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CHAMPS ARE BACK

Brazil surged into the World Cup with a display of artful soccer that presents its coach with an enviable problem: Where to put so much talent?

Brazil's 5-0 rout of Chile on Sunday left the five-time world champions in second place in the South American qualifying group, one point behind Argentina but mathematically assured a berth in the 2006 Cup in Germany.

The victory was textbook soccer — with a touch of showtime — by a galaxy of rising stars and proven veterans that coach Carlos Alberto Parreira must mold into a cohesive unit. And he still must find a spot for striker Ronaldinho, FIFA's Player of the Year in 2004.

Too much talent?

"It's an excellent headache, one that any coach would want," Robinho said with a smile.

Brazil is the ninth team to punch its ticket to Germany. The other eight teams are Japan, Iran, Korea Republic, Saudi Arabia, Germany (host nation), Ukraine, United States and Argentina.

A BIT BITTER

After his team was beaten by the United States in Saturday's World Cup qualifying match, Mexico coach Ricardo Lavolpe didn't exactly have kind things to say about his CONCACAF counterparts.

"The U.S. is a small team," he said. "They play like my sister, my aunt and my grandmother."

Sounds like Lavolpe was a little bitter about the 2-0 loss, which punched the U.S. National Team's ticket to the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Mexico can still qualify with a tie in one of its final three qualifiers.

DISAPPOINTING EXIT

The 2006 World Cup will be played without the 2010 host.

South Africa was eliminated from contention when Ghana beat Uganda 2-0 Sunday. A day earlier, the South Africans lost 3-1 at Burkina Faso.

"Outplayed, outfought, outdone," declared the Johannesburg-based Star newspaper.

Following its return to international soccer, South Africa went 0-1-2 at the 1998 World Cup, losing to eventual winner France before tying Denmark and Saudi Arabia.

The team, known as Bafana Bafana, beat Slovenia, tied Paraguay and lost to Spain at the 2002 tournament, missing advancement to the second round on the second tiebreaker — South Africa had the same goal difference as Paraguay but one fewer goal.

"The loss only shows how far backwards we have gone in Africa," former coach Clive Barker was quoted as saying by The Star. "But all we can do now is to roll back our sleeves and make changes and look forward to the future."

COACHING SUSPENSION

Costa Rican coach Alexandre Guimaraes was suspended by FIFA for Wednesday's World Cup qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago.

FIFA imposed the penalty following Guimaraes' ejection by U.S. referee Kevin Stott during Saturday's 3-1 victory at Panama.

Costa Rica (3-3-1) is third in the final round of North and Central American and Caribbean qualifying, trailing the United States (6-1), which has 18 points and has clinched a berth, and Mexico (5-1-1), which has 16 points.

Guatemala and T&T both have seven points and 2-4-1 records, and Panama (0-5-2) is last with two points.

The top three nations qualify for next year's tournament, and the No. 4 team meets Bahrain or Uzbekistan in a playoff for a berth.

MLS PLAYOFF WATCH

With just over a month left in the MLS regular season, this is supposed to be an exciting time of year with teams jockeying for playoff berths.

Unfortunately for MLS fans, it just isn't shaping up that way.

In both conferences, the top four teams are comfortably ahead of the bottom two teams in the race for the playoffs.

In the West, fourth-place Colorado is 12 points clear of fifth-place Real Salt Lake, while in the East, fourth-place D.C. United is seven points clear of the fifth-place MetroStars.

There's a slim chance things could get interesting in the Eastern Conference with Columbus. The Crew have won three straight, and even though they trail D.C. by 11 points, they've played two less games.