Preview: 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Group A

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Group A, the only quartet without a traditional continental power, kicks off play at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations on Saturday in South Africa. Whereas Ghana, Nigeria, and Cote d’Ivoire take headlining slots in the competition’s other groups, a struggling host nation gets the preferred spot in the tournament’s first group. As a result, we’re left with a quartet where the highest ranked team has no history, the group’s former champions may be its weakest teams, and the team that has reason to think it can do some damage is could still tumble out after three games.

Welcome to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations. Over the next three days, we’ll be giving you snapshots of the four, four-team groups. Today, we begin with Group A, a packet that starts the tournament at 11 a.m. Eastern on Saturday.

GROUP A: South Africa, Angola, Morocco, Cape Verde

SOUTH AFRICA

World rank: 85; CAF rank: 22; Best finish: 1996 Champions

Many will remember the Bafana Bafana from their role as hosts for the 2010 World Cup. There, they became the first hosts to fail to advance out of their group. Things didn’t improve competitively after the finals, with the team failing to qualify for the 2012 Cup of Nations in Gabon-Equatorial Guinea.

South Africa were absolved from a potential repeat embarrassment when, in response to domestic unrest in Libya, hosting duties were switched to the continent’s southern tip. Now it’s a matter of taking advantage of that fortune.

History: South Africa was banned from participation for political reasons until 1994, when they failed to qualify. As hosts in 1996, they won the competition in their first appearance and went on to qualify for seven successive finals (finishing second in 1998, third in 2000). They’ve missed the last two tournaments.

Players: South Africa’s biggest star is Everton winger Steven Pienaar, but with the 30-year-old three months into an international retirement, the hosts are left with a team with few recognizable names. Some will remember midfielder Siphiwe Tshabalala, the team’s most capped player (78), for his goal to open the 2010 World Cup, but with the possible exceptions of former Fulham midfielder Kagisho Dikgacoi (now with second-division Crystal Palace), forward Bernard Parker (who spent a short time with FC Twente), and defender Bongani Khumalo (who spent one season bouncing around England), only South African league experts will be familiar with this roster.

How they’ll play: Head coach Gordon Igesund has played both one and two-striker formations in pre-tournament friendlies, each featuring 28-year-old Mamelodi Sundowns striker Katlego Mphela as the main threat. His 23 international goals (in 49 games) are almost twice as many as the next most-prolific player on the roster (Parker, 12).

Expect athletic but direct play that will rely on opportunism more than creativity.

Outlook: As hosts, they should expect to get out of this group, but a knockout round spot is not a given. If this tournament was being played anywhere else, the Bafana Bafana would be unlikely to come out of this group.

ANGOLA

World rank: 78; CAF rank: 19; Best finish: Two quarterfinal appearances

Despite only qualifying for one World Cup (2006), Angola is making their fifth straight appearance in their continent’s championship. In 2012, only the goal difference tiebreaker kept the Antelopes from making their third straight quarterfinal appearance. That setback hasn’t kept the Angolans from setting ambitious goals for this tournament. Uruguayan coach Gustavo Ferrin, having guided his team to South Africa on a seven-match unbeaten run, is starting a top three finish.

History: Angola didn’t qualify for the finals until 1996 but have since back seven of 10 tournaments. They’ve never advanced beyond the round of eight.

Players: Most of Ferrin’s squad plays in the Angolan domestic league. Former Manchester United prospect Manucho Goncalves (Real Valladolid) is the most notable exception, his size and athleticism making him one of the more difficult marks in the tournament. Mateus (Nacional, Portugal) has been a regular in the team since their run to the knockout round at Germany 2006, Djalma (Kasımpaşa, Turkey) will provide the creative spark, while veteran Gilberto (AEL Limassol, Cyprus) will serve as the midfield linchpin.

It’s an experienced group that has seen relative success in this competition. You can see why Ferrin wants them to be ambitious.

How they’ll play: In the past, Angola’s usually featured Goncalves as the focal point of a two-attacker setup, with the team’s four-man midfield featuring a creator and destroyer. The team Ferrin’s selected hints he’ll set up the same way; however, this will be the 53-year-old’s first major senior competition. It remains to be seen how he’ll manage it.

The Antelopes don’t play the most intense brand of soccer, but the technical quality is there. And they’re capable of getting out on the counter.

Outlook: Angola has the talent and pedigree to get out of this group, but drawn with the host nation, their path to the final eight is not without pitfalls. There are no easy games in this packet, and while the Angolans should be favored to advance, a second straight near miss wouldn’t be a shock.

source: Getty ImagesMOROCCO

World rank:  74; CAF rank: 17; Best finish: 1976 Champions

The 2015 hosts are appearing in their eighth finals in nine tournaments, yet the northwest African nation’s results have been mostly disappointing. While they lost to the hosts in the final of Tunisia 2004, the Lions of the Atlas have only moved out of group one other time since 1998. This year, head coach Rachid Taoussi is without most of the countries most prominent stars, with Marouane Chamakh (West Ham), Adel Tarrabt (Queens Park Rangers), and Houssine Kharja (Qatar’s Al-Araby) not in the team that travelled to South Africa. Despite the upheaval, Taoussi predicts the Lions and South Africa will advance from the group.

History: In addition to their 1976 title, Morocco has finished second (2004) and third (1980). Add in their fourth place finishes in 1996 and 1998 and the Lions have made the final four five times. It’s the most accomplished history in the group.

Players: Chamakh, Tarrabt, Kharja and excluded Anzhi Makhachkala midfielder Mbark Boussoufa have combined for 186 caps and 38 goals. The 23-man team Taoussi’s taking to South Africa count a total of 208 appearances and 12 goals.

This isn’t merely a matter of taking a young team. Only six players in Taoussi’s 23-man squad are under 24 years of age.

The most important of them is 22-year-old Montpellier midfielder Younès Belhanda (right). A key figure in MHSC’s 2011-12 Ligue 1 title run, Belhanda is among the most talented players in this tournament. Morocco will need a lot of luck to advance if Belhanda doesn’t perform like this group’s best player.

How they’ll play: In their latest pre-tournament friendly against Namibia, Taossi started Fiorentina’s Mounir El Hamdaoui as a striker flanked in attack by Galatasaray’s Nordin Amrabat, and Liverpool’s Oussama Assaidi; however, it remains to be seen how the team sets up when Balhanda returns from injury. In all likelihood, Belhanda will have to do some heavy lifting to power the attack in front of sitters Karim El Ahmadi (Aston Villa) and Adil Hermach (Al-Hilal).

Outlook: Taoussi’s over confident. This team’s unlikely to break Morocco’s recent trend of disappointment.

CAPE VERDE

World rank: 70; CAF rank: 15; Best finish: Never previously qualified

In the always unpredictable world of African soccer, Cape Verde’s qualification was the most difficult to foresee. This year’s only finals debutants, the Blue Sharks qualified at the expense of Cameroon, a four-time champion that was trying to avoid the indignity of missing a second straight Cup. With their 3-2 aggregate win in the final playoff round, the island nation of around 500,000 people qualified for South Africa, leaving the Indomitable Lions at home.

Players: Defender Nando is the team captain and most experienced player (38 appearances) on a young and Verdean team that have had little time together. The more intriguing attacker is 23-year-old Lille forward Ryan Mendes, who has scored three goals in nine international appearances. Olhanesne’s 21-year-old attacker Djaniny had a goal against Cameroon, one of two he’s scored in four international appearances.

How they’ll play: In their latest friendly, coach Lúcio Antunes started with one up top against Nigeria, though with players like Mendes and Djaniny starting on the bench, it’s unclear that’s how Antunes plans to play come Saturday’s opener against South Africa. As with most things Cape Verde soccer, how they’ll approach their first major tournament is an unknown.

Outlook: Having quickly acquired a reputation for a well-organized in defense, Cape Verde shouldn’t be an easy match for any team. However, they get some bad luck having to face the host nation in their Cup of Nations debut. While many expect the Sharks to give South Africa a difficult time on Saturday, it is their first major tournament match, and they’ll be on the road.

Had that match come later in the tournament, the Verdeans may be better prepared (having shaken off their first tournament jitters). In game one, they may miss out on valuable points they’d need to advance.

SCHEDULE

Saturday, Jan. 19, 11 a.m. ET – South Africa vs. Cape Verde
Saturday, Jan. 19, 2 p.m. ET – Angola vs. Morocco
Wednesday, Jan. 23, 10 a.m. ET – South Africa vs. Angola
Wednesday, Jan. 23, 1 p.m. ET – Morocco vs. Cape Verde
Sunday, Jan. 27, 12 p.m. ET – Morocco vs. South Africa
Sunday, Jan. 27, 12 p.m. ET – Cape Verde vs. Angola

Wild guess order of finish:

1. South Africa (7 pts.)
2. Angola (5 pts.)
3. Cape Verde (4 pts.)
4. Morocco (0 pts.)

Hernandez, Araujo score in 1st half, Mexico beats Costa Rica

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MEXICO CITY (AP) Javier Hernandez and Nestor Araujo scored in the first half, and Mexico overcame the absence of half a dozen players to beat Costa Rica 2-0 on Friday night in a World Cup qualifying match.

Hernandez scored on a cross from Carlos Vela to open the score in the seventh and Araujo added a goal on a header in the 45th.

[ USMNT: Recap & videoPlayer ratings ]

Hernandez scored his 46th goal with the Mexican team and tied Jared Borgetti as the all-time leading scorer.

With the win, Mexico remains undefeated and has seven points after three rounds to take sole command in the six-nation tournament. Costa Rica stays on six points and is second and Panama is third with four.

The top three teams qualified for the Russia 2018 World Cup.

Mexico beat Costa Rica for the first time since September 11, 2012, when they prevailed 1-0.

Running Away With It

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Christian Pulisic scored and played a part in three other goals as the United States rained goals down on Honduras in a 6-0 win at Avaya Stadium in San Jose early Saturday morning.

Clint Dempsey scored two goals, and Michael Bradley and Sebastian Lletget also scored as the U.S. moved into fourth place in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Their next match is Tuesday in Panama.

[ MORE: Player ratings | Three things ]

The United States men’s national team’s bid to recover their 2018 World Cup hopes got off to a flying start.

Sloppy Honduran defending caused a turnover outside the 18, and Jozy Altidore played Christian Pulisic in on goal. Keeper Donis Escober got a piece of Pulisic’s shot, but no one followed Lletget to the back post and the ex-West Ham and current LA Galaxy man quickly put the Yanks up 1-0.

The Yanks didn’t stop, and Lletget drew a yellow card when he beat Ever Alvarado down the right flank and forced a take down from the Honduran defender.

Alberth Elis slipped John Brooks’ mark, and the Houston Dynamo man turned to fire on goal. Tim Howard was well positioned to scoop it up.

Lletget turned out to be injured by the Alvarado foul, and Bruce Arena turned to Alejandro Bedoya in the 17th minute.

Geoff Cameron was given a yellow card in the 25th minute for a foul on Roger Espinoza. That gave a free kick to Honduras from 30 yards out, and Romell Quioto fired right at Tim Howard.

Then it was the captain who doubled the lead, as Honduras inexplicably gave him the room to walk across the arc of the 18 to rip a shot across goal. 2-0.

It was Clint Dempsey’s turn in the 33rd minute, after an otherworldly scooped pass from Pulisic.

What. A. Pass. Kid.

Honduras then took a bigger hit: the loss of star attacker Romell Quioto (Houston Dynamo) to an apparent shoulder injury.

Brooks bailed out an out-of-position Gonzalez just before halftime to keep the lead 3-0.

The Yanks needed 15 seconds to make it 4-0, with Dempsey winning a 50-50 tussle and finding Altidore for a flick to Pulisic. He netted his fourth USMNT goal. He’s 18.

Pulisic then won a free kick 25 yards out from goal by embellishing a foul, and Dempsey’s free kick tricked Escober. 6-0. For real.

A scary moment late as a dazed and wobbly John Brooks was forced off despite no apparent injury. Fox’s Jenny Taft said he was dehydrated, which is a relief.

LINEUP

USMNT: Howard; Villafana, Gonzalez, Brooks (Ream, 70′), Cameron (Zusi, 58′); Bradley, Lletget (Bedoya, 18′), Nagbe; Pulisic, Dempsey, Altidore.

Goals: Lletget (5′), Bradley (27′), Dempsey (33′, 49′, 54′), Pulisic (46′)

 

Player ratings from USMNT’s pounding of Honduras

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Battered. Throttled. Eviscerated.

Pick your verb of dominance, the United States likely fit it well in a 6-0 destruction of Honduras at Avaya Stadium in San Jose.

[ MORE: Recap + video | Three things ]

The win boosts the U.S. in World Cup qualifying after their 0-2 start, but how did the individuals fare? Obviously well.

Starting XI

Tim Howard — 7 — The team just feels in a safer place with the veteran back there. If the U.S. goes to the 2018 World Cup, Howard remains their No. 1 (and there probably never should have been a question. Sorry Brad).

Jorge Villafana — 7 — Tidy passing and a low-risk game from the Santos Laguna man.

John Brooks (Off 70′) — 7 — An early error before recovering to be his usual free-clearing, athletic self. Scary injury took him out late, as he looked dazed. Fox’s Jenny Taft said he was dehydrated, which is a relief.

Omar Gonzalez — 5  — He wasn’t bad, but Gonzalez is still a positional question mark. Bailed out a couple times by Brooks.

Geoff Cameron (Off 59′) — 6 — Out of position and a bit hobbled, he wasn’t at his best.

Michael Bradley — 7 — One of his better USMNT games in a long time.

Sebastian Lletget (Off 17′) — 8 — Scored, then got hurt on a roasting run down the right.

Darlington Nagbe — 6 — One or two electric moments in the first half, but overall a quiet enough night for the Timbers man.

Christian Pulisic — 9 — Hard to not to hand the kid a 10. He’s quite frankly the most exciting American talent in the history of the program.

Clint Dempsey — 10 — Along with Howard, the sort of player you knew would make sure this game ended with three points. The fact that he nabbed three goals, too, is just a bonus.

Jozy Altidore — 7  — Pretty darn good night holding up the ball, and passed as well as ever, but did he drop a bit too deep too often? The answer is probably, “Who cares? They won 6-0, dude.”

Subs

Alejandro Bedoya (On 18′)  — 6 — Typical high energy, space eating job in the middle of the park from the Union man.

Graham Zusi (On 58′)  — 6 — Good late clearance preserved the shutout.

Tim Ream (On 70′)  — 6 — Interesting to note that Arena went to him over Walker Zimmerman or Matt Besler.

Three things to take away from USMNT 6-0 Honduras

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The United States men’s national team pulled a Leicester City.

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That’s a joke with truth wrapped around it, because the Yanks have had plenty of time and even a pair of friendlies to respond from the firing of Jurgen Klinsmann.

But in their first serious match without their old coach, the U.S. looked a team renewed and unleashed. Now the Americans may find themselves back in an automatic World Cup qualifying spot with a win on Tuesday in Panama.

Things change.

Vindicated

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and all of the USMNT players waited months and months to get the chance to answer their critics following a pair of embarrassing losses to open the final round of World Cup qualifying.

Sure, having Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron, and Tim Howard back helped a whole lot, and the seasoning Christian Pulisic is getting at Borussia Dortmund is unquestionably good for an 18-year-old.

But there’s little doubt Michael Bradley and Co. were fired up to silence their critics. Whether they admit it or not, this is a bunch that was stung by those who said they failed their old coach.

Most expected the U.S. to get a point or better against Honduras, but to do it the way they did is an unexpected bonus. A win in Panama on Tuesday would boost them into the Top Three.

And don’t worry, the old boss was pleased for his former charges.


The future is now…

I Tweeted the following after a late second half pass from Pulisic, and there was little disagreement.

Pulisic won’t be credited with an assist for his shot which rebounded to Sebastian Lletget for the opener, but he will walk away with his fourth international goal and two proper assists.

One was an absurd scoop to Clint Dempsey’s chest, and the other was a long avenue that shouldn’t have existed. Still, Pulisic found that street and provided an absolutely dynamic force all over the park.

There have been U.S. teens at big European clubs, and U.S. teens who’ve made impacts on the national team, but never both at the same time and never both at this level. Pulisic is for real, and finding his ceiling is an adventure we’re all undertaking with great enjoyment.


…But the legends sure helped

Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard will go down as two of the most important players in United States men’s national team history.

Actually, they may be duking it out for Nos. 1 and 2 when it’s all said and done.

Dempsey’s hat trick was his career in a nutshell. The first saw him body off a defender while collecting a Pulisic pass off his chest, then lashing a shot with power despite said defender dragging him down.

The second was a burst of speed to run onto Pulisic’s through ball and classic calm in the face of an onrushing keeper, holding onto the ball before sliding it home from an acute angle.

The third was this free kick. A bit aided by goalkeeper Donis Escober, but such is life.

And don’t sleep on Howard’s early performance as Honduras tried to find some sort of foothold in the match. Always well-positioned, the team just feels safer with the Colorado Rapids man between the sticks.