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2 officials convicted at FIFA trial; 3rd awaits verdict

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NEW YORK (AP) Two former South American soccer officials were convicted Friday of corruption charges at a U.S. trial stemming from the FIFA bribery scandal, while deliberations will continue next week for a third official.

A federal jury deliberated a week before reaching the partial verdict in New York.

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Jose Maria Marin, of Brazil, and Juan Angel Napout, of Paraguay, were convicted of the top count they faced, racketeering conspiracy. Jurors were undecided on Manuel Burga, the former president of Peru’s soccer federation.

The three had been arrested in 2015. Prosecutors accused them of agreeing to take millions of dollars in bribes from businessmen seeking to lock up lucrative media rights or influence hosting rights for the World Cup and other major tournaments controlled by FIFA.

Marin, the former president of Brazil’s soccer federation, and Napout, formerly president of Paraguay’s soccer federation and of the South American soccer governing body CONMEBOL, also were convicted of other charges. Both were acquitted of some lesser counts.

The trial ended up being colored by odd twists: an unproven accusation that Burga threatened a witness; a juror booted for sleeping through testimony; word from Buenos Aires that an Argentine lawyer had committed suicide there hours after being named at the trial as a bribe-taker; and the surprise testimony of a former member of the Jonas Brothers, an American pop rock band.

Marin, Burga and Napout were among more than 40 people in the world of global soccer who faced criminal charges in the U.S. in connection with what prosecutors said were schemes involving hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks. Many of the other defendants pleaded guilty.

The government’s star witness, a former marketing executive from Argentina, Alejandro Burzaco, testified that he and his company arranged to pay $160 million in bribes over the course of several years until his arrest in 2015. Some of the money was demanded by a FIFA official in exchange for helping rig a vote that gave Qatar hosting rights for the World Cup in 2022, he said.

“You’ve seen a lot of paper, some of it quite complex,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sam Nitze said in closing arguments. “There are cases that present mysteries to be solved – whodunnits. This is not one of them.”

Prosecutors said Burga took $4.4 million in bribes, Marin took $6.6 million and Napout collected $10.5 million.

The defense argued that the men were innocent bystanders framed by Burzaco and other untrustworthy cooperators angling for leniency in their own cases. Napout’s lawyer told jurors the prosecution had failed to produce records of wire transfers or large bank deposits that could prove he was receiving piles of bribe money.

“They say cash is king, but where did it go?” said the attorney, John Pappalardo. “There was not one penny they could trace to Juan.”

The lawyer for Marin, who is 85, called him a clueless figurehead, saying the person making the real decisions was Marco Polo del Nero, the head of Brazil’s soccer federation. Del Nero is charged in the U.S. case but hasn’t been extradited from Brazil. FIFA suspended him from the sport Friday.

Burga, whose lawyer made similar arguments, got some unwanted attention early in the trial when prosecutors claimed he unnerved Burzaco by directing a threatening gesture at him – running his fingers across his throat in a slicing motion. The lawyer claimed his client was merely scratching his throat, but the judge took the incident seriously enough to tighten Burga’s house arrest conditions.

One witness described a secret ledger that listed bribes for Napout, including an entry for Paul McCartney concert tickets worth more than $10,000.

After the defense questioned whether the concert actually took place, the government called the musician and actor Kevin Jonas to testify that he attended the show as a spectator.

Another cooperator, Brazilian businessman Jose Hawilla, agreed to wear a wire for the FBI to make recordings played at the trial. One included a conversation he had with Marin in 2014 in which prosecutors say the defendant negotiated a bribe by saying, “It’s about time to have it coming my way. True or not?”

Hawilla responded: “Of course. That money had to be given to you.”

Wolfsburg keeps Bundesliga spot with playoff win

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Wolfsburg managed a 1-0 win (4-1 on aggregate) over Holstein Kiel on Monday in the second leg of its German promotion playoff as the Bundesliga side kept its place in the top flight.

Robin Knoche scored the game-winner in the second leg, which ensured Wolfsburg’s stay in the Bundesliga ahead of the 2017/18 season.

The hosts boasted a number of quality chances in the first half, including David Kinsombi’s close-range shot that tested Wolfsburg keeper Koen Casteels with a save, however, Holstein couldn’t break through.

U.S. Men’s National Team defender John Brooks went the full 90 minutes for Wolfsburg, after the 25-year-old made nine starts this season for the German side in league play.

Injuries aren’t halting Red Bulls from proving to be MLS’ top club

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It would have been understandable if the New York Red Bulls dropped their heads in agony last month after the club’s disappointing CONCACAF Champions League defeat to eventual tournament winners Chivas de Guadalajara.

[ MORE: NYCFC’s Vieira close to signing contract with Nice ]

That wasn’t the case though, and for manager Jesse Marsch and Co., the club has been rewarded in the biggest of ways for its perseverance.

Sunday night’s 3-1 win over Atlanta United proved once again in 2018 that this season’s Red Bulls are the class of MLS for a number of reasons.

The team’s 7-3-0 start is its best in modern Red Bulls history, which dates back nine seasons to when Red Bull Arena was first opened in 2010.

Marsch and his group currently ride a four-match win streak, which includes away wins over LA Galaxy, Colorado Rapids and Atlanta, with a 4-0 beatdown of rivals New York City FC bunched in the middle of the road trip.

It’s easy to look at wins and losses to determine which teams are serious MLS Cup contenders and others that will struggle throughout the season, but when diving deeper into this Red Bulls team, there are a lot of special qualities that make them different than previous years.

Heading into 2018, questions surrounded the team following Sacha Kljestan’s departure for Orlando City, as well as the club’s ability to defend with a back line that didn’t appear to have much depth.

The Kljestan question has not only been answered, but turned into Alejandro “Kaku” Gamarra becoming a household MLS name and legitimate MVP and Newcomer of the Year candidate.

The Argentine (possibly turning Paraguayan) leads MLS in assists (9) through the Red Bulls first 10 matches, after Kljestan posted 17 for the club during the 2017 campaign.

Kaku is a spark plug that manages to find himself in the right positions on the field at any given moment, and his work rate perfectly matches what Marsch his instilled in the squad since the moment he first arrived.

Defensively, the Red Bulls have far exceeded expectations, conceding the fourth-fewest goals (12) in MLS, despite a host of injuries.

Jamaica international Kemar Lawrence went down with a scary injury on Sunday, leaving his immediate availability with the club unknown, while Homegrown player Kyle Duncan will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL.

Tyler Adams also went down with an injury against Atlanta, however, it isn’t believed to be serious.

That’s not including outside back Connor Lade, who has battled an ankle injury early in the 2018 campaign as well.

While the addition of Kaku has paid dividends in the biggest of ways in the attack though, it was the Red Bulls ability to bring in center back Tim Parker from the Vancouver Whitecaps that has really changed the team’s outlook at the back.

Parker has formed a strong bond with fellow central defensive partner Aaron Long, and the two are easily the best center back pairing in MLS through the opening two-plus months.

The bigger test for the club in the long-term will be if Lawrence does miss significant playing time, though.

That would force Marsch to rely more on Lade, who only returned from injury on Sunday to replace Lawrence, or young outside back Ethan Kutler, unless the Red Bulls manager opts to switch to a three-back system (as he has done in the past).

The Red Bulls will have to also battle through the concerns that come with the World Cup this summer, which will likely force defenders Michael Murillo and Fidel Escobar to leave the squad for their Panama national team duties.

Nainggolan ends Belgium career after World Cup snub

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As World Cup squads fill out their rosters ahead of next month’s great tournament in Russia, a number of high-profile names won’t feature at the World Cup.

[ MORE: No World Cup for Spanish Chelsea trio ]

Belgium named its 28-man provisional squad on Monday, which includes Premier League stars Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard, however, one notable midfielder was left out of Roberto Martinez’s squad.

Radja Nainggolan won’t be on the plane to Russia next month for the Red Devils, who take on England, Panama and Tunisia in the group stage.

That decision by Martinez has prompted the AS Roma midfielder to end his international career, which Nainggolan revealed in a social media post following the announcement.

Martinez commented on the Roma player’s omission from the roster.

“Radja is a top player,” Martinez said. “The reason is tactical. In the last two years the team has worked in a specific manner. Other players had those roles.

“We know that he has a very important role in his club and we cannot give him that role in our squad.”

Emery set to replace Wenger at Arsenal

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Unai Emery will be the next man up for Arsenal, with the BBC calling it a “unanimous choice” from Arsenal’s search committee.

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The BBC’s David Ornstein is reporting that Arsenal will appoint the ex-PSG and Sevilla boss as its new manager.

Emery had massive success with Sevilla in tournament and league play, and led PSG on a rollicking run through Ligue 1 but was deemed replaceable thanks to a Neymar-less loss in the UEFA Champions League.

The Basque manager will be the first Arsenal manager not named Arsene Wenger since the Frenchman took over at the Emirates on Oct. 1, 1996.

It feels a natural fit, as Emery has had success with multiple systems at both favorites and relative underdogs.

Emery has also overseen Spartak Moscow, Almeria, and Valencia.

Mikel Arteta and Thierry Henry were also rumored as potential Wenger successors.