Preview: Africa Cup of Nations, Group B

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For the second tournament in a row, Ghana and Mali have been drawn together, the two west African nations finishing in that order at Equatorial Guinea-Gabon 2012. And for the second tournament in a row, the two nations are favored to get out of what appears to be a top-heavy group, one that may be even more uneven than last year’s. Whereas 2012’s group had a decent Guinea side as the quartet’s third wheel, this year’s packet is rounded out by a team that’s never won a Cup game and another that’s making their first appearance since 2004.

But given the way the games line up, one of this packet’s big two could face a make-or-break match on the group’s final day. In that way, a group which looks like one of the tournament’s easiest to pick could send one of CAN’s higher rated sides home after eight days.

GROUP B: Ghana, Mali, Niger, Congo DR

MORE: Previewing Group A (which kicks off Saturday)

GHANA

World rank: 26; CAF rank: 4; Best finish: Champions in 1963, `65, `78, `82.

Along with Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana was one of the co-favorites heading into 2012 yet failed to make the final, their attack again failing them. After a run to the 2010 final that never saw the Black Stars score more than once in a game, Ghana managed only six goals in as many matches in 2012. With only one player in the squad possessing more than five international goals, it’s unclear why this year will be any different.

History: Despite being Africa’s most competitive team at the last two World Cups, Ghana has turned into a relatively passive giant. The Black Stars have no problem making it through qualifying cycles, but at the Cup of Nations, they’ve become a nearly team.

After failing to qualify for the 2004 tournament, Ghana’s made the semifinals of three of the last four tournaments. Yet they’ve only advanced to one final, and they’ve failed to win the competition since 1982. Despite entering each tournament as one of the favorites, the Black Stars haven’t broken through in a generation.

Players: Captain Asamoah Gyan (Al-Ain) is one main (only?) goal scoring threat. While coach James Kwesi Appiah as a wealth of talented midfielders at his disposal, none of Kwadwo Asamoah (Juventus, pictured), Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu (Udinese), Derek Boateng (Dnipro) or Anthony Annan (Osasuna) offer the attacking prospects of the retired Kevin Prince Boateng and Michael Essien (who, in fairness, hasn’t been a part of the team for three years). Ghana will need goals from young talents like Christian Atsu (Porto), Richmond Boakye (Sassuolo), and Wakaso Mubarak (Espnayol).

The squad would look a lot different had Marseille’s André Ayew (or his younger brother Jordan) been included, but after “Dede” was late reporting to the team, Appiah elected to leave him out of the squad. The result is a team that will likely have to grind out results, though in two pre-tournament friendlies (against Egypt and Tunisia), the Black Stars did manage seven goals.

How they’ll play: The mentality will be more important than the formation. In friendlies, Ghana’s played a three-attacker formation that looks to feature two of the young prospects flanking Gyan; however, against Egypt the team was still reportedly passive after an early Agyemang-Badu goal. More aggression in the second half saw the Black Stars add two more goals. The team went on to put four on Tunisia.

A midfield of Asamoah, Ageymand-Badu and Annan isn’t very creative, by Asamoah has the range of passing to connect with the wide creators Appiah will rely on.

Outlook: It’s difficult to see Ghana doing better than they have in the last three tournaments, and while that would be great for any non-Egypt nation, it will continue to be a disappointment for one of the continent’s titans.

MALI

World rank: 25; CAF rank: 3; Best finish: Runners-up in 1972.

The Eagles beat Ghana in 2012’s third place met and come into the tournament with their highest world ranking in history (a fact that only matters to bloggers looking for section ledes). Because they’ve never qualified for a World Cup, Mali has almost no profile beyond the continent, but with a talented squad that had their first taste of success last year, the Malians are a bona-fide dark horse contender.

History: Despite five semifinals appearances, Mali has been an inconsistent participant for this event. They’ve qualified for only eight of CAF’s 29 championships, though the first time they did so, they made it all the way to 1972’s final.

This year marks their fourth straight Cup appearance, their longest run of consecutive qualifications.

Players: Seydou Keita (Dalian Aernin) is the big star, the captain’s 74 appearances and 20 goals from midfield both squad highs. He’ll play in support of Cheick Diabaté (Bordeaux) and Modibo Maiga (West Ham United) up top, with PSG’s Mohamed Sissoko, a controversial selection, potentially joining him. At the back, Adama Coulibaly (Auxerre), Adama Tamboura (Randers), and Fousseni Diawara (Ajaccio) have a combined 157 international appearances.

How they’ll play: Mali’s capable of playing beautiful soccer, their skill players combining with talented forwards to produce very progressive play when the team starts to move vertically. But the Eagles have typically run hot and cold, often seeming to lack direction or focus. When that happens, they become frustrating and punchless.

Outlook: Opening with Niger helps Mali ease into the tournament, but with Ghana in the second game, Patrice Carteron’s team will have to hit an early stride. The confidence they carry out of that match may be as important as the final score, with Mali possibly advancing regardless of result.

NIGER

World rank: 97; CAF rank: 25; Best finish: Qualified for the 2012 finals.

It can only get better for the Ména, who drew the short straw in a deep group in 2012. They left the tournament without win, having scored only once and never holding a lead. By the time they reached their final game (against Morocco), Niger was already out of the tournament.

History: The result wasn’t that bad considering it was Niger’s first Cup of Nations. In 11 previous attempts, the country had failed to make a continental final, but thanks to South Africa mistakenly playing for draw in their final qualifier against Sierra Leone, Niger qualified for the 2012 championship thanks to a better head-to-head record against the Bafana Bafana and the Leoneans.

Players: Very few of Niger’s squad play outside of Africa, with roughly half the team playing in the country’s 14-team domestic league. Captain Moussa Maâzou (Étoile du Sahel) playing in Tunisia, with William N’Gounou (IF Limhamn Bunkeflo in Sweden) and Amadou Moutari (Le Mans B, France) playing in lower level European leagues. One player (Ismaël Alassane) plays in Kuwait.

How they’ll play: Niger’s squad is much-changed since last tournament’s team. Then, the Ména took mostly players from their domestic league. Now Gernot Rohr’s gone abroad to augment the squad. The selection hints at a 4-4-2 built around Maâzou.

Outlook: They have a better chance at points this year than last, but their prospects to advance are about the same.

source: Getty ImagesCONGO DR

World rank: 101; CAF rank: 27; Best finish: Champions in 1968 and `74.

A recent history of performing below their talent leaves Congo DR with superficially low rankings, but with a smattering of players performing in strong European leagues augmenting a group from former African champion TP Mazembe, Congo has enough weapons to dangerous. Qualifying for their first Cup since 2004, it remains to be seen if the Congolese are just along for the ride, particularly after preparations head coach Claude Le Roy labeled “screwed up” because of player compensation issues.

History: Congo DR (and for a period of time, as Zaire) was one of the continent’s first powers, winning two of the first five tournaments they entered. The program went through a period of insignificance in the 1980s, reemerged in the `90s only to go quite again over the last six years.

Players: Underrated West Bromwich Albion midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu (pictured) is the highest profile player in the squad, but Anderlecht goal scorer Dieumerci Mbokani is not far behind. Other notable names include TP Mazembe striker Trésor Mputu, Freiburg midfielder Cédric Makiadi, Mons wide man Zola Matumona, and Evian defender Cédric Mongongu.

Thirteen of the squad’s 23 players play in the country’s domestic league, with five coming from Mazembe.

How they’ll play: With Mbokani, Mputu, and Lomana LuaLua, this team has a lot of attacking talent. Le Roy seems intent on using them all. With Dioko Kaluyituka and Matumona also capable of scoring goals, the Leopards are can take advantage of any team that fails to make the necessary adjustments.

Outlook: Congo DR can get out of this group. Mali’s preparations have been undermined by injuries, so if Le Roy can lead the Leopards past their own pre-tournament issues, there may be a surprise coming out of Group B. Depending on the result they post against Niger on Thursday, a draw in the group’s final game may be all they need to get through.

SCHEDULE

Sunday, Jan. 20, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Ghana vs. Congo DR
Sunday, Jan. 20, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Mali vs. Niger
Thursday, Jan. 24, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Ghana vs. Mali
Thursday, Jan, 24, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Niger vs. Congo DR
Monday, Jan. 28, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Niger vs. Ghana
Monday, Jan. 28, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Congo DR vs. Mali

Wild guess order of finish:

1. Ghana (9 pts.)
2. Mali (6 pts.)
3. Congo DR (3 pts.)
4. Niger (0 pts.)

Stream Live: USA takes on Senegal at U20 World Cup

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The U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team is halfway home in its second game of the 2017 FIFA Under-20 World Cup group stage, holding a 1-0 lead over Senegal after Josh Sargent’s left-footed blast.

[ LIVE: USA U-20 vs. Senegal ] 

Tab Ramos’ side came back to draw Ecuador 3-3 in a wild first game of the tournament but after losing central midfielder Gedion Zelalem, holding midfielder Derrick Jones has moved into the starting lineup and provided more stability in the center of the park.

Below you can watch a replay of Sargent’s first-half goal and above is a link to stream the U.S. game live via Telemundo Deportes.

LAFC makes plan for training complex east of downtown

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LOS ANGELES (AP) The MLS expansion Los Angeles Football Club plans to spend $30 million to build a training complex on the campus of Cal State LA.

LAFC revealed its proposal Wednesday after the plans were approved by the California State University Board of Trustees.

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LAFC will renovate the university’s stadium field while constructing a complex to house its players, staff and coaches, along with the LAFC Academy youth development team.

The team’s two-story training building will be financed entirely by LAFC’s deep-pocketed ownership group. LAFC also committed to donate $1.5 million to the university.

The complex will be located on the north campus of Cal State LA, just 10 miles east of Banc of California Stadium. LAFC will begin MLS play in its under-construction downtown arena in March.

U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame ballot revealed, including Beckham

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CHICAGO (AP) David Beckham, the English midfielder who brought increased visibility to American soccer and won a pair of Major League Soccer titles while playing for the LA Galaxy from 2007-12, is among 12 first-time candidates on the 33-player ballot for the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame.

Defender Steve Cherundolo, midfielder Pablo Mastroeni and forward Brian Ching, key parts of the U.S. national team, also are new candidates on the ballot announced Wednesday. Other first-timers include defenders Chris Albright, Danny Califf and Tina Frimpong Ellertson; goalkeepers Joe Cannon and Kevin Hartman, and midfielders Amado Guevara, Eddie Gaven and Leslie Osborne.

Defender Chris Armas and midfielder Jason Kreis, currently Orlando’s coach, are in their final year of eligibility. Former midfielder Ben Olsen, now D.C. United’s coach, is among the holdovers.

Other men on the ballot include goalkeeper Pat Onstad; defenders Gregg Berhalter, Frankie Hejduk and Tony Sanneh; midfielders Chris Klein, Eddie Lewis and Steve Ralston; and forwards Jeff Cunningham, Clint Mathis, Jaime Moreno, Ante Razov, Taylor Twellman and Josh Wolff.

Women on the ballot include goalkeeper Briana Scurry; defenders Kate Sobrero Markgraf and Heather Mitts; midfielder Aly Wagner; and forward Tiffeny Milbrett.

Voting will take place among men’s and women’s national team coaches, Major League Soccer and National Women’s Soccer league management, U.S. Soccer Federation leadership, Hall of Famers and media. Each voter can list up to 10 players, and a player must appear on at least 66.7 percent of ballots to earn election.

Among those on the builder ballot are former USSF President Bob Contiguglia; referee Esse Baharmast; coaches Gene Chyzowych, Eddie Firmani, Gordon Jago and Joe Machnik; and administrators Richard Groff, Tim Leiweke, Francisco Marcos and Kevin Payne.

The 15-player veteran ballot, voted on only by Hall of Famers, has George Best, Chico Borja, Mike Burns, John Doyle, Marco Etcheverry, Linda Hamilton, Mary Harvey, Chris Henderson, Dominic Kinnear, Shep Messing, Cindy Parlow, Tiffany Roberts, Mike Sorber, Tisha Venturini-Hoch and Roy Wegerle.

The hall’s building in Oneonta, New York, closed in 2010. A new facility in Frisco, Texas, is under construction and slated to open in 2018.

Premier League stats of the season — Opta

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With the 2016-17 Premier League season officially complete, a look at some of the compelling, shocking and record-breaking stats, from August to May — all stats courtesy of the good folks at Opta:

[ MORE: Pogba, Mkhitaryan fire Man United to Europa League trophy ]

30 — Chelsea (30 wins) have broken the PL record for most wins in a season (previously 29, by Chelsea in 2004-05, and 2005-06)

457 — Only Chelsea (457 minutes) were in a losing position in PL matches for less time than Liverpool (471 mins) this season

114 — Chelsea used all three substitutes in every Premier League game this season (114 in total) – they are only the second team to do this in a 38-game Premier League season (Manchester City, in 2014-15)

230 — Michy Batshuayi’s title-winning goal for Chelsea at West Bromwich Albion was his first PL shot on target since Sept. 24th, 2016 (230 days), and only his third overall in the competition

3,420 — Cesar Azpilicueta became the fourth outfield player in PL history to play every minute of a title-winning season (after Gary Pallister, in 1992-93; John Terry, in 2014-15; and Wes Morgan, in 2015-16)

1 — Because of their opening day victory against Leicester City, Hull City spent one more day on top of the PL than Tottenham Hotspur did in 2016-17 (0)

86 — 11 previous PL champions have won the title with a point tally equal to or less than Tottenham’s 86-point tally in 2016-17

+60 — Tottenham Hotspur’s goal difference of +60 is the highest in PL history for a non-title winning side

3 — Tottenham were the only club in England’s top four tiers to see as many as three players score 20+ goals for them in all competitions this season (Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Son Heung-min)

6 — Harry Kane now has six PL hat-tricks for Spurs, twice as many as any other player for the club (Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe, both with 3)

0 — Liverpool were unbeaten in the PL against the top seven teams this season (12 played: 7 won, 5 drawn, 0 lost) but their record against the other 13 sides was (26 played: 15 won, 5 drawn, 6 lost)

38 — Both Arsenal and Manchester United have finished outside of the top four of the top-flight for the first time since 1978-79 (38 years)

600 — Manchester United became the first team to win 600 PL matches (962 played: 604 won, 209 drawn, 149 lost)

2,000 — Manchester United also became the first team to win 2000 points in the PL, with victory over Watford in February

11 — 11 different English players made 20+ PL appearances for Bournemouth this season. The last PL team to do this was Aston Villa, in 2000-01 (also 11 players)

48.8% — West Bromwich Albion scored a league-high proportion of their goals from set-piece situations this season (48.8%). They also conceded the lowest proportion from set-pieces (21.6%)

70 — Swansea City conceded 70 goals in the PL this season. Only two teams have conceded more in a 38-game PL season and survived relegation (Wigan, in 2009-10 — 79, and West Bromwich Albion in 2010-11 — 71)

13 — Hull City gave away 13 penalties this season, the most of any side in a single PL campaign