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.

Vidal rips Ronaldo ahead of Confederations Cup semifinal

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Chile hopes to make a statement on Wednesday when it faces EURO 2016 champions Portugal and Ballon d’Or champion Cristiano Ronaldo.

The 2015 and 2016 Copa America champions can lay claim to another inter-confederation title with two more wins in the 2017 Confederations Cup, beginning with the semifinal in Kazan.

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Chile finished behind Germany in Group B but didn’t lose a match and only allowed two goals. That’ll be tested by Portugal and its seven goals in three matches.

Two of those goals came from Ronaldo, but don’t tell that to Arturo Vidal. Chile’s hard-edged midfielder doesn’t like him much.

From Goal.com:

“Cristiano is a smart ass,” he told reporters. “For me he does not exist.

“I have already told my Bayern Munich team-mate Joshua Kimmich that we will meet again in the final.”

Germany will have to take care of Mexico to make that happen, though we have a feeling a certain smart ass will have a thing or two to say before it’s all said and done.

Vidal has spoken loudly of his desire to get Chilean teammate Alexis Sanchez, a former Barcelona man, at his club Bayern Munich. If Ronaldo is on the market, this isn’t a great recruiting tool. Ah, jokes.

Trio of Crew players in Ghana roster to face USMNT, Mexico

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Ghana’s team to face the United States men’s national team on Saturday in East Hartford will look somewhat familiar to fans of Major League Soccer.

Columbus Crew players Harrison Afful, Mohammed Abu and Jonathan Mensah join David Accam of the Chicago Fire, and Gershon Koffie of the New England Revolution on a unit with Kwadwo Poku of the NASL’s Kwadwo Poku.

John Boye, Asamoah Gyan, and Mensah are the only three players from the loss to the USMNT in the 2014 World Cup.

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Like the U.S., this is a less than full-strength squad. Missing are a number of Black Stars standouts, with Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Afriyie Acquah, Daniel Amartey, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Christian Atsu, Jeff Schlupp, and Baba Rahman not with the team.

Saturday’s match is the last USMNT outing before the Gold Cup begins on July 8 in Nashville against Panama.

Goalkeepers: Addo Joseph (Aduana Stars), Richard Ofori (Wa All Stars)

Defenders: Lumor Agbenyenu (Munich 1860), Harrison Afful (Columbus Crew),  Nicholas Opoku (Berekum Chelsea), Jerry Akaminko (Eskiserhispor),  John Boye (Sivasspor), Rashid Sumalia (Al Gharafa), Jonathan Mensah (Columbus Crew), Samuel Sarfo (Liberty)

Midfielders: Mohammed Abu (Columbus Crew, Isaac Sackey (Alanyaspor), Ofori Ebenezer (Stuttgart), Kwadwo Poku (FC Miami), Winful Kwaku Cobbinah (Hearts of Oak), Frank Acheampong (Anderlecht), Thomas Agyepong (NAC Breda), Gershon Koffie (New England Revolution)

Strikers: Asamoah Gyan (Al Alhi), Raphael Dwamena (FC Zurich), Majeed Abdul Waris (Lorient FC), David Accam (Chicago Fire)

Timo Werner abused in Germany but key to World Cup defense

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) The abuse has followed Timo Werner for months, gathering pace as rapidly as the striker has amassed goals.

No German player was more prolific in the Bundesliga last season. No player was as ostracized.

But Werner is now a full-blown Germany international, scoring his first goals at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, and he could hold the key to the World Cup defense next year.

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That could require Germany supporters to forgive a player they jeered at during his first competitive game for Joachim Loew’s team earlier this month.

“Kobe Bryant has also been booed everywhere and he always been the best,” Werner reflected ahead of Germany’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Mexico on Thursday, seeing a kindred spirit in the basketball great. “I do not want to say that I am the best like him, but (the abuse) is a bit of an incentive.”

If playing for the ascendant but deeply unpopular Leipzig wasn’t bad enough, a dive in December by Werner provided a focal point for the animosity – jealousy, perhaps – toward the Red Bull-funded team.

The insults have even been hurled far from Germany, far from soccer stadiums. The dive won a penalty against Schalke, and provided Werner with one of the 21 goals that helped to propel Leipzig into second place and a Champions League debut next season.

“There was a dive, he made a mistake and he admitted it,” Loew said, “but he is very, very young player.”

And a potentially very important one for Loew at the World Cup in Russia next year. Germany’s striking options are being assessed at the eight-team Confederations Cup as Loew still seeks a long-term successor to Miroslav Klose as target man for the world champions.

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Werner opened his account for Germany on his fourth appearance, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory over Cameroon on Sunday in Sochi.

“Werner put in a lot of legwork,” Loew said. “He showed how dangerous he is and that he’s got a great nose for goal. Both of his efforts were very well taken.”

Werner’s rivals for a place in the squad next year include fellow squad newcomers Lars Stindl and Sandro Wagner. They are both close to 30, while the 21-year-old Werner has youth, strength and speed on his side. Even Wagner said he has “never seen such a good striker at that age.”

That’s a result of Werner fusing his pace with intelligence on the ball, mastering dribbling at high speed first with Stuttgart and then at Leipzig.

“There’s no recipe for it,” Werner said. “The quickest players just know how to do it automatically. I like to knock the ball three or four meters ahead of me when I’m on the counter or have space in front of me, that way I can increase the distance between a defender and myself.”

Such proficiency should help Werner win over fans beyond Leipzig. Time, he hopes, will heal the fractures, and there’s certainly support from his new international teammates.

“I wish him well because of the issues he has had to endure,” captain Julian Draxler told Germany’s ARD television.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP Confederations Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup

USMNT Gold Cup 23-man roster leaves some questions

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We have Bruce Arena’s 23-man United States men’s national roster for the Gold Cup, and there are more than a few surprises left out of the bunch.

Often a chance to experiment, those who thought this year’s Gold Cup roster would be one aimed at reclaiming glory with authority may be surprised to see the status quo.

Jurgen Klinsmann brought most of his big guns to the 2015 party — which didn’t go well for Brad Guzan and Co. — but Arena will roll into this summer’s tournament without most of his big names. There’s no Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey, nor Jozy Altidore.

Those aren’t huge surprises, though who Arena neglected from his original 40-man short list is a bit of a shock to the system (Players can be called into the mix after the group stage, which is a fairly simple affair for the USMNT to navigate versus Panama, Martinique, and Nicagarua).

Arena is going with Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson, and Bill Hamid in a trio that fails to impress. Hamid does have a big crowd of fans who’d like to see him get a chance to assert himself as the future, and hopefully either Johnson or Hamid finds time between the sticks against a serious opponent like Panama. No surprise that Tim Howard and Joe Bendik didn’t leap into the trio (EDIT: This post initially questioned the omission of Jesse Gonzalez, but his one-time switch from Mexico to the USMNT has yet to go through).

We’ll ignore the omission of Danny Williams for the most part considering he was absent from the 40-man list, but he must have said something seriously awful to Arena or someone at U.S. soccer.

The group of forwards leaves little to complain about, as Juan Agudelo and Dom Dwyer very much deserve their chances to compete for playing time with Sounders star Jordan Morris, but the midfield provides some head-scratching. Gyasi Zardes may be a longtime Arena favorite, but the Galaxy man has been ice cold in MLS. The 25-year-old has a single assist in almost 1000 minutes of play this season, and that came back on April 8. Tommy McNamara has not lighting the league on fire and Chris Pontius and his six assists are 30 years old, so much of the grief should be directed at the 40-man again, but Zardes has to embrace this opportunity. And maybe it’s a way to help the Galaxy and Zardes get a little mojo.

As an aside, Wil Trapp is among leaders in several MLS passing stats, which leads me to believe Arena is going to play Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta a ton and doesn’t see much of a need for Trapp in this tournament, not ever.

Defenders Steve Birnbaum and Jonathan Spector were not rewarded with looks, though Graham Zusi was included in what must be an arm reaching out for USMNT experience. Birnbaum is leading MLS in aerials won per game and Spector is by far Orlando’s top rated player since returning from England. Yes, Spector is 31 but this is about still qualifying for next summer’s World Cup, not the 2022 cycle. Spare a thought for Matt Polster, who has been decent since returning from a knee strain. This is nothing against Zusi, a consummate professional who won’t kill the team by any means and will be an tremendous asset in leadership.

What about you? Any other gripes? Or do you love the bunch?