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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.)

Three takeaways from the Red Bulls CCL draw against the Whitecaps

New York Red Bulls forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, left, trips over Vancouver Whitecaps defender Kendall Waston inside the Whitecaps box during the first half of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal soccer match, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, in Harrison, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
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With 90 more minutes to play up in Vancouver, this tie is far from over. However, Wednesday night’s clash at Red Bull Arena surely presented intriguing storylines ahead of leg two.

The Vancouver Whitecaps picked up a critical away goal in their 1-1 draw against the New York Red Bulls in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal meeting.

While their CCL clash was the first competitive action for either side since 2016, both clubs showed glimpses of brilliance in the first of their two encounters in the competition.

Here’s a look back at three important takeaways from the Red Bulls’ draw against the Whitecaps.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Red Bulls still working out kinks up front

Bradley Wright-Phillips has been one of Major League Soccer’s most prolific goalscorers since joining the Red Bulls, but even the star striker struggled to find the ball in dangerous positions on Wednesday. The Red Bulls striker netted the game’s equalizer after 62 minutes, but chances were far and few between on the night for Wright-Phillips.

Despite dominating the possession for long spells of the match (as is the case much of the time), the Red Bulls found difficulty breaking down the Whitecaps when it mattered most.

Jesse Marsch’s side managed just two shots on target throughout the 90 minutes, while Sacha Kljestan’s penalty kick miss voided the host side from leveling up the first leg just after the halftime break.

The Red Bulls have wanted to toy with a two-striker set since early 2016, and Marsch finally got his wish with Argentine DP Gonzalo Veron match fit for the start of the campaign. Veron looked solid at times with his quality first touches and quick pace, but it was the final ball that was often lacking.

Sacha Kljestan and Daniel Royer interlinked well with one another behind the two strikers, and with Mike Grella and Alex Muyl also tabbed as rotational players in the midfield, Marsch will have a solid group to pick from to help his attack develop moving forward.

Manneh is coming into his own

He scored, facilitated and just looked all around dangerous against the Red Bulls. Kekuta Manneh has become one of the most intriguing MLS players over the past 12 months in large part because of his success in the league as well as the opportunity to represent the U.S. Men’s National Team.

While his goal wasn’t the prettiest six minutes before halftime, the Whitecaps attacker was in the right spot, just as he was for much of the night. His three shots on target led all players involved, but it was Manneh’s confidence under pressure that was most impressive.

The Whitecaps didn’t throw too many numbers forward on the night — with the second leg being north of the border — but Manneh and the Whitecaps attack thrived on the counterattack on several occasions.

With a number of players unavailable for Carl Robinson’s side, including Yordy Reyna, Christian Bolanos and Fredy Montero, the visitors played a strong opening leg, particularly after playing the final 20 minutes down a man when Cristian Techera was dismissed for a high tackle on Red Bulls defender Sal Zizzo.

Youngsters show out for both sides

Experience is still the name of the game for both the Red Bulls and Whitecaps, but Wednesday night also provided a glimpse into the future with several stellar performances from the youngsters on the pitch.

Sean Davis was tasked with filling the hole in the central midfield after Dax McCarty was treaded away from the Red Bulls this offseason, and although the youngster has had experience in the past, he certainly didn’t disappoint for Marsch’s group. The 24-year-old looked confident in his distribution and defended well when called upon alongside Felipe.

Meanwhile, Whitecaps attacker Alphonso Davies continues to turn heads for a player that is only 16 years old. Davies only appeared in eight MLS matches last season for the Western Conference side, but looked like a seasoned veteran against the Red Bulls at times with his blazing strides and pinpoint passes.

The young attacker surely has room to grow, particularly in front of net, but hey, he’s 16.

New York Red Bulls 1-1 Vancouver Whitecaps: BWP saves a draw

New York Red Bulls' Aaron Long, top, climbs over Vancouver Whitecaps forward Erik Hurtado while competing for the ball during the first half of a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal soccer match, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, in Harrison, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
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  • ‘Caps nap road goal
  • Techera sent off in 71′
  • Return leg March 2

Kekuta Manneh and Bradley Wright-Phillips traded goals as the Vancouver Whitecaps and New York Red Bulls drew 1-1 in their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal first leg on Wednesday at Red Bull Arena.

Cristian Techera sent the ‘Caps down to 10 men in the 71st minute when he connected with a kick between Sal Zizzo’s legs.

A deft touch by Wright-Phillips set up Sacha Kljestan for a fifth minute chance, but two sliding Whitecaps helped pressure the captain’s shot wide of the near post.

Vancouver had a chance two minutes later when Alphonso Davies played Russell Teibert down the right wing, and the Whitecaps wide man curled a shot wide of the far post.

[ MORE: Amazing beach soccer bicycle kick goal ]

The Whitecaps beat Luis Robles before halftime. Kendall Waston flicked a ball toward the net, and Kekuta used his head to turn the ball off Justin Bilyeu and behind Robles. 1-0, 39′.

A foul outside the 18 nearly saw Kljestan level it up with a 45th minute free kick.

Kljestan should’ve tied it up with a PK just after the break. He didn’t, barely chipping his Panenka attempt above shin level. Woof.

Wright-Phillips made it 1-1 in the 62nd minute, when Zizzo’s cross dropped at his feet. A quick reaction had the ball in the back of the net.

Sacha Kljestan stars in “When Panenkas Fail” (video)

HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 22:  Sacha Kljestan #16 of New York Red Bulls heads the ball in front of Steve Birnbaum #15 of D.C. United during their match at Red Bull Arena on March 22, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
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When Panenkas don’t go well, players look foolish.

Sacha Kljestan looks foolish.

The New York Red Bulls captain strode to the penalty spot to level the score in Wednesday’s CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal first leg against the visiting Vancouver Whitecaps.

[ MORE: Leicester grabs away goal ]

Only he didn’t. Kljestan chipped his attempt barely a foot off the ground, allowing David Ousted to kick the chance away. Bradley Wright-Phillips blazed the rebound over the frame, and it remained 1-0 for the ‘Caps.

WATCH: Liverpool loanee nets hat trick for U.S. U-20 side

STEVENAGE, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 19:  Brooks Lennon of Liverpool celebrates his goal during the Premier League 2 match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at The Lamex Stadium on September 19, 2016 in Stevenage, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images
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If Brooks Lennon brings this sort of scoring prowess to Real Salt Lake, he may just walk away Rookie of the Year.

On loan from Liverpool, Lennon is first on duty with the United States U-20 men’s national team in Costa Rica.

The U.S. opened U-20 World Cup qualifying with a 1-0 loss to Panama, and was under the gun when it allowed an early goal to Haiti late Tuesday evening.

[ MORE: Rooney’s agent in China ]

But Lennon scored a trio of goals and sent in the corner that Luca de la Torre eventually finished as the Yanks won 4-1. The U.S. has St. Kitts and Nevis in the final group match on Friday.

The top two teams from each group of four advance to the next round, in which four teams will qualify for the U-20 World Cup. That tournament is set for May in South Korea.