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Ecuador suspends 5 players for leaving training base

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QUITO, Ecuador (AP) Five players have been suspended indefinitely from Ecuador’s national soccer team for leaving the squad’s training base without permission a day before a key match this week against Argentina.

[ MORE: Much of the same to come based on Gulati’s reaction ]

The Ecuadoran federation declined to identify the players.

Argentina defeated Ecuador 3-1 on Tuesday, a result that guaranteed Argentina a place in next year’s World Cup. Ecuador had no chance to advance, but could have eliminated Argentina.

Federation president Carlos Villacis says “the players involved have been indefinitely suspended from any call-up.” He said only that they were involved in an act of “indiscipline” and did not give details.

CONMEBOL wrap: All to play for as Argentina held again, Chile wins

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CONMEBOL qualifying is, as the kids say, LIT.

Thursday’s results mean that all will be decided on Tuesday, with still only Brazil having secured qualification already. Chile jumped into a qualifying spot – barely – while another disappointing performance by Argentina leaves Jorge Sampaoli and company on the outside looking up to qualification with one match to go.

Yes, you read that correctly. Your eyes are not deceiving you. Argentina could very realistically miss the World Cup.

Have a look at the results, plus a look at Tuesday:

Argentina 0-0 Peru

Lionel Messi and nobody else.

The Barcelona star was brilliant again for his country, but had no help as Argentina was stymied at home yet again, leaving them in an elimination spot with just one match to play. Messi himself hit the post, but he was still his stunning self for much of the game. Unfortunately, Angel Di Maria was horrid and yanked at halftime, Darío Benedetto andLucas Biglia spurned a number of chances, and Sampaoli decided against even bringing Paulo Dybala off the bench to help the attack.

The result means Argentina – already in the playoff position coming into tonight – was leap-frogged by Chile and currently sit outside a qualifying position of any kind. They have not scored a World Cup qualifying goal from open play in five whole matches, the last of which came almost a full year ago in last November.

Chile 2-1 Ecuador

It appeared Ecuador had equalized late, which would have been disastrous for Chile, but Alexis Sanchez saved the day with an 86th minute goal as Chile jumped into a qualifying spot thanks to the three points.

Arturo Vidal pick-pocketed an Ecuador defender after a slip, and he fed Felipe Gutiérrez in great shooting position. With space, Gutierrez ripped a shot that was saved by Maximo Banguera, but he parried it right in the path of Sanchez who scored easily into the open net.

Romario Ibarra Mina had equalized just two minutes earlier, cancelling out Eduardo Vargas‘s opener just 22 minutes in. A draw would have been a tough pill to swallow, leaving Chile below the qualifying line despite the failures elsewhere. Instead, the Sanchez goal allowed Chile to take advantage of the other slips, leaving his side in a great spot.

Colombia 1-2 Paraguay

Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina made a pair of critical errors late and Colombia slipped to late defeat at home against Paraguay to send the CONMEBOL standings into further disarray. Deralis Gonzalez sent in a cross from the right, and when Ospina came off his line to collect, he spilled the ball and was left sprawled on the ground as Antonio Sanabria pounced to score the winner two minutes into stoppage time.

Colombia had already squandered a lead just moments before. Radamel Falcao‘s chip had given them the lead in the 79th minute, but Oscar Cardozo equalized in the 89th minute thanks to the first of Ospina’s two errors. A deep set-piece from the midway line was sent into the box, and Ospina came out to punch but hardly got a touch and spilled to the ground. That allowed Cardozo to pounce, poking in while he laid on the ground.

The loss means Colombia remains in the muck, despite being still in a qualifying position. For Paraguay, the win is massive, pulling them within one of the playoff spot.

Venezuela 0-0 Uruguay

A point for Uruguay on the road is a positive, but with the logjam suddenly inches behind them, 0-0 feels like a disappointing result as they fail to break through at Venezuela. Both teams struggled to get shots on target as Venezuela remains bottom of the table.

Bolivia 0-0 Brazil

Brazil has already qualified for the 2018 World Cup, and they trotted out a mediocre lineup that couldn’t get past Bolivia goalkeeper Carlos Lampe who made a whopping 13 saves in the scoreless draw. Neymar started for Brazil and completed the full 90 minutes, but Philippe Coutinho was withdrawn after an hour and Alisson was deployed in goal. Bolivia has already been eliminated from contention.

CURRENT STANDINGS

Brazil  (Q)      38   +27
Uruguay         28   +10
Chile               26   +2
Colombia       26   +2
————————-
Peru                25    +1
————————-
Argentina       25   +1
Paraguay        24   -5
Ecuador (E)   20   -1
Bolivia (E)      14   -20
Venezuela (E)  9   -17

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So here’s the deal: Argentina still controls its own destiny. Mostly. They need to win on the road at eliminated Ecuador, and they need to do so by more than Peru potentially wins at home against an equally desperate Colombia. That should see them at least into the playoff position, and could see them jump higher should Chile or Colombia falter.

Chile hits the road to take on Brazil, and while the hosts have already qualified, they likely won’t take the match lightly against a rival in a fixture that has found new heat in recent years.

Paraguay hosts Venezuela and could be primed to take advantage of a couple slips above them. Uruguay should be fine as they host Bolivia, as only true chaos could see them out.

CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying preview: Crunch time

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This is it: the final two match days of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying are here and only three teams are assured of their fates in or out of Russia.

Brazil is in, having lost just once in 16 matches and holding a remarkable plus-27 goal differential in what may be the deepest confederation in the world.

[ MORE: USMNT prospects on show at U-17 World Cup ]

Then there’s Bolivia and Venezuela, the only national teams sure to miss out on the World Cup.

Anything else is possible, truly, with seven teams aiming for three automatic spots and one playoff date with New Zealand.

Remaining opponents
2. Uruguay (27 pts) – Venezuela (A), Bolivia (H)
3. Colombia
 (26 pts) – Paraguay (H), Peru (A)
4. Peru (24 pts) – Argentina (A), Colombia (H)
5. Argentina (24 pts) – Peru (H), Ecuador (A)
6. Chile (23 pts) – Ecuador (H), Brazil (A)
7. Paraguay (21 pts)– Colombia (A), Venezuela (H)
8. Ecuador (20 pts) – Chile (A), Argentina (H)

While most of the matches matter, there are two tipping point events on Thursday. Wins from Argentina, Colombia, and Uruguay could render the final day a lot less dramatic.

1. Argentina vs. Peru — There’s a legitimate chance that a prospective loser in Buenos Aires would find itself outside even the playoff spot heading into the final day. A draw and a Chile win could leave Argentina sixth with a tricky trip to Ecuador, while Peru would have to host a Colombia side which may have already qualifier.

2. Ecuador at Chile — La Furia Roja has found myriad ways to lose qualifiers, with own goals and bad cards playing roles, and has a chance to leapfrog Peru and/or Argentina while eliminating Ecuador.

CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying preview

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Have to hand it to CONMEBOL, which makes sure their World Cup qualifying day always has a match moving for seven and a half hours.

It’s Matchday 15 for South America, the first of four days left for five perennial World Cup qualifiers to find their way to one of three automatic spots on the table. Outside of Colombia, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, and Ecuador, this week marks the last chances for Peru and Paraguay to edge their way into the conversation.

Let’s take a look at the table before we go any further.

[ MORE: Four keys for the USMNT ]

Brazil — 33 pts (qualified)
Colombia — 24 pts
Uruguay — 23 pts
Chile — 23 pts
Argentina — 22 pts
Ecuador — 20 pts
Peru — 18 pts
Paraguay — 18 pts
Bolivia — 10 pts (eliminated)
Venezuela — 6 pts (eliminated)

The Top Four teams go to Russia automatically, with the fifth place team facing either the Solomon Islands or, more likely, New Zealand for a place in the World Cup.

Brazil is already in, but won’t be resting on its laurels given the competition for places in the roster. Players like David Luiz, Alex Sandro, and Douglas Costa aren’t even in the squad for Thursday’s match with sixth-place Ecuador in Porto Alegre.

Ecuador could find itself as low as eight with a loss to Brazil, should Peru beat already-eliminated Bolivia in Lima (likely) and Paraguay snare three points in Chile (far from it).

The Chileans will be feeling the heat should they not get a win over Paraguay. A trip to Bolivia is next, but home to Ecuador and away to Brazil is a tough way to finish qualifying.

Uruguay is the only team to face both Bolivia and Venezuela, which gives it a distinct advantage. If it can manage a win over Argentina on Thursday, it would but them on a clean path to Russia.

The Argentine side would avoid a brutal final day in Ecuador if it could pick up a win in Montevideo. With Venezuela and Peru coming to Argentina next, La Albiceleste would have a solid chance to clinch a spot in Russia before Matchday 18.

CONMEBOL qualifying Thursday schedule
Venezuela vs. Colombia, 5 p.m. ET
Chile vs. Paraguay, 6:30 p.m. ET
Uruguay vs. Argentina, 7 p.m. ET
Brazil vs. Ecuador, 8:45 p.m. ET
Peru vs. Bolivia, 10:15 p.m. ET

Remaining opponents
Brazil – Ecuador (H), Colombia (A), Bolivia (A), Chile (H)
Colombia – Venezuela (A), Brazil (H), Paraguay (H), Peru (A)
Uruguay – Argentina (H), Paraguay (A), Venezuela (A), Bolivia (H)
Chile – Paraguay (H), Bolivia (A), Ecuador (H), Brazil (A)
Argentina – Uruguay (A), Venezuela (H), Peru (H), Ecuador (A)
Ecuador – Brazil (A), Peru (H), Chile (A), Argentina (H)
Peru – Bolivia (H), Ecuador (A), Argentina (A), Colombia (H)
Paraguay – Chile (A), Uruguay (H), Colombia (A), Venezuela (H)
Bolivia – Peru (A), Chile (H), Brazil (H), Uruguay (A)
Venezuela – Colombia (H), Argentina (A), Uruguay (H), Paraguay (A)

Reports: Minnesota United chasing Gremio, Hearts attackers

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Minnesota United’s roster didn’t look great when the season began, and many had the Loons finishing dead last in their MLS debut season.

It hasn’t been great, but United has improved after a very poor start. The club was forced to start MLS veteran Bobby Shuttleworth through injury, and acquired MLS veterans Sam Cronin and Marc Burch from Colorado. All three have helped stabilize a woeful unit.

If reports from FiftyFive.One are to believed, the Loons aren’t done and are focusing on moving from “not last” to an outside threat at a playoff spot.

[ MORE: PST’s UEFA Best XI ]

One of those targets is Miller Bolanos, who is out of contract at the end of this year and also being sought by Swansea City. The 27-year-old currently plays at Gremio after searing the score sheets with Emelec, and has 20 caps and eight goals for Ecuador.

Then there’s Sam Nicholson, the Scottish midfielder and teammate of Perry Kitchen at Hearts. The 22-year-old has 80 Scottish Premiership appearances under his belt, notching nine goals and 13 assists. He visited with Minnesota last week, and FiftyFive.One says he left with a contract offer.

Minnesota has played a 4-2-3-1 with Christian Ramirez up top and not getting the best service from his No. 10. Bolanos would push Kevin Molino wide while Nicholson would likely challenge Ibarra, Johan Venegas and Ismael Jome for playing time.