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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.)

Investors want MLS stadium on site of Chargers’ former home

Qualcomm Stadium sits empty Thursday Jan. 12, 2017, in San Diego. The San Diego Chargers announced Thursday that they would move the team to Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
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SAN DIEGO (AP) With the NFL’s Chargers leaving for Los Angeles, a group of private investors unveiled plans Monday to bring an MLS team to San Diego and build a stadium that can be shared with San Diego State.

In addition to the joint-use venue which could seat up to 30,000, the 166-acre Qualcomm Stadium site which has housed the Chargers would also be used for a sports and entertainment district, according to the FS Investors group’s plans. The plans also set aside acreage for a larger stadium, in case the NFL decides to return to San Diego.

[ MORE: Transfer window names to watch ]

“There are a lot of people that were disappointed with that (the Chargers’ move) and understandably so,” said Nick Stone, a partner in the investors group, which would develop the property and own the MLS franchise. “But we think this is a really, really interesting time to look at the opportunity to bring soccer to San Diego. It’s a very logical market for that.

“We can bring what is the world’s most popular sport, and the fastest growing sport in the U.S.,” Stone said. “One door closed but a really great door opened.”

The Chargers announced on Jan. 12 that they would play in the Los Angeles area next season after 56 seasons in San Diego.

Stone’s group, which includes Padres lead investor Peter Seidler and former Qualcomm president Steve Altman, has the exclusive negotiating rights with the MLS. The league is expected to designate expansion cities this fall.

The investor group said it wouldn’t require taxpayer money for its plan, which includes buying the land now occupied by Qualcomm.

[ MORE: CONCACAF Champions League’s big reboot ]

“This is an exciting concept that could welcome major league soccer to San Diego without public subsidy, provide a home for Aztecs football and create a long-awaited river park,” San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a statement. “I look forward to seeing the final plan.”

After five years, FS Investors said it would donate its half ownership of the stadium to San Diego State. San Diego State’s football team now plays at Qualcomm Stadium, which is also home to college football’s Holiday and Poinsettia bowls.

Report: USMNT forward Picault could be off to MLS

http://www.fcstpauli.com/profis/news/9628

FC St. Pauli
www.fcstpauli.com/profis/news/9628
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Remember Fafa Picault?

The FC St. Pauli striker became a surprise name in USMNT circles when former coach Jurgen Klinsmann shouted him out on Twitter, later calling him into U.S. camp.

Picault, 25, is a center forward who has battled back trouble at times this season, limiting him to six appearances for the 2.Bundesliga side.

[ MORE: Transfer window names to watch ]

He broke out last season, scoring four goals and adding two assists in 16 appearances last season. The former NASL player was capped by Klinsmann in May, going 19 minutes in a 3-1 win over Puerto Rico.

Philadelphia is the top spot for Picault, according to Bild and translated by VAVEL reporter Jonny Walsh. It’s just agent talk, but we’d like to get a closer look at the American man.

How might the USMNT lineup against Serbia?

U.S. men's national soccer team coach Bruce Arena, left, talks to captain Michael Bradley during a practice session Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, in Carson, Calif. Coach Arena opens camp with the team in the same training complex where he spent the past eight years running the LA Galaxy. Arena returned to the U.S. team in November to salvage its run for World Cup qualification. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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It’s six days to Sunday, the first time we’ll see Bruce Arena manage the United States men’s national team since his rehiring late last year.

The Yanks host Serbia in San Diego before moving to Chattanooga for a match against Jamaica. Both matches should be open-and-shut wins, as the Americans’ MLS-only lineup get “B-teams” from Serbia and Jamaica.

[ MORE: Serbia, Jamaica rosters ]

Possible starting center back Matt Hedges and his FC Dallas teammate, Kellyn Acosta, will miss through injury, while Arena sent Kekuta Manneh to Wales for Vancouver Whitecaps camp.

That leaves 28 names — full roster at bottom — and the level of competition means Arena can take risks, like his choice to try Graham Zusi at right back.

Arena used several different formations with the Galaxy last season, opting for anything from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-1-1.

Here are some options against Serbia.

4-2-2-2

Arena could steady the middle of the pitch while using a pair of attack-minded veteran midfielders with points to prove.

Robles

Rosenberry — Birnbaum — Zimmerman — Beasley

Bradley — McCarty

Feilhaber —————————Kljestan

Morris — Altidore


4-4-2 (diamond) — Veteran heavy

Arena likes his veterans, and may want to give them the benefit of the doubt in front of fans and the eyes of U.S. Soccer.

Rimando

Zusi — Marshall — Evans — Beasley

Bedoya — Bradley — Jones — Kljestan

Altidore — Zardes


4-3-3

Bingham

Rosenberry — Birnbaum — Zimmerman — Garza

Bradley

Nagbe — Bedoya

Zardes — Altidore — Morris


Full roster

Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), Luis Robles (New York Red Bulls), Brian Rowe (LA Galaxy)

Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Unattached), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Greg Garza (Atlanta United FC), Taylor Kemp (D.C. United), Chad Marshall (Seattle Sounders FC), Keegan Rosenberry (Philadelphia Union), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Jermaine Jones (Unattached), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC)

Forwards: Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)

Reports: Krul, Lopez could replace Begovic at Chelsea

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 22: Tim Krul of Newcastle United in aciton during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Old Trafford on August 22, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
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It may seem unimportant at first blush, but Chelsea’s backup goalkeeper situation may be in a state of flux right now.

That means the Blues’ very strong title hopes are only a Thibaut Courtois injury away from making it matter a whole bunch more.

Eddie Howe wants Chelsea No. 2 Asmir Begovic to head down south to join Bournemouth,  and the keeper seems interested in a move.

[ MORE: Big changes for CONCACAF Champions League ]

Chelsea’s current No. 3 is Portuguese national teamer Eduardo. The Blues could wait to sell Begovic until summer, but The Express thinks the move is on.

AC Milan backup backstop Diego Lopez is in the frame for Chelsea, according to that report, but a more intriguing name is Newcastle ‘keep Tim Krul. The Dutchman is on loan with Ajax.

Either would be a fitting replacement for Begovic. Will Conte allow the change in the middle of a relatively-stable (Diego Costa aside) title run?