2015 Africa Cup of Nations preview: With champs out, who will win it all?

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Saturday will bring us one of the best under-the-radar tournaments in the world of soccer, as the Africa Cup of Nations begins its three-week run through Equatorial Guinea.

It’s also a tournament which has its fair share of haters. For one thing, like the Asian Cup, it takes African players away from their club teams for a good spell of time. In the Premier League, that means neither Yaya Toure nor Sadio Mane for nearly a month.

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It’s also been in the headlines for the wrong reasons, as Morocco pulled out of its hosting duties due to fears of Ebola.

But at it’s core is free-flowing football that often provides thrilling moments. As you get ready for Saturday, here’s most everything you need to know.

The Champions
There have been 30 AFCON tournaments since 1957, which was won by Egypt and had just four teams contesting the title.

Since then, there have been 16 winners. Here’s the breakdown:

Most wins: Egypt (7)
Closest competitors: Ghana and Cameroon (4)
Reigning champions: Nigeria (did not qualify for this edition)
Biggest-named sides to not have won: Senegal or Mali

The Dates
Group play: Jan. 17 – 28
Quarterfinals: Jan. 31 & Feb. 1
Semifinals: Feb. 4 & 5
Third-place game: Feb. 7
Final: Feb. 8

[ RELATED: Eto’o to NASL?!? ]

The Groups
Group A: Equatorial Guinea, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Congo
Group B: Zambia, Tunisia, Cape Verde, DR Congo
Group C: Ghana, Algeria, South Africa, Senegal
Group D: Ivory Coast, Mali, Cameroon, Guinea

Well, the sides on Groups C and D have a tall task ahead of them, while teams in the first two groups will like their chances of escaping the group stage.

The Premier Leaguers
source: Getty ImagesThe names you’ll recognize from NBC Sports Soccer coverage of England’s top flight:

Zambia: Emmanuel Mayuka (Southampton)
DR Congo: Youssouf Mulumbu (West Brom), Yannick Bolasie (Crystal Palace)
Ghana: Kwesi Appiah (Crystal Palace), Christian Atsu (Everton)
Algeria: Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City), Nabil Bentaleb (Tottenham)
Senegal: Cheikhou Kouyate (West Ham), Mame Diouf (Stoke), Sadio Mane (Southampton), Papiss Cisse (Newcastle)
Ivory Coast: Kolo Toure (Liverpool), Yaya Toure (Manchester City), Wilfried Bony (Manchester City), Cheick Tiote (Newcastle)

Oh, and MLS
– Recently-signed Chicago Fire striker David Accam will represent Ghana.
– Philadelphia’s Rais M’Bolhi is suiting up for Algeria
– NYRB’s Ambroise Oyongo will be in the back for Cameroon

How it might play out

Group A: Not that the bookmakers know anything, but three of these teams are in the bottom four for odds. Burkina Faso makes it through, and Equatorial Guinea uses home-field advantage to slot second.

Group B: It’s up for grabs, really, but Tunisia seems a safe bet to make it out of the group, and we’ll pick one surprise here, as Cape Verde knocks of Zambia to advance.

Group C: Ruling out Algeria after this summer’s World Cup success would be a silly mistake. They get through, joined by Papiss Cisse and Senegal move on as well. They pip a Ghana team still not right after Brazil.

Group D: Given their depth, Ivory Coast will again be favorites to win the tournament despite the fact that they’ve historically underachieved. Still, we see them coming out along with Mali as Cameroon’s massive team turnover from a terrible World Cup (no Alex Song, Samuel Eto’o, Benoit Essou-Ekotto) is bound to se some growing pains.

Quarters: Cape Verde def. Burkina Faso, Tunisia def. Equatorial Guinea, Algeria def. Cameroon, Ivory Coast def. Ghana

Semis: Tunisia def. Cape Verde, Ivory Coast def. Algeria

Final: Ivory Coast def. Tunisia

Zlatan Ibrahimovic says goodbye to the LA Galaxy

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has bid adieu to Major League Soccer, thanking the LA Galaxy for “making me feel alive again.”

The Swedish superstar averaged nearly a goal per game with the Galaxy, and was rumored to be in line for another two years at the club.

[ MORE: Columbus acquires Nagbe ]

Perhaps those reports, and maybe AC Milan’s struggles to score goals, have made more suitors come forward. Time will tell.

The Galaxy said the decision was a “mutual parting of ways” and thanked the player for his work both on and off the pitch.

From LAGalaxy.com:

“We would like to thank Zlatan for his contributions to the LA Galaxy and Major League Soccer,” said LA Galaxy President Chris Klein. “Since his arrival in 2018, Zlatan has positively influenced the sport of soccer in Los Angeles. We are grateful for his work ethic and passion. We thank Zlatan for his professionalism and immeasurable impact on the Los Angeles community and the soccer community in North America as a whole.”

Zlatan’s full thoughts, below, were a bit more Zlatanny.

Klein will have his hands full in replacing Ibrahimovic, who scored 52 times in 53 matches, but the Galaxy have always managed to bring in big names.

Getting a star playmaker is even more important as El Trafico rivals LAFC have rewritten the MLS record book and snared plenty of attention in California and across the league.

Columbus acquires Nagbe from Atlanta for $1M in allocation

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Darlington Nagbe is headed for a reunion with old boss Caleb Porter.

Columbus has sent over $1 million in allocation money to Atlanta United in order to claim the influential midfielder.

[ MORE: Top 25 players in USMNT pool ]

Porter coached Nagbe at the University of Akron and the Portland Timbers, and has 25 USMNT caps but has turned down Gregg Berhalter’s requests for service.

Nagbe made 46 appearances across all competitions for the Five Stripes this season, scoring twice with five assists. He has 313 matches played between Portland and Atlanta.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“Darlington Nagbe is a proven winner and the type of player who can be a difference-maker in our team,” Crew SC president and GM Tim Bezbatchenko said in a statement. “In addition to his skill set, we believe that Darlington is someone whose character and values fit well within our organization. As we stated heading into this offseason, we continue to look both domestically and internationally for players that will make our team better, and we believe Darlington is an important part of those efforts.”

It’s a bold statement from Columbus, who had a reputation for getting the most of its talent under Berhalter but faded under Porter after a hot start. The Crew began 2019 with a 4-1-1 record but lost 13 of its next 15 matches.

Of course, being MLS, the Crew then only lost 2 of their final 13 matches. Shoulder shrug emoji.

NYCFC teen agrees move to Borussia Monchengladbach

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New York City FC’s impressive academy has earned one of the bigger transfer market payoffs in MLS Homegrown history, and will join the current Bundesliga leaders after next season.

Joe Scally, 16, is headed to Borussia Monchengladbach on a $2 million transfer with a sell-on clause, and will spend the 2020 MLS season with his boyhood club. Scally has played in the Open Cup, but has not debuted in an MLS match.

[ MORE: Top 25 players in USMNT pool ]

The $2 million figure is on the edge of Top 30 for departing MLS players, according to Transfermarkt, just behind Cyle Larin’s move from Orlando City to Besiktas.

Scally appeared 11 times for the U.S. U-17 national team, going 90 minutes in all three matches and assisting on the lone American goal at the World Cup in Brazil.

From Borussia.de:

“Joe Scally is a top American talent who we have been following for a long time. We see a lot of potential in Joe and we are looking forward to him joining up with us in January 2021. Until then, we will work together with New York City FC to prepare him for his move to Germany,” said Borussia’s sporting director, Max Eberl.

Not sure just how long they could’ve been following a 16-year-old, but we digress.

Scally will join U-17 teammates Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund) and Maximilian Dietz (Freiburg) on the books at a Bundesliga club. Recent U-17 call-ups Pablo Soares (Gladbach) and Noah Jones (RB Leipzig) are also with clubs in Germany’s top flight.

Last month, NYCFC sporting director Claudio Reyna told me that Scally was the perfect example of a young player trusting a club’s preference of changing his position.

“The perfect example is Joe Scally on the U-17 World Cup team. He came to us from a club in Long Island as an athletic box-to-box midfielder. He was very strong, but we saw him as an outside back. The lesson that we now we share that with our players, don’t get upset if you move to a position, but Joe Scally understood, never complained, he played wherever he was told to do, and now he’s a right back now, 16 years old going to the World Cup after being in our academy for two and a half years.”

Looks like it’s worked out.

Spanish court to decide fate of Spanish league game in USA

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MADRID (AP) A Spanish court will decide whether the Spanish league will be allowed to play the Villarreal-Atletico Madrid game in the United States next month.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule

A court hearing is scheduled for Thursday in Madrid to hear arguments from the league and the Spanish soccer federation, which is against taking the regular-season match abroad.

The league has called for an injunction to force the federation to give its approval. It accuses the local soccer body of unfair competition.

The league also needs the approval of UEFA and American soccer bodies to be able to play the match, which is scheduled for Dec. 6 in Miami.

The commercial court hearing the case is expected to issue a ruling within the next few days.

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