Archive for January, 2013

Best Guess?: USA Roster For Honduras February 6th

Klinsmann’s USA v. Honduras roster now updated.

You'll hear Mr. Clean's name a lot over the next 7 days.

You’ll hear Mr. Clean’s name a lot over the next 7 days.

According to US Soccer, the official roster for the United States first World Cup qualifier in San Pedro Sula is expected Sunday evening. One name we know is already Honduras bound is Tim Chandler who looks like he’ll finally sleep with the US after it took him to dinner and glamorous trips to far regions (like Italy and Slovenia, sort of.)

Also, Klinsmann noted after Tuesday’s match that there would be as many as eight or nine players traveling to Honduras from the January camp roster. We put the number below at six.

Here’s our best guess on who gets called.

(3) G: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan

The skinny: You could see Sean Johnson sneaking in here after a relative mundane clean sheet against Canada or even Nick Rimando as an emergency third keeper, but this isn’t a learning camp. It’s an efficient and quick business trip.

JA: "Great decision buddy. Now let's go fight racism and solve world hunger!" Chandler: "Is that an American thing?"

JA: “Great decision buddy. Now let’s go fight racism and solve world hunger!” Chandler: “Is that an American thing?”

(8) DEF: Tim Chandler, Geoff Cameron, Carlos Bocanegra, Michael Parkhurst, Edgar Castillo, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler

Need magic spray: Steve Cherundolo (out), Fabian Johnson (questionable)

The skinny: No Steven Cherundolo means that Tim Chandler’s commitment to the US is all the more important. While a boon to the US squad, Chandler is a vastly different player for the US than Cherundolo and the States will be hurt without Dolo’s unflappable ability to possess and move the ball out of the back. That is a real loss for the Yanks.

Fabian Johnson has been ailing as well and it’s a good bet that Klinsmann won’t want to draw the ire of Hoffenheim by bringing in a less-than-fit player for Honduras with the looming home-and-home against Mexico. That is, if Johnson is still injured as of this coming weekend. Healthy and he goes.

Edgar Castillo gets the call and in all likelihood gets the start as Michael Parkhurst hasn’t seen game time in his new Bundesliga I locale. Castillo has been much better than States’ fans have given him credit for in a US shirt over the past year with excellent efforts both in a draw with Canada and the win at Azteca; he’s also been on good club form.

Worse to worse–and heaven forbid–an injury to more than one fullback and Geoff Cameron can slide outside in a pinch as he plays both sides for Stoke City. (Note: Despite the injuries, don’t expect to see Cameron outside here in Honduras as you don’t rob….that Peter-Paul thing.)

I think it’s time to cut bait here with Clarence Goodson. Games last year against Italy and Guatemala proved that as competition gets tougher Goodson is less a capable back-up and more a liability. That liability should be better invested in a player who can grow and learn from it now. An Omar Gonzalez or a Matt Besler or both.

Oh and, yes fans, another name that could sneak in here: Michael Orozco Fiscal

The guy on the right would play his last game in a US shirt 3 years ago. The guy on the left looks to be sporting the crest again.

The guy on the right would play his last game in a US shirt 3 years ago. The guy on the left looks to be sporting the crest again.

(5) HUB: Danny Williams, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman, Benny Feilhaber*

The skinny: No surprises really here, save Benny Feilhaber who was tasked with showing Klinsmann that he could be a good soldier, good defender and team player coming off the bench against Canada.

Feilhaber, if you noticed, sat deeper than US fans are accustomed to seeing him in the national team shirt. Note that, as it likely portends that Feilhaber will be used more to link and get the ball up to the forwards as oppose to attack. He impressed with what he could against Canada and his reward will be this US roster.

Maurice Edu misses out as he adjusts to Turkey and is lacking match fitness.

* This tweet by Feilhaber suggests that he is not going to be called in for Honduras.

(6) STR/FW: Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Graham Zusi, Herculez Gomez, Eddie Johnson, Joe Corona

The skinny: First, it looks like Josh Gatt headed back to Norway, so he’s not included here. The rest is the normal cast. Two interesting notes are Graham Zusi staying high against Canada instead of receding into the midfield. Seems Klinsmann thinks of him as an attacking hub. No true surprise there. Also is the note Eddie Johnson was used in the hole–but didn’t excel–against the Reds on Tuesday.

A Jose Torres call-in is always a possibility when Jurgy Love is in charge.

USA 0 – Canada 0: The Titillating Retro Diary!

Klinsmann's chopper....if you had an expectation of what he piloted after watching tonight's game....

Klinsmann’s chopper….if you had an expectation of what he piloted after watching tonight’s game….

Will Parchman synthesizes through bleeding eyes so that you may be entertained

If you ever wanted to know what a cupcake tastes like after it was shipped to camp, kneaded by a benevolent German for a month and repeatedly sat on by Taylor Twellman, GIRD THY LOINS YE TROUBLEMAKERS. 2013 is here (please refer to the excellent Dr. Sweatpants’ previous TSG starting XI for pointers on what that should look like). First, our XI tonight for the maple syrupy Canadians (who most certainly cannot have our German cupcakes) in a Houston that Eddard Stark would loathe (“WINTER IS… wait, what the hell is this place? Why are my pantaloons sweaty in January?”). Is this like, reverse Mexico? Send the polar bears to Swamp City? Your logic is strange, Sunil Gulati. But I like it.

#USMNT lineup for #USAvCAN: S. Johnson; Beltran, Gonzalez, Besler, Morrow; Beckerman ©, Zusi, Davis, Evans; Wondolowski, E. Johnson

Believe... trademarked. Oh wait, Charlie Davies has that one already. Wait, who is Charlie Davies?

Believe… trademarked. Oh wait, Charlie Davies has that one already. Wait, who is Charlie Davies? (photo: Matt Mathai)

First of all, Kyle Beckerman has apparently trademarked his name. I have no idea what that means. Secondly, Brad Evans. Interesting. Third time in the last four years he was in Camp Cupcake, and we’ll see if a solid year in Seattle carries over. My immediate guesses: Beckerman sitting deep, Zusi on the right, Davis on the left, EJ top left and Wondo top right. Looks kind of like a 4-4-2 diamond depending on where Evans settles. Probably over Beckerman.

"Those guys are really starting ahead of me? Um, okay? ... wait, "against CANADA?!"

“Those guys are really starting ahead of me? Um, okay? … wait, “against CANADA?!”

Interesting tidbits: Josh Gatt is on the bench. There’s no way he doesn’t play in the second half, but I totally agree with Davis starting in his place. This is actually a really solid lineup, and more or less what I expected with a few exceptions (Tony Beltran being one, and Evans). I think the biggest surprise is the omission of Mix. Kid can’t seem to catch a break. Without a club, he obviously didn’t make a big enough impression on JK. Need to see big games from Zusi and Gonzalez, who are both on the cusp of a first-team starting gig (Gonzo for Boca and Zusi for Donovan’s corpse). Also very interested to see Besler.

Ah yes, here we are. Glenn Davis aside TAYS! on the play-by-play. The finest purveyor of the pocket square this side of the Mississip. A 4-4-2 diamond as I expected (pat pat), with Evans advanced (?). Prime spot for Feilhaber to sub in late in the second half. If we don’t see him I’m mutinying. He deserves a shot to prove he belongs in the side for qualifiers. I will fight the Mad German for his right. To party.

Good lord there is nobody at this game. Now that ESPN has picked up El Tri through the Hex, we get to be depressed about team support now. Good. Good. More for you and me.

O Canada rings through the BBVA Compass and a flag with a leaf on it flutters in the wind. A flapjack falls into syrup. Somewhere, a solitary hockey goal falls through the ice. A child gets a free checkup.

No caption needed.

No caption needed.

John Candy does a dirt angel in his grave

A single eskimo cries. I just caught Wondo in the pregame lineup singing the National Anthem with the cheekiest smirk I’ve ever seen on a human. Scrolling through his mind: “God I hate Canada. Did I leave the stove on? No. No, I did not. I’m so damn awesome.

Game time. Lets roll.

’1 – Already some shakiness from Morrow, who was caught too far up on the left. The fullbacks are probably the shakiest piece of this group (WE. ARE. AMERICA.), so it’s imperative they stay sharpish.

’3 – Glenn Davis: “Jakovic, living on the edge.” I get the feeling Canada will resemble Patrick Swayze in Point Break all night. Just all screaming and presidents masks and craziness.

’5 – DID YOU SEE THAT SQUARE PASS FROM THE MATTY BEEZ???? God I want him to be good tonight.

’6 – Holy mother of DeRo. Catches up to a dangling cross and rips at Sean Johnson, though luckily he zips it right at SeanJean. First shot to the Ice Munchers. Tony Beltran. What. Are. You. Doing. Perk up you monkey. This isn’t the Democratic Republic of Mars.

’9 – Brad Davis dumps a free kick into Canada’s wall to kill a promising set piece. What? I thought he was perfect?

’11 – Oh what a ball from Beckerman, who drove Davis into the box with just a point-perfect touch. Anyone who thinks Beckerman is useless in the attacking third doesn’t watch him play enough. He’s silk when he wants to be. But Davis’ cross died at Evans. Think that might be a weak link tonight. At least as long as Evans is on, which might not be super long.

’14 – Brad Evans and Tony Beltran need to form a support group. Davis and Zusi are now both pinching in to supplement the lack of facilitation in the middle. This is OK as long as Morrow and Beltran keep pushing high. Against Canada, this will probably work. Against real soccer humans, probably not. I think both are probably just nervous. Might take 20-25 minutes for them to settle down.

"Onsides! Onsides! Holy sh*t he's onsides!"

“Onsides! Onsides! Holy sh*t he’s onsides!”

’17 – Nick Rimando is the right linesman! Did anybody else see that?? I guarantee you he snuck on the field to slip advice to Tony B. This is like the best/worst buddy cop movie ever made. Someone sign Nick Nolte to play Rimando. This game has been pretty blasé so far. How could you tell?

’21 – Simon Thomas’ clearance just then looked like that four-eyed kid in your 4th grade kickball class who wore green khakis to the field and accidentally kneed a half-mile an hour pitch into his face. I’m pretty sure Canada is that kid all growns up. Possession is 70-30 right now with Brad Evans on the field. Just, you know, FYI.

’25 – Nothing happening at all in the middle right now. Wondo is having to drop too deep to cover for Evans, and Beckerman is (rightly) reticent to step too far up so he can protect his inexperienced center backs. The easiest fix is to replace Evans. If anybody comes off at half, it’s him. Evans is lost in Mordor somewhere asking an orc for directions to Houston.

’33 – This game is the soccer equivalent of a Ben Stein lecture on Ben Stein’s breakfast choices. I HATE.

’35 – Feilhaber comes into this game a rips open the thin veil separating space and time from the feeble machinations of our human minds. Evans puts his feet up, scratches himself, farts.

’37 – NOTHING IS HAPPENING.

’38 – Screw this. I’m looking at cat videos on YouTube. (Fuck yeah, VAN HALEN!)

’40 – Now I’m getting my wife to explain to me how she’s cooking her muffins. HOW SHE’S COOKING HER MUFFINS. She’s chilling the butter right now, you guys. If you were concerned.

’42 – I just Wikipedia’d “Criticism of government response to Hurricane Katrina.”

’43 – Corner kick! Something’s happening! Noise! Brad Davis kick! And nothing. Superb.

HALFTIME – Guys. I have no words. For God sakes, get Feilhaber on the field. Warm up Gatt. Get Twellman off his rocker. Sub on a half-drunk member of the AO. I don’t care. Get a damn clown if you have to. At least then we can laugh at him clopping around in his huge red shoes trying to link up play. See? I’m laughing now. Thanks for nothing, jerks. I’m getting a muffin.

You said it TSG!

You said it TSG!

’46 – Hier kommt DIE FEILHABER. He comes in for Beltran and Gatt for Wondo. 4-3-3 here. More vertical passing into the dangerous areas. More speed and creativity on the pitch. I need to be a damn coach. Brad Evans for the fail. Do we ever see Wondo again?

’47 – I just had a thought: Ian Darke would be completely shredding this game to ribbons right now. Glenn Davis, you’re on blast. Cue up those zingers. Wait, on second though, maybe not. That’s my job. ESPN needs a professional snark-o-meter run by yours truly. It would just me my face occasionally popping up in the left corner mid-game yelling things at everybody. CAN’T WAIT.

’49 – So Brad Evans is at fullback now. The guy you originally employed to pull the creative strings? He’s at fullback. Your creative midfielder. Fullback. Fullback. Just a salad. Just a salad.

’50 – Tays makes his first howler. “I think it’s a credit to this Canada side.” No. No. A thousand times, Pocket Square, no.

’53 – WHOA SOMETHING HAPPENED SORTA! And it was DIE FEILHABER who started the move (AHA!). He plays Johnson through with a silky touch, and EJ finds Davis, whose shot whizzes wide. That was kind of a chance. And Feilhaber started it.

’55 – When Zusi and Davis’ free kicks look like me rain-dropping NBA-range 3′s onto grandmothers at the park, you know it’s been a good night.

’59 – PREDICTION: Will Bruin is going to come on for EJ and he’s going to run around like an epileptic bear and do nothing. As soon as I say that, EJ deposits an Evans cross into the Gulf. You guys, I’m on my game tonight.

’63 – Looks like its Agudelo coming on. Ale Bedoya on for Zusi, who looked really not very good.

’65 – Announced crowd of 11,737 is really happy with their decision to do what they did tonight.

Winner: Best player, BBVA, January 29th 2013. Congratuf*ckinlations!

Winner: Best player, BBVA, January 29th 2013. Congratuf*ckinlations!

’66 – Benny Feilhaber has been the best player on the field for the US in the second half, and it isn’t particularly close. Floppy-shoed clown guy is a close second.

’70 – Can we just have Benny and DeRo bare knuckle this out to save us all another 20 worthless minutes? Is anyone else playing?

’72 – Josh Gatt runs fast.

’74 – Aha! Bruin for EJ. Now for that epileptic bear thing…

Minutes 75-90 – MINE EYES HAVE SEEN TERRIBLE THINGS. UNSPEAKABLE THINGS.

Let’s cut to the quick, because I don’t want to write any more on this failure pile and you don’t want to read any more about this heaping garbage pit. Winners: my wife’s muffins. Kyle Beckerman (COPYRIGHT). DIE FEILHABER. Clowns. Losers: your eyeballs. Everybody everywhere.

—END—

Dear god, please end.

US vs. Canada: Live Commentary

Last chance saloon for Benny Feilhaber?  Will Houston’s USMNT triumvirate have liftoff? USA vs. Canada about to go down.

What happened to this guy?

What happened to this guy?

Orange Slices: US vs. Canada #USMNT

Orange Slices! USA vs. Jamaica

The triumphant return! Orange Slices is our game day, catch-all post that we update during the day before and day of the match.
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It’s a game that means little for everyone but some of the participants. The true challenge for the USMNT on the Road to Brazil 2014 begins next week in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

Tonight, however, it’s US vs. Canada. A team that has given the US some trouble at all levels over the past year, but who former coach Bob Bradley also put down 2-0 back in 2011.

Critical game tonight for Benny Feilhaber, Omar Gonzalez and perhaps Alfredo Morales.

Broadcast:

Date Opponent Result/Time (ET) U.S. goal scorers/TV Venue
Jan. 29 Canada 9 p.m. ESPN2, WatchESPN, Univision Deportes BBVA Compass Stadium; Houston, Texas

TSG’s Official USA vs. Canada Preview: Klinsmann Goes Border Patrol

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Around the web:

Can Brad Evans deal himself into the big picture tonight? He's the player most other players say is most underrated....

Can Brad Evans deal himself into the big picture tonight? He’s the player most other players say is most underrated….

Reading material: (lots of good stuff on this one.)

» Jeff Carlisle is always an excellent and objective read ahead of any USMNT match. His preview here.

» Brian Straus of the Sporting News says those taking the field Tuesday night need to do some Klinsmann-convincing.

» Carlisle again with a look-in on seemingly forgotten man Alejandro Bedoya who’s been in club purgatory for the past 18 months.

» NBC’s Steve Davis chatted with Sporting KC centerback Matt Besler who is also hopes to make his USMNT name over the next year.

» And don’t forget to visit Soccer Over There which is vacuum cleaner like on anything on the USMNT on the web.

» In case you missed this, (hysterical) US soccer celebrity pairings.

» Updated 6pm ET: Who is the top ball-winning USMNT player?

Viewing?:

American Outlaws members gather here.

Weather forecast:

Cloudy, but pleasant…and in the 70′s when the US takes the field tonight. Not too shabby Houston.

Surf forecast:

There’s no surfing in Houston….you bet there is!

In fact Galveston, Texas–and tanker surfing!–was profiled in probably the best surfing documentary of the 2000′s, Step Into Liquid. We couldn’t find a clip of that, but there is no shortage of southeast Texas–read: Galveston Bay–surfing on YouTube (below) and …. even directions on how you can surf one of those tankers.

Must-see (as well): Garrett McNamara rides a virtual skyscraper in Portugal Monday. No photoshop included. Worth the click. (Update: And the video courtesy of Mike (@M1Spike) no Twitter)

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The last time in Houston:

It was a Nikegasmic bit of USMNT hoopla as disciplined affair between USA and Panama game down to *two* moments of brilliance. Adu’s pass and Landon Donovan’s pass. A poll below.

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More North American footie:

» Brek Shea is now officially moving to Stoke City for a massive transfer fee (by MLS standards) of $3.8M£. More from Greg Seltzer at No Short Corners.

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TSG’s USA vs. Canada Preview: Klinsmann On Border Patrol

Asst. Martin Vasquez and head man Jurgen Klinsmann have seen Canada get the better of the States tactically in their term. Will it be the same on Tuesday?

Asst. Martin Vasquez and head man Jurgen Klinsmann have seen Canada get the better of the States tactically in their term. Will it be the same on Tuesday?

Well, it just won’t be the same without Stephan Hart’s tactics this US friendly, but it’s not really about that either.

The United States Men’s National team brings three weeks of grueling camp work to its culmination Tuesday in Houston’s new BBVA stadium as they take on a reincarnated Canadian national team  whose predecessors somehow became a US program nemesis since coach Jurgen Klinsmann began lording over the States.

Most recently, the US senior team–on a whirlwind friendly tour before the first round of World Cup qualifiers in late Spring 2012–left Toronto with a very static, mostly yawn-filled 0-0 draw against The Reds.

It was a game that registered more than a faint blip on the US fan “uh-oh” radar as a team with severely less talent, but a better tactical plan outplayed a US squad whose player deployment and tactical plan figuratively mirrored what you get when you ask a blindfolded 2-year-old to assemble a Mr. Potatohead.

Torres

Torres: “I’d rather be sipping a Molson right now.”

The US wide forwards (Donovan and Torres) were miscast, the plan to slingshot crosses into the box misguided, and the US midfield three had the chemistry of a supermodel on a date with the Stapler Guy from Office Space. To read more on the anything but sanguine affair, just click here.

….and that wasn’t even the most painful of two dust-ups with Canada in 2012.

It was the U-23 Reds that virtually canucked the US U-23 side out of an London Olympics trip earlier in the year. In that wince-filled match, the US could not solve the midfield maze of Canada; the States left their fullbacks in possession on the touchlines to do “something” with the ball.

“Do something” is not typically a recipe for success as Caleb Porter harshly found out that day and then again against El Salvador days later to the see the US youngsters dreams for the pedestal–or even contention for it–denied.

Let’s bring it back though; this is a very different affair timing-wise and narrative-wise.

This USA-Canada match should see the US devour their northerly neighbors by virtue of its talent and its three weeks of intensive training. That and Canada looked jalopy-like in a match against a B-team Denmark side that transpired this past Saturday.

And all of this said…this match is mere prologue to the looming first game of the World Cup Qualifying Hexagonal set to go down February 6th in San Pedro Sula, Honduras with a different USMNT cast.

Without further Freddy Adu, let’s get to our preview.

TSG What Are We Looking For

About The Opponent: Canada

11 At The Whistle

Graham Zusi, who got a head start last camp is looking to solidify his Brazil 2014 boarding pass starting Tuesday.

Graham Zusi, who got a head start last camp is looking to solidify his Brazil 2014 boarding pass starting Tuesday.

TSG What Are We Looking For

» 2012-13 Cause-Effect-Progression:

A quick look back to last year’s January camp shows just how efficiently and effectively Jurgen Klinsmann used that camp. In many ways, the 2012 narrative for a a few key US squad players and spot starters in 2012 found its beginnings at HDC a year ago.

Some insights and discoveries by Klinsmann in 2012:

» Graham Zusi would be a player this cycle. Zusi may have looked off in his passing last January but he was ahead of the speed of the game. Zusi would score a goal against Panama and by the end of 2012 be starting in the senior side’s most crucial qualifier.

Feilhaber in his last time he tugged on the US kit...

Feilhaber in his last time he tugged on the US kit…

»Benny Feilhaber would be deemed surplus to requirements in 2012.

Feilhaber is an interesting cat.

The Brazilian born midfielder has the handles that are desperately needed in the US midfield, but his overall game is dragged down by a petulant and selfish attitude on the pitch–one particular sequence against Venezuela in January 2012 saw Feilhaber arguing with the refs after being dispossessed in the box while the rest of team hustled to get back behind a Venezuelan counter. Feilhaber would not be heard from in the bookend friendly against Panama or for the rest of 2012.

Has Feilhaber learned his lesson and can he up his cerebral game and become a complete player? One of the most interesting subplots of this camp indeed.

» Jermaine Jones was proven indispensable. US fans lament, but Jones hard nose nature in these trival games set the tone around him and carried on throughout the calendar year.

But wait Jones isn’t here?! That’s right, and that presents an opportunity for squad players Kyle Beckerman and perhaps vet Brad Davis to assume that role for at least this game.

Omar Gonzalez receiving instruction from Carlos Bocanegra in his first USMNT cap against Brazil, August 2010. (Photo credit: Matt Mathai)

Omar Gonzalez receiving instruction from Carlos Bocanegra in his first USMNT cap against Brazil, August 2010. (Photo credit: Matt Mathai)

» Gonzo’s No Muppet

You have to appreciate Klinsmann’s challenge to Omar Gonzalez. The Los Angeles Galaxy centerback spent the inaugural months of Klinsmann’s tenure completely out of the picture and at one point dropping the notion he might go play for Mexico.

Not a promise, but certainly a veiled threat lobbed toward the new US boss.

Year Two saw Gonzalez called into  January camp only to see a Bundesliga trial result in a first day ACL tear instead of a positive impression after weeks of training.

Meanwhile the USMNT staff trotted out Clarence Goodson and Oguchi Onyewu fruitlessly in a search to find a potential partner first for Carlos Bocanegra and then next for Geoff Cameron once the Stoke City man was discovered to be a solution in the back.

Gonzalez’s 2012 club season culminated in an MLS Cup MVP on the same pitch as Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and David Beckham. His return from injury marked the change for the Galaxy in what they could tactically do on the pitch. Gonzalez in fact made those–especially Sean Franklin and Juninho–better around him by eating up space. It’s not often that is said about a non-midfielder.

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AFCON 2013: Is The Worst Behind Us? It Would Appear So

It's not a Cup soccer tournament until a keeper makes a penalty. Says here at least...

It’s not a Cup soccer tournament until a keeper makes a penalty. Says here at least…

Matt Pentz on the developing situation at the Africa Cup of Nations

It is a pattern familiar to any soccer fan. A game has settled into a stalemate. The passing is disconnected, neither side seems too concerned and you’re sitting there wondering why you wasted your afternoon, why you should give a damn about this sport, anyway.

Then, unprompted, a flash of brilliance. A passing move, a powerful shot from distance, maybe just a simple flourish with the ball.

The wait was worth it.

It took patience to wade through the mostly bland first six days of the 2013 African Cup of Nations. But a brilliant Day 7 provided an overdue reward, and if Saturday’s matches are any indication, it could spark this tournament into life.

The opening half of the group stage failed to live up to this event’s usual spontaneity.

In the past, even if the results were predictable, it was never boring. This year’s tournament had produced few goals, and more worryingly, been defined by a crushing blend of caution and lack of quality.

Even the surprises, the teams rising from outsiders to possible contenders, have done so more by default than merit.

Take Group A.

South Africa is primed to win the group, despite an abject opening performance. Its quality was much improved against Angola, yes, but the Angolans looked so devoid of ideas that Bafana Bafana had little choice but to win.

Cape Verde, in most cases, would be an underdog to rally around. The island nation of just over 500,000 inhabitants is one result away from advancing to the quarterfinals in its first major tournament.  But enthusiasm has been restrained by their underwhelming style of play and the fact that this group just doesn’t provide much of a test.

In Group B, Ghana is in place to cruise to first place despite playing below its normal, admittedly high, expectations.

Some say the Africa Cup of Nations and playing for his native Nigeria is only where John Obi Mikel's quality is appreciated. He also missed a big chance though last week.

Some say the Africa Cup of Nations and playing for his native Nigeria is only where John Obi Mikel’s quality is appreciated. He also missed a big chance though last week.

From this gloomy backdrop of negativity, the Zambia-Nigeria showdown burst forth as an exuberant reminder of the event at its best.

It was a mouthwatering matchup on paper, the defending champs against a continental power. Both teams managed shaky draws in their respective openers, meaning that a loss could all but put them out of the event. Instead of being in awe of the stakes — or indifferent to them, as a sizable chunk of the squads have seemed – they brought each side’s best.

There was a simmering intensity underlying the tempo from the first kick of the ball. Zambia controlled the ball of the first half, its hold broken temporarily by a Nigerian penalty, only for John Obi Mikel to put it wide. The styles of the two sides meshed perfectly, resulting in a counterattacking, fluid pace.

Zambia failed to turn its pressure into a goal, and Nigeria came out of the break with an energy the champions couldn’t match. Super Eagles forward Emmanuel Emenike confirmed his man of the match performance with a powerful strike to put his team in front in the 57th minute.

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AFCON 2013: First Round Games In The Dishwasher

Matt Pentz on a Tunisia wonderstrike at 1st found games in the AFCON

At first glance, it’s hard to pick out a single, unifying theme from the opening slate of group games from the 2013 African Cup of Nations.

After all, a stylistic diversity, both in terms of tactics and quality of play, is part of what makes the event so unique.

Nigeria v. Burkina Faso, for example, prized physicality over skill, while the preceding Zambia-Ethiopia match stood out with its patient, flowing pace. There have been pulsating moments – the second half of Ghana v. DR Congo – and stretches of mind-numbing staleness – the entirety of the South Africa-Cape Verde opener.

But after a stretch of eight matches that produced a surprising quality of draws, the defining quality of this tournament thus far has been the quality of the transcendent individual performances that have occasionally broken the deadlock.

There were three draws in the entire group stage of the 2012 tournament. This edition has already had five, and the opening day set the tone.

Cape Verde lacked the quality to push for a result, while the hosts were a toxic combination of inept and tentative. With the disappointing setback of the 2010 World Cup still lingering over the team, Bafana Bafana seemed paralyzed by fear of mistakes. An expectant, impatient crowd did little to encourage them. By halftime, it became clear that the two sides could play for 180 minutes and never score.

The following match also finished nil-nil, but at least both Angola and Morocco were willing to push forward. Hulking Angolan striker Manucho personified the ultimately fruitless but admirable perseverance, hurling himself at every half chance and trying to will the ball into the net.

Manucho Gonçalves

Manucho Gonçalves

Manucho failed to compliment his exertions with a goal, but Malian captain Seydou Keita built on the theme of the one-man difference maker a night later with greater success.

Stubborn Niger was six minutes of normal time from holding favored Mali and producing the fourth draw out of four for the tournament. Keita had been omnipresent throughout, even hitting the bar in the 77th minute, but looked destined for Manucho’s fate until he pounced on a fumbled shot to produce the lone goal. It was no less than he, and balanced, spirited Mali, deserved.

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