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African Cup of Nations: Preview of Group C

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JOHANNESBURG (AP) A look at the teams, key players and coaches in Group C at the African Cup of Nations:

[ MORE: AFCON 2017 coverage ]

IVORY COAST

The defending champions are without a couple of big names from two years ago, none bigger than former captain Yaya Toure, who has retired from international soccer. Also, coach Herve Renard, who won with Zambia in 2012 and Ivory Coast in 2015, is now in charge of Morocco. Those two absences mean the Ivorians are not outright favorites like they were last tournament, but it’s still a very good team and a strong contender.

KEY PLAYER: Wilfried Zaha

The 24-year-old Zaha represents the new generation and although he’s only made two appearances for the national team, he’s had a major impact. He set up a goal on debut and scored in his second game, a 3-0 win over Uganda this week. The winger is a former England youth international who switched allegiance back to his country of birth late last year and was immediately called up by Ivory Coast.

COACH: Michel Dussuyer

Dussuyer had the tough task of taking over from Renard, the popular coach who led Ivory Coast to its first continental title in 23 years. Dussuyer’s Ivory Coast was subdued in qualifying and the Frenchman will have to deal with the retirements of the experienced Toure brothers Yaya and Kolo. He still has a large amount of talent to call on.

BEST RESULT: Winner, 1992 and 2015.

CONGO

A big surprise at the last African Cup of Nations when it finished third. Congo was once a power in African soccer with two titles in the 1960s and 1970s, but the team fell on hard times. It’s back now and the 2017 squad has a strong contingent of players in top European leagues. Congo, with unmistakable sky blue shirts and diagonal red stripes, will sorely miss injured Everton winger Yannick Bolassie, though, its most creative player.

KEY PLAYER: Dieudonne Mbokani

Without Bolassie, there’s more pressure on the center forward to ensure Congo scores goals. Mbokani is his country’s top scorer.

COACH: Florent Ibenge

Ibenge is a rarity, a black African coach taking charge of a national team. He’s one of only four black coaches at Africa’s 16-team tournament. Ibenge won praise for the way he led Congo at the African Cup two years ago and coached the country to triumph at last year’s African Nations Championship, the continent’s tournament for home-based players.

BEST RESULT: Winner, 1968 and 1974 (as Zaire).

MOROCCO

Morocco’s hopes took a big hit when midfielders Younes Belhanda, Oussama Tannane and Nordin Amrabat, and now this week forward Sofiane Boufal, were all ruled out with injury, stripping the squad of many of its top players. That seriously reduced its chances of going far, with Morocco struggling at recent African Cups anyway. Not only has Morocco not won a title since 1976, it hasn’t got out of the group stage in its last four African Cups.

KEY PLAYERS: Mehdi Benatia and Nabil Dirar

In the absence of so many stars, it’s now up to Juventus defender Benatia and Monaco midfielder Dirar to hold the team together.

COACH: Herve Renard

Morocco’s biggest asset is its coach. The charismatic Frenchman has had the golden touch at the African Cup recently, taking Zambia to a shock triumph in 2012 and ending Ivory Coast’s long drought to win two out of the last three titles. Renard is bidding to become the first coach in the history of the tournament to win three titles with different teams.

BEST RESULT: Winner, 1976.

TOGO

Togo is expected to struggle at this tournament, even with striker Emmanuel Adebayor back in the squad. Like Morocco, its one saving grace could be its coach, Claude le Roy. He has managed in Africa since 1985, taken teams to eight African Cups, and has reached the quarterfinals seven times.

KEY PLAYER: Emmanuel Adebayor

Adebayor so often represents Togo’s hopes. When he is playing poorly, or arguing with coaches, Togo often loses. When the former Arsenal and Manchester City striker is on form, Togo is a much better, much happier team.

COACH: Claude le Roy

Le Roy has acquired the nickname “White Wizard” in his 30 years managing African teams. Unmistakable with his flowing blonde hair and spectacles, he has a habit of working wonders with less-fancied teams, as he did to take Republic of Congo to the quarterfinals two years ago. Togo will need all of his wisdom.

BEST RESULT: Quarterfinals, 2013.

Who is Kenny Saief, and other USMNT Gold Cup personnel questions

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Kenny Saief is an 23-year-old American left-sided player with UEFA Champions League experience.

So why do we know so little about the Miami-born man?

The answer is pretty straight-forward: Saief’s entire career has been under-the-radar. After coming up through a series of Israeli teams, he moved to KAA Gent in Belgium. None of those matches, even adding in his representing the full Israel national team twice, got a ton of play on American soil.

[ MORE: Saul scores stunner for Spain U-21s ]

So when Saief filed his one-time switch to represent the United States, paving the way for a USMNT call-up for this summer’s Gold Cup, even those of us who’d followed his career from afar had put a limited amount of actual observation on match footage.

So here’s the long-and-short:

  • Saief turns 24 in December.
  • He moved to Gent from Israeli second tier side Ramat haSharon in 2014.
  • Played a total of 35 minutes in friendlies versus Serbia and Croatia.
  • Saief has 20 total appearances between the Europa and Champions Leagues.
  • Posted a UCL assist versus Wolfsburg in the 2015-16 Round of 16.
  • Had goal, 2 assists in UEL this season, played 180 mins vs. Spurs.
  • Has 15 goals, 9 assists in 107 apps for Gent.

Saief should get an opportunity to make an impact for Bruce Arena’s USMNT, perhaps as soon as Saturday’s friendly against Ghana in East Hartford.

Who else stands a chance to gain the most from this tournament?

Joe Corona — The 26-year-old made his thirst-inducing name in American soccer circles by scoring a pair of goals in the 2013 Gold Cup, but has just 17 caps to his name. His call-up over veterans like Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan either shows how high he’s risen or how far those veterans have fallen.

Cristian Roldan — Seattle’s hard-nosed midfielder was playing college ball at Washington just three years ago, and it’s not crazy to think strong performances could boost him onto the radar of bigger clubs abroad (let alone make him a mainstay along Kellyn Acosta with the USMNT).

Dom Dwyer — If Roldan’s rise is surprising, Dwyer’s really is astounding. It’s easy to forget that the Sporting KC star forward was playing junior college soccer in 2010 before spending one season of Division I soccer with South Florida. Now he has 57 MLS goals and a look at becoming the clinical finisher the American side has wanted for some time.

Justin Morrow and Eric Lichaj — The 29- and 28-year-old fullbacks would love to prove their mettle is as good if not better than Jorge Villafana, the current front-runner to start at left back should the Yanks complete their revitalized run to the World Cup. Lichaj, a Nottingham Forest veteran, is also adept at right back.

This isn’t to say that Juan Agudelo and Kelyn Rowe won’t benefit from strong tournaments, but the names above have either been rescued from soccer’s scrap heap or at least Jurgen Klinsmann’s prison.

PODCAST: Bob Bradley talks MLS past, USMNT

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Scott Nicholls and Otis Earle welcomed Bob Bradley to their “Beyond The Pitch” podcast to discuss his time coaching the Chicago Fire, the Fire’s current squad, how MLS has evolved, the new generation of players coming into the USMNT and more.

Perhaps most interesting is Bradley talking about previous losses with stinging emotion that sounds like they happened yesterday, including the 2000 MLS Cup.

[ MORE: Latest Men In Blazers pod ]

Since being fired from Swansea City after less than 100 days, Bradley has been linked with the Norway national team gig as well as a return to Los Angeles. Keep up with the U.S. coach here, and check out the podcast here:

U.S. Open Cup preview: Which underdog has best odds?

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Every dog has its day, and the three lower-tier clubs remaining in the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup are hoping for a second.

Miami FC, Sacramento Republic, and FC Cincinnati enjoyed wins over Major League Soccer sides in the fourth round, and now get further MLS tests in this week’s fifth round.

[ MORE: Lampard linked with manager opening ]

Once FC Dallas and Colorado Rapids tangle on Tuesday, attention turns to the underdogs on Wednesday. Who has the best chance to advance?

  1. Miami FC vs. Atlanta United — Playing an MLS expansion side at Riccardo Silva Stadium will give Miami a bit of confidence, and this is also a side with some good experience in pressure spots. Whether it’s manager Alessandro Nesta or MLS vets Michel, Gabriel Farfan, and Michael Lahoud, MFC won’t shy away. Upset chance: Solid.
  2. FC Cincinnati vs. Chicago Fire — The visitors are having a heck of a season in MLS and don’t have a group which will be worried by a huge crowd, but there’s no debating that 25,000-plus in Southern Ohio give FCC more than a puncher’s chance. Upset chance: Improbable, but possible
  3. LA Galaxy vs. Sacramento Republic — If LA puts something close to its best side out there, Sacramento will struggle to stop its attack.  Upset chance: Long shot.

Elsewhere on Wednesday, New England hosts DC United, Philadelphia visits the Red Bulls, Seattle is off to San Jose, and Houston hosts Sporting KC.

WATCH: Spain’s Saul smashes a shot past Italy’s Donnarumma

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Since returning from a loan at Rayo Vallecano, Saul Niguez has been a somewhat under the radar star at Atletico Madrid.

Coming off his best season with Atleti, the 22-year-old Saul is making an even bigger name for himself at the U-21 EURO this summer.

Spain’s Saul scored a hat trick past Gianluigi Donnarumma and Italy on Tuesday, and the second goal was laced with venom.

Getting onto the ball from 30-plus yards out, Saul smashed his shot with enough power that the ball barely had occasion to rotate.

Saul is under contract at the Vicente Calderon through 2022, and has three caps for Spain’s senior team, too. He was rated Atleti’s third-best performer by WhoScored this season.