In an exhibition played under unprecedented circumstances, a U.S. national team comprised of players hoping to make their World Cup case was outplayed Wednesday by a Ukrainian side motivated by a whole lot more.
There were only a handful of fans in attendance at Antonis Papadopoulos Stadium in Larnaca, Cyprus, but their blue-and-yellow flags and banners calling for Ukrainian unity set the stage. The "hosts" were in gear early in the first half and eased to a 2-0 triumph over the Americans behind goals from Andriy Yarmolenko and substitute Marko Devic.
If U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann learned anything from this chaotic trip, it was that several players on the World Cup fringe belong there and that his squad will have a strong MLS flavor in Brazil. Here are three thoughts from the defeat, which came on the final FIFA international date before Klinsmann finalizes his World Cup roster:
This never was going to be pretty – Missing about half his first-choice roster – including Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley -- thanks to injury and MLS’ decision to open next weekend, Klinsmann knew he would have to field an experimental side against a Ukrainian team that arguably is the best to miss out on the World Cup.
Then, the crisis in Ukraine put the match itself into doubt. Even after the game was moved from Kharkiv to Larnaca, the tension that resulted from Russia’s incursion into Crimea cast a pall over the proceedings. Reports of a cancellation turned out to be false, but Wednesday’s game kicked off in an eerily quiet stadium. That lack of energy, plus all the pregame confusion, manifested itself in Klinsmann’s team – especially in the first half. It was an ugly performance in an unfortunate setting.
Starting together in back for the first time, veteran Oguchi Onewu and 21-year-old John Brooks – with a combined four caps over the past year --lacked chemistry and understanding, while left defender Edgar Castillo was out of his depth against the incisive Yarmolenko.
Both Ukraine goals came following passes over the top that split the poorly-positioned American back four. Save for a 20-minute spell early in the second half, the U.S. never really was able to mount any sustained possession or threat.
Klinsmann wanted a test for his team, and they certainly got it. Unfortunately for the manager, there weren’t many passing grades.
Collapsing core – In January, Klinsmann said he considered Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey to be among his core five players, implying they’ll anchor the attack in Brazil. At this point, however, their status must be in question.
Both have “excuses,” for lack of a better term. Altidore hasn’t exactly been flush with scoring chances at Sunderland and appears to have fallen out of favor with coach Gus Poyet. Dempsey struggled to integrate with a Seattle Sounders squad that was falling apart when he signed last summer and has battled several small but nagging injuries. His winter loan to Fulham was a minor disaster.
But form is form, and neither player can find it. In fact, they’ve scored a combined four goals for club and country since the start of September. That's more than six months. Both struggled to find any rhythm on Wednesday. They looked languid in the first half, showed some flashes in combination in the second but then each missed headers that probably should have been on target.
Dempsey likely will feature in the April 2 friendly against Mexico (and maybe Poyet will let Altidore make the trip at this point), but time is running out. If they can’t find an early groove during the three exhibitions scheduled for late May and early June, Klinsmann must consider alternatives. Scoring is streaky and both Altidore and Dempsey are slumping.
Right now Aron Johannsson or even Landon Donovan (especially if Klinsmann prefers Fabian Johnson in midfield) might make for more dynamic choices up front. Klinsmann can keep the faith for only so long.
Defensive picture comes into focus – Speaking of Johnson, Wednesday’s misplays in back certainly should have helped Klinsmann make some decisions about his defense.
Either Johnson or DaMarcus Beasley will be the left back in Brazil. Beasley has more experience there for the U.S., but Johnson is arguably a better one-on-one defender and plays on the defensive flank weekly in the Bundesliga – he’ll be better prepared for World Cup opposition. Klinsmann remains enamored of Johnson in midfield, but the U.S. has talented players capable of filling that role. The real need is in back.
Either Geoff Cameron, who was the Americans’ best defensive performer on Wednesday, or Seattle Sounders utility man Brad Evans will play on the right. Klinsmann has asked Cameron to unseat one of Stoke City’s center backs, but the U.S. manager finally may have come to the same conclusion as Stoke’s Mark Hughes – that Cameron can do both and needs to be on the field.
Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, watching from the U.S. while preparing for their MLS openers, surely can breathe a bit easier. They’re now the clear frontrunners to start at the World Cup.