Exhibition and friendly matches serve different purposes for different people. For the fans, it’s usually an opportunity to see different player configurations and in the case of national selections, see their teams in action. Another reason, is that coaches use these encounters to better plan and refine their squads for the prime time. Wednesday, March 5th was such an occasion with numerous World Cup-going nations taking the time to spar with other selections either on home field or on a neutral country’s soil. The reason for that is usually economic; the host team (i.e. the one in need of the scrimmage) handles the financials for the visiting squad.
Depending on ticket sales, venues are chosen that best fit travel plans for both nations. The USA’s last match was originally slated for play in the Ukraine’s second largest city of Kharkiv, but due to the civil unrest, potential Russian military intervention and febrile governance of the Eastern European nation, the match was moved to the Papadopoulos Stadium in Larnaca, Cyprus to the witness of roughly 1500 fans.
That’s all fine and dandy.
Team USA skipper Jürgen Klinsmann brought along a varied squad of legionnaire players to try and finalize his decisions for this summer’s dance in Brazil. Given the obvious mental state of the Ukrainian opposition, neutral field positioning and the combined experience of the Stars and Stripes, this match should’ve been a slaughter from the get-go, with Klinsmann utilizing all his available switches to determine on-pitch chemistry. This would not be the case on Cypriot soil.
Team USA was listless and confused. While the usual schematics for attack, contention and defense were not in place, the roles of veteran players like Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore should’ve been enough to cement some type of solidarity in action. Geoff Cameron (Stoke City) and Edgar Castillo (Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente) played the backs and that should’ve been a squad-making game for them, but in truth, the defending was spotty at best. A missed opportunity for these international players.
And it was in this aura of miscommunication, failed zone coverage and improper response to attack triangulations that the Ukraine managed to best the US. Beating an offside trap with textbook accuracy on the twelfth minute, Dynamo Kyiv midfielder Andriy Yarmolenko managed to sneak it in after a parry and volley with Howard by Dynamo Kyiv teammate Denys Harmash crossed it easily in the eighteen with three American defenders scrambling.
Team USA has been there before. With twelve minutes down, there’s an eternity to comeback with a tie and even take a lead. Notice Ecuador’s 4-3 victory over Australia on the same day after a three goal deficit. It’s doable. The first half closed out with very little in the shape of solid attacking by the Americans and some missed crosses, passes and a very unprogressive attitude towards counterattacking. There has been some criticism towards the latter in the sense that Klinsmann tends to populate his middle with contention/defending midfielders… perhaps a 3-4-3 formation with two attacking strikers, a front volante, three contention midfielders and a defensive midfielder might work best against the coming squads but he’ll have to rethink the bets on Oguchi Onyewu and Anthony Brooks.
That said, the second half opened with a worrisome sight you never want to see in your team: frustration. These men are professionals. Despair at a one-nil deficit should not set in with forty-five more minutes ahead and yet what we saw was a somewhat bitchy Dempsey acting in a very unsportsmanlike demeanor over a collision with a Ukrainian player. That’s not cool, does not fall suit with the Fifa “fair play” mentality and it is especially disheartening to see in a “friendly” match – the USA is dancing with Diana in Brazil this June, not the Ukraine… be a good sport will ya?
And then the definitive spike hammered down on the 68th minute with Rubin Kazan striker Marko Dević volleying with Howard for the second goal amidst another defensive lull by Brooks and Fabian Johnson.
Not all was bad. Alejandro Bedoya from my beloved FC Nantes had an impressive long strike that went slightly off target and Altidore had a solid header that sailed just above the crossbar from a Cameron cross. Not all is lost and none of this is in any way, shape or form a criticism on Klinsmann and his men. We arm-chair technicians are real good at running our mouths and Klinsmann’s contribution to the sport is undeniable, so do not even think for a second that I could even consider myself within the vicinity of the building he occupies in this, the beautiful sport.
Team USA should have two more chances to train in May and June before the World Cup and while this past result is not indicative of anything, it did show the player’s stress and duress when confronting non-CONCACAF squads, not news, but not part of their team norm these past few years. Let’s trust in Klinsmann, let’s trust our Star and Stripes!
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