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Introduction to Africa’s ludicrous World Cup qualifying (because it’s re-started)

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The world’s least forgiving World Cup qualifying process kicked off its second round this weekend in Africa. Forty teams drawn into 10 groups will be cut by 75 percent over the next 16 months, after which the survivors (the group winners) will be drawn into five two-legged (home-and-away) matches. The winners qualify for Brazil 2014.

It’s the only major qualifying tournament where no second place finishers advance to at least a playoff. In our neck of the woods (North America), second and third place finishers advance from the Hex (you don’t even have to win your preliminary group to make the final stage). In Europe, if you finish second in your group, you’re likely headed for a playoff. In South America, you could finish fifth an still make the show, while Asia is much like CONCACAF. As long as you keep finishing in second, you’re through.

This is the reason why Africa always has such shocking qualifying results. Egypt won three straight Cup of Nations from 2006 to 2010 yet haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 1990. They didn’t even qualify for 2012’s Cup of Nations. Cameroon, Nigeria, and Algeria also missed the tournament.

It’s a ridiculously unforgiving format made all the more ludicrous by not allowing Africa’s aspirants the same margins of error that nations like Argentina, Portugal, Uruguay, France, and Mexico used to make the last World Cup. While it’s hard to call a self-imposed process unfair, in a subtle way, the format undermines the World Cup.

Africa is rarely sending its best representative(s) to the world’s most prestigious event, something that not only hurts those nations but also us fans. I sure would have liked to see Ahmed Hassan compete in a World Cup.

This weekend, with 12 nations having already been shown out of the competition in preliminaries, Africa’s World Cup qualifying began in earnest. With only six games played in each group, losses are huge.

CAF World Cup Qualifying Results – Group by Group

Group A

Results: Central African Republic 2-0 Botswana; South Africa 1-1 Ethiopia

Implications: Central African Republic sprints to the top of the group, but the big story is South Africa dropping points at home. They were the group favorites and have now opened the door for an upstart. The result will cost South Africa’s coach his job.

Forecast: In this group, South Africa still has time to recover, but they’re a long way from Brazil.

Group B

Results: Tunisia 3-1 Equitorial Guinea; Sierra Leone 2-1 Cape Verde

Implications: Form is held. Tunisia scoring three times is encouraging, especially after giving up the opener. Sierra Leoea is a side that might be dangerous, though you couldn’t tell by this score.

Predictions: Tunisia still in position to contest a spot in Brazil.

Group C

Results: Cote d’Ivoire 2-0 Tanzania; Gambia 1-1 Morocco

Implications: It was a good day for Les Elephants. They held serve at home (with goals from Didier Droba and Salomon Kalou) and saw the two teams which could surprise split points in Banjul. Gambia’s squad was undermined by withdrawals, leading to a result which should debilitate their slim World Cup dreams.

Predictions: Cote d’Ivoire has given us no reason to think they’re not going through.

Group D

Results: Ghana 7-0 Lesotho; Sudan 2-0 Zambia

Implications: Dominic Adiyiah and Jordan Ayew are scored twice as the Black Stars opened with a rout. Overall impression: Yikes. Zambia, African champions, were dealt a not-to-surprising setback in Khartoum.

Predictions: Ghana’s clearly the group’s best team, but Sudan’s served notice. The teams don’t meet until March.

Group E

Results: Burkina Faso 0-0 Congo; Niger 0-0 Gabon

Implications: A terrible result for Burkina Faso, who would have “fancied” their chances to advance when this group was drawn. They responded by being drawn by one of the tournament’s weakest teams. Gabon, on the other hand, got a valuable point against a tough opponent.

Predictions: Gabon may now have the inside track.

Group F

Results: Nigeria 1-0 Namibia; Kenya 0-0 Malawi

Implications: Malawi gets a point on the road and becomes the most likely team to unseat Nigeria, though it’s strange to think of the Super Eagles as sitting on a perch. It’s been a while since they lived up to their hype, and after failing to impress against Namibia, it look like they could be had.

Predictions: This group’s still a crapshoot. Malawi hosting Nigeria this weekend could be the group’s most important game.

Group G

Results: Egypt 2-0 Mozambique; Zimbabwe 0-1 Guinea

Implications: A huge day for the Pharaohs, but more for societal reasons than anything that will effect World Cup qualifying. The played in font of an empty stadium, the country still coping with the Port Said tragedy. As fragile as Egypt has been in past qualifying campaigns, each match is an exercise in preserving egg shells. Bob Bradley, however, was the right hire for this kind of job, though his talents will be tested this weekend at Guinea.

Predictions: Egypt’s still the favorites. A point on Saturday will cement that status.

Group H

Results: Algeria 4-0 Rwanda; Benin 1-0 Mali

Implications: Algeria could be the group’s best team, but after an unsettled period in their soccer history, this group looked wide open. An opening match trouncing of Rwanda hints the Desert Foxes could be ready for another World Cup run. In Cotonou, Benin held serve against Mali, an obligatory result against a nation experiencing so many hardships at home.

Predictions: Algeria scoring four goals can’t be ignored. They’ve reclaimed the favorite’s spot.

Group I

Results: Cameroon 1-0 Congo DR; Togo 1-1 Libya

Implications: Great point for Libya, who seem set to build on their Cup of Nations qualification. A 1-0 win at home versus Congo DR hints Cameroon remains very much a Indomitable Lion. Samuel Eto’o is still serving his suspension.

Predictions: Libya looks dangerous. Cameroon still seems uninspired. The Lions are ready to be tamed. Again.

Group J

Results: Senegal 3-1 Liberia; Angola 1-1 Uganda

Implications: As we saw from Senegal’s early Cup of Nations exit, they rarely play up to their talent. This weekend, however, they couldn’t have asked for a better start. A decisive home win coupled with a draw in the group’s other match give the Lions of Teranga sole possession of first.

Predictions: One more weekend like this, and Senegal can’t help but go through.

More Info

Gary Al-Smith’s a bit of a go to on CAF qualifying. Check out his recap and follow him on Twitter.

Cellar dwelling Houston Dynamo, Owen Coyle decide to part ways

TORONTO, ON - MAY 10:  Head Coach Owen Coyle of the Houston Dynamo smiles prior to an MLS soccer game against Toronto FC at BMO Field on May 10, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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A week ago, Owen Coyle was whispered as possibly leaving the Houston Dynamo to lead Celtic.

With that opening filled by Brendan Rodgers, the Dynamo and Coyle cut ties anyway.

[ USMNT-ECUADOR: Match recap | Player ratings | 3 things ]

Coyle struggled to pick up the pieces left behind by Dominic Kinnear in Houston, and the Dynamo are dead last in Major League Soccer after a quarter of the season.

On Wednesday night, the Dynamo announced that Coyle wanted to be closer to his family in England and would be leaving the club immediately.

From HoustonDynamo.com:

“I asked Chris (Canetti) if I could speak with him today and I explained to him the challenge of being away from my family and how we all want the best for Houston Dynamo,” Coyle said. “I want to wish all members of the staff, from owner Gabriel Brener to president Chris Canetti to general manager Matt Jordan, everyone has been such a source of support, along with the players and the technical staff. I’d like to thank the Dynamo supporters, who have been outstanding. We have a brilliant club, and I have no doubt success is just around the corner.”

The Dynamo went 14W-21L-11T during his reign, but have also been severely lacking in talent. The long delay from acquiring Cubo Torres to getting him on the pitch was one of the many things that frustrated progress in Houston.

Coyle is best known for his time with Bolton Wanderers, though that ended early in a Championship season following relegation. Houston is 3W-7L-2T this season, and has Vancouver up next.

Wade Barrett and a pair of Dynamo assistants will lead the club in the interim.

Three things we learned from the late USMNT win over Ecuador

FRISCO, TX - MAY 25:  Frickson Erazo #3 of Ecuador battle for control of the ball against Clint Dempsey #8 of the United States in the first half during an International Friendly match at Toyota Stadium on May 25, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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Darlington Nagbe was the star against Ecuador, giving the United States the late 1-0 win in Frisco. There wasn’t much to take away from the match, but one attacking setup certainly performed better than the other, and that was the biggest talking point.

[ RECAP – United States earns late win over Ecuador ]

Three things we learned

1 – When the US plays good defense, it has a creativity problem.

This isn’t anything new, as teams who sit back obviously will have less of the ball. But this isn’t exactly that. The US defended quite well through the first 45 minutes, and they held the majority of the possession, but they failed to do much with it. It resulted in…

That. Yuck. It was horrid to watch, and is frustrating given the level of competition being faced compared to the level of competition to come.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings against Ecuador ]

2 – Does the Pulisic-Wood-Nagbe lineup have more to offer?

The United States began with Clint Dempsey isolated up front, supported by Gyasi Zardes and Graham Zusi, with Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones sitting deep. That lineup was utter trash in the attacking half, producing one good chance in the first half which Zardes flubbed. When Klinsmann switched things up soon after halftime, bringing on Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, Darlington Nagbe, and Alejandro Bedoya, the attack began to show life. It certainly helped that all those substitutes were placed in their natural positions, something not always a given for Klinsmann. This may give the US manager a good look at the more creative setup, and could bode well for the aforementioned players heading into the Copa America. There are obvious downsides to this lineup, such as lack of experience, but it might be worth the risk, especially with those players much more likely to be contributors in 2018 given their age.

3 – Christian Pulisic can actually be a useful piece this summer

On for the final half-hour, the young Borussia Dortmund winger provided positive touches along the left flank. He created a few opportunities for Bobby Wood and Graham Zusi, a promising development to push back against the “he’s not ready” crowd. Pulisic was electric down the left, and was vital in the push the last 20 minutes. It’s just 20 minutes, but it’s a promising small sample size.

Player ratings from the USMNT’s late win over Ecuador

FRISCO, TX - MAY 25:  Brad Guzman #1 of the United States blocks a shot against Ecuador in the first half during an International Friendly match at Toyota Stadium on May 25, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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“Fits and starts” is a good way to describe the United States friendly against Ecuador in Texas on Wednesday, a match that ended 1-0 to the hosts after a controlling second half.

The Yanks took more than 20 minutes to get their act together, and then had a bit of trouble penetrating La Tricolor’s back four.

[ MORE: Match recap ]

The second half, however, was straight-up dominant. The lack of finish was troubling, but Darlington Nagbe took care of that. The Portland Timbers man not only scored, but also piled vindication on supporters who couldn’t wait to see him up high, and Michael Bradley deep.

And Christian Pulisic, well, he’s a swoon-worthy talent.

STARTING XI

Brad Guzan — 8 — Didn’t have a ton to do, but did it very well. A welcome improvement from the Aston Villa keeper.

Fabian Johnson — 6 — Probably deserves a 7, but that missed trap of a Jermaine Jones cross was just so ugly.

Steve Birnbaum — 6 — Very shaky early, but settled into the game.

FRISCO, TX - MAY 25:  Christian Noboa #6 of Ecuador takes a shot against John Brooks #6 of the United States and Brad Guzman #1 of the United States in the first half during an International Friendly match at Toyota Stadium on May 25, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
 (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

John Brooks (off 78′) — 7 — Played very well after a weak opening 10 minutes or so. Still takes chances like the center back version of Jermaine Jones, but those chances came off well on Wednesday.

DeAndre Yedlin — 6 — Hit and miss from the right back, who had a heck of a task in dealing with Jefferson Montero. Still, the defensive improvement is impossible to ignore.

Kyle Beckerman (off HT) — 6 — Might’ve picked up an injury. Hard-nosed as usual, but feels like he’s a single lost step away from not fitting the bill.

Jermaine Jones (off 64′) — 6 — Playing as an attack-minded mid with some defensive responsibilities may be the role he was meant to play, and his early second half was promising before subbing off for Bedoya.

Michael Bradley — 7 — No surprise that he — and the States — thrived once Klinsmann moved the Toronto FC man deeper in the midfield.

Gyasi Zardes (off HT) — 5 — The effort was there, as were the runs. The kid works hard and has a brain for the game, but his first touch betrayed him once again. Should’ve been 1-0.

Graham Zusi (off, 88′)– 7 — You know what you’re getting with Zusi, and the Sporting KC man was one of several players who played an assist-worthy ball in this one. Bedoya tapped his 72nd minute pass just wide of the far post.

Clint Dempsey (off 63′) — 5 —  Will be kicking himself for a poor first touch on an early second half cross from Bobby Wood. Didn’t get much service in the first half, but did play a great ball to Zardes.

Substitutes

Darlington Nagbe (on HT) — 8 — This guy. We all knew he had it in him, even Klinsmann after a long enough wait. He was the best player on the pitch in the second half.

Bobby Wood (on HT) — 6 — Missed a few key chances, but set up Nagbe’s winner.

Christian Pulisic (on 63′) — 7 — Dangerous, lively, and that touch. More of him, please.

Alejandro Bedoya (on 64′) — 6 — Should’ve scored, but didn’t. Also probably should’ve started, so we’ll cut him a bit of slack.

Matt Besler (on 78′) — 6 — Totally fine, but Ecuador rarely tested during his tenure.

Michael Orozco (on 88′) — N/A

United States 1-0 Ecuador: Nagbe grabs late winner in 90-minute snoozefest

FRISCO, TX - MAY 25:  Gyasi Zardes #9 of the United States controls the ball against Angel Mena #14 of Ecuador in the first half during an International Friendly match at Toyota Stadium on May 25, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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The United States snoozed its way through one half and flubbed its way through another, saved by an 89th-minute winner from Darlington Nagbe that gave the home side the admittedly deserved win over an even worse Ecuadorian side.

Ecuador came to Frisco, TX as both sides get ready for the Copa America to come just days away, and they each left with little to take from the scoreless draw until Nagbe broke the ice with a minute to go.

The first big chance of the game came just on the half-hour mark, as a beautiful chipped ball from Clint Dempsey over the Ecuador back line sprung Gyasi Zardes free. Unfortunately, the famous Zardes touch saw the ball get away from him and out of play.

The rest of the half snoozed by, and after the break, the US spurned another great chance just three minutes into the second half. A beautiful ball from Michael Bradley reached the far post where Steve Birnbaum, John Brooks, and Clint Dempsey were all waiting, and somehow none of them made contact, instead toppling over each other as the ball rolled harmlessly to the goalkeeper.

Soon after, the US conceded its best chance yet to Ecuador. A great touch by Miller Bolanos sends Angel Mena into acres of space through on goal, but Michael Bradley sprinted from the mid-line to recover and punch the ball out as Mena cut back.

Jurgen Klinsmann switched up the attack past the hour mark, bringing on Bobby Wood, Darlington Nagbe, and young Christian Pulisic. They created a chance with 20 minutes to go as Graham Zusi delivered a ball across the face of goal. It was out of the reach of Pulisic, but it came to Alejandro Bedoya on the far side, who sent it back across the face, again untouched.

As the US took control through the late stages, they got the winner. DeAndre Yedlin sent in a cross that came off the head of Juan Paredes. Bobby Wood won the rebound, heading it back to Nagbe waiting in the middle, and the 25-year-old chested it down and volleyed it in for his first international goal.

The US takes on Bolivia on Saturday before the Copa America begins June 3.