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Slumping USMNT big favorites v. Canada

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Let’s start with two statements which might be a bit controversial given the tone and tenor of the United States men’s national team program.

  1. The CONCACAF Nations League very much matters to Gregg Berhalter’s era and the program in general, even if the coach’s job is not in jeopardy and the tournament is in its infancy.
  2. The USMNT are the oddsmakers’ heavy favorites to win (nearly +500), even given the current injury problems, and it will be shocking but not surprising if they lose to the Canadians.

Point No. 1 might be a bit surprising, but this is a competition with silverware and Berhalter hasn’t won any of it yet in his tenure as USMNT boss. It’s also relevant because losing to Canada twice in a month after not losing to them since the Billboard No. 1 single was the sensual “One More Night” by Phil Collins.

And even without Christian Pulisic and a raft of injury excuses, plus taking into account Canada’s sincere re-emergence on the CONCACAF scene, the USMNT has no business losing a meaningful match at home to a team that, while improved, has far more holes than the hosts.

If you remember from October, Berhalter didn’t call upon his men to press an inexperienced Canadian back line (I just realized I’m still angry about this). There is literally no way he’ll do that at home.

If John Herdman keeps his backs the same as the one that shut out the Yanks at BMO last month, he’ll have Kamal Miller, Derek Cornelius, Steven Vitoria, and Richie Laryea out there. Three of the four aren’t full-time starters for their MLS clubs (Vitoria is an every week man in Portugal’s top flight). Goalkeeper Milan Borjan (Red Star Belgrade) is capable of stealing a result, but shouldn’t have the chance if the Yanks pressure the ball on Friday.

The midfield and attackers are where the U.S. will have its hands full. Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David beg speedy and/or smart defenders. John Brooks being in the mix should help in both counts, plus he’s the best passing back in the pool right now.

Whether the match is cagey or comfortable will come down to the midfield. Scott Arfield is going to make it difficult on the Yanks, but Alfredo Morales plays with a nasty streak and will not be as bullied as his peers were in Toronto.

The one thing to fear is how bamboozled Berhalter was by Herdman’s plan in Ontario. This isn’t to pile on the coach, who is known for his tactics but hasn’t seen them deliver against too many opponents of quality. Herdman may be the novice in terms of overall club experience, but he’s got a better handle on the international game.

If the Yanks look out-foxed and unprepared on Friday, that’s a big problem.

AFCON Wrap: Nigeria beats Tunisia for third-place

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After two years of not qualifying for the Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria completed its run at the tournament as the third best team in Africa.

The Super Eagles defeated, Tunisia, 1-0, in Cairo, Egypt in the third-place game. Former Watford forward Odion Ighalo scored his tournament-leading fifth goal in just the third minute.

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Ighalo took advantage of a terrific cross from Jamilu Collins and a mistake between Tunisia’s Moez Ben Cherifia in goal and centerback Yassine Meriah. Ben Cherifia parried the cross away but Meriah ended up right next to Ben Cherifia and the ball deflected off Meriah towards Ighalo. Ighalo was quickest to the ball and toe-poked it home for the early goal.

Both teams had chances to score later in the match, but they lacked the finishing touch. Ferjani Sassi put a shot just wide for Tunisia, while Wilfried Ndidi skied a chance of his own.

Nigeria could have made it 2-0 if not for a great save late from Ben Cherifia. A free kick from Samuel Kalu in the 90th minute was tipped just over the bar by Ben Cherifia, a highlight save but one that was a bit too late for Tunisia.

Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi started and went the full 90 as a support striker. He’ll likely get a few weeks off before joining up with the rest of Arsenal for the tail-end of preseason, and he’ll likely miss the first few weeks of the Premier League season due to the late finish for the Africa Cup of Nations.