. All of his goals have come from almost the exact same spot on the pitch, about 20-25 yards out at the corner of the box to the keepers right.

[ WATCH: Jamie Vardy scores in record 11th straight Premier League match ]

Chelsea’s next Champions League match is on December 9 at Stamford Bridge against Porto. The Blues need a draw to advance into the knockout round.

West Brom’s Jonas Olsson backs Zlatan for Premier League move

SOLNA, SWEDEN - NOVEMBER 14: Sweden 10 Zlatan Ibrahimovic durring a European Qualifier Play-Off between Sweden and Denmark on November 14, 2015 in Solna, Sweden.  (Photo by Michael Campanella/Getty Images)
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With his contract at Paris Saint-Germain expiring in the summer, where Zlatan will go next is one of the biggest mysteries in football.

Having already played in the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and France, the Premier League would be a logical next step in Zlatan’s career.

[ MORE: Aguero injury update ]

However, at 34-years-old, Zlatan himself has said it is “too late” for him to play in England, adding more mystery to where he will end up.

Despite what Zlatan says, his teammate on the Sweden national team Jonas Olsson believes the PSG striker is more than capable of playing in the Premier League.

Olsson, who has made nearly 400 appearances for West Bromwich Albion over the past eight seasons, said Zlatan’s elite talent would be fit for England’s top flight.

He’s still at the top of his game. He is the strongest player I have faced. I really hope he comes.

Zlatan on his day is the most talented footballer in the game. He has played under Mourinho before and the only place where he’s not 100% appreciated is in the UK.

I think he can play for any team in this league – he is still that good.

Even at 34, Zlatan has proven he is still one of the best strikers in the world. He recently became Paris Saint-Germain’s all-time leading scorer, and has scored at least 30 goals in each of the past four seasons.

[ VIDEO: Jamie Vardy speaks after scoring in 11 straight Premier League matches ]

The Premier League certainly has the money to entice Zlatan, and it is the biggest league in the world that he hasn’t conquered yet. Expect his name to be linked with a move to every major club in Europe for the rest of the year, as we’ll just have to wait until June and see what he decides.

Three questions ahead of Sunday’s MLS Conference Finals

PORTLAND, OR - NOVEMBER 22: Goal keeper Adam Kwarasey #12 of Portland Timbers slides in on Michael Barrios #21 of FC Dallas during the second half of the match at Providence Park on November 22, 2015 in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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There are only two matches remaining before MLS Cup, with both conference’s top seeds in need of a big result.

FC Dallas lost to the Portland Timbers 3-1 in the first leg out West, while the New York Red Bulls fell 2-0 to Columbus Crew SC in the East.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Leg 2 of the Conference Finals will both be played on Sunday, as we will know the MLS Cup finalists by the end of the night.

WEST: FC Dallas vs. Portland Timbers — 5 p.m. ET
EAST: New York Red Bulls vs. Columbus Crew SC — 7:30 p.m. ET

With each home-side needing to overcome a two-goal deficit, here’s what to look out for in the Conference Finals.

Will FC Dallas capitalize on home-field advantage?

Despite being down 3-1 on aggregate, FC Dallas will be looking forward to Sunday’s second leg. Dallas finished the season 13-2-2 at Toyota Stadium, the best home record in MLS. After scoring a crucial away goal in Portland, a 2-0 win for Dallas will see the side advance to the final. Their 33 goals scored at home was the second-best mark in the Western Conference, as Oscar Pareja’s men will feel confident despite the aggregate.

[ VIDEO: USMNT’s Fabian Johnson scores twice for Monchengladbach ]

Is Norberto Paparatto ready to replace Liam Ridgewell?

Norberto Paparatto has played just six matches for Portland this season, but it looks like he’ll be starting on Sunday. Liam Ridgewell, who started all 32 matches at center-back, injured his calf in the first leg and manager Caleb Porter said Paparatto will “most likely” be starting, as Ridgewell was seen warming up separately from the rest of the team in training. With FC Dallas in need of goals, Paparatto will have his hands full on defense, especially with the likes of Fabian Castillo and Mauro Diaz bombing forward.

Can Luis Robles keep a clean sheet for RBNY?

The Red Bulls’ Luis Robles was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year this season, and he’s going to need to play like that on Sunday. After losing 2-0 in the first leg without scoring an away goal, New York needs a 2-0 win themselves just to force extra-time. If Columbus scores at Red Bull Arena, New York needs to score four goals to advance. While it will have to be a collective team effort to keep the Crew off the scoresheet, Robles will have to make some big saves in goal to keep his side in it.

La Liga roundup: Barcelona win big in another dominant performance

<> at Camp Nou on November 28, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain.
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Catch up on all of Saturday’s La Liga action, as the trio of Messi-Suarez-Neymar continues to terrorize defenses.

Barcelona 4-0 Real Sociedad

In case you haven’t heard, Barcelona is scary good. Coming off of brilliant 4-0 and 6-1 wins over Real Madrid and Roma respectively, the Catalans trounced Real Sociedad at Camp Nou. It was the usual suspects once again, as Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar (x2) scored the goals in another masterful performance. The M-S-N trio has accounted for 30 of Barcelona’s 33 goals in La Liga this season.

Atletico Madrid 1-0 Espanyol

While the boys from Barcelona may be getting all the headlines, Antoine Griezmann has been having a great season for Atletico Madrid. The French international scored the game-winner in Atletico’s 1-0 win over Espanyol, his tenth in all competitions this season. The good news is that Atleti sit second on the table with a five-point lead over Real Madrid in third, while the bad news is that midfielder Tiago broke his leg in the match.

[ WATCH: Everton, Bournemouth trade late goals in stoppage-time thriller ]

Malaga 2-2 Granada

In a battle of teams fighting for La Liga survival, Granada came from behind to steal a draw at Malaga. The home-side was leading 2-0 until Granada tallied twice in the final ten minutes to take a huge point for the club. Malaga remains glued to the bottom of the table, while Granada is currently out of the drop zone on goal differential.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Levante 0-1 Real Betis
Las Palmas 0-2 Deportivo
Celta Vigo 2-1 Sporting Gijon
Getafe vs. Villarreal (Sunday, 6 a.m. ET)
Eibar vs. Real Madrid (Sunday, 10 a.m. ET)
Rayo vs. Athletic Bilbao (Sunday, 12:15 p.m. ET)
Sevilla vs. Valencia (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET)