On Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. Men’s National Team will take on Ukraine in one of its final tune-up matches before the World Cup (2:00 p.m., ESPN2, WatchESPN, UniMas).
Drawing the squad primarily from Europe, as Wednesday is the final FIFA international date prior to the World Cup, coach Jurgen Klinsmann will be looking to do two things with this game: fill out the fringes of the squad, and give misfiring/rusty players a chance to round back into form.
The unrest in Ukraine
While this is not the forum to discuss the political and social upheavals happening now in Ukraine, we would be remiss not to acknowledge events there. The crisis on Ukraine’s streets has become so heated that the game, originally scheduled to be held in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, will now be played on the island nation of Cyprus, in the Mediterranean Sea. On Monday, the head of the Ukraine Football Federation said that the game had been called off but US Soccer later confirmed the game would go ahead as scheduled.
One can only hope that the playing of the game will provide some measure of positive distraction for those in Ukraine who need it, and that the situation in that country is brought to a peaceful and nonviolent conclusion as soon as possible.
The U.S. squad
Concentrating on sporting matters, the U.S. squad is an interesting combination of players on the outskirts of Klinsmann’s World Cup plans, and some roster locks looking for form.
Michael Bradley, one of the few non-European-based players called up for the game, has withdrawn with a minor injury. Mix Diskerud and Tim Ream have also withdrawn. Klinsmann originally called in no replacements, but versatile World Cup veteran Jonathan Spector has now been brought in.
Spector can play across the back line and in midfield, which might be valuable for Klinsmann, but fellow defenders John Brooks, Oguchi Onyewu, and Edgar Castillo may have more to gain with positive performances. Castillo, especially, as a natural left back—perhaps the U.S.’s thinnest position—will be looking to impress.
In midfield, Bradley’s absence opens up a chance for Danny Williams. Williams, not so long ago, was seen as having a prominent role in the national team, but his appearances have been few and far between in the last year. A resurgent run of form at his club team, Reading, seems to have caught Klinsmann’s eye.
Fabian Johnson will also look to cement his place in the squad. Now firmly considered a midfielder by Klinsmann, he seems likely to start on the left wing. Brek Shea, whose season began in Stoke but now finds him on loan in Barnsley, will hope to prove his dynamism as a substitute warrants his seat on the plane to Brazil. Sacha Kljestan is also in camp.
Up front, the misfiring Jozy Altidore and rusty-from-the-offseason Clint Dempsey are likely to start, as Klinsmann will want to maximize the number of minutes they have to play together. The most in-form striker in camp is surely Aron Johannsson. He is unlikely to start, though, at least up front. Klinsmann may see how well he plays from one of the wing positions, instead. Juan Agudelo also makes a long-awaited return to the national team fold.
The young German-American striker is not eligible to play for the U.S. in this game, but has been brought into camp, it seems, for Klinsmann to convince him to file a one-time switch with FIFA, which would allow him to suit up for the U.S. It would be quite the coup for Klinsmann to nab Green, as the young man is one of the brightest prospects in Europe right now.
Ukraine just missed out on qualifying for the World Cup, but has several players starring for teams in European cup competitions this year, including Yevhen Konoplyanka, a winger for FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, which was just eliminated from the Europa League by England’s Tottenham Hotspur; and Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, who came off the bench in Zenit St. Petersburg’s recent first-leg loss to Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League.
The U.S. is winless in it’s history against Ukraine, but the most recent meeting between the sides was in 1993. Against a full-strength U.S. side, the teams would be closely matched, but the U.S. would likely have the advantage. However, with the less-than-full-strength side that will play on Wednesday, the U.S. is probably the underdog.
Ukraine’s young attacking talent will likely give the U.S.’s makeshift backline headaches, and with no Bradley or Landon Donovan in midfield, it will be incumbent on Dempsey, Altidore, and the wide midfielders to create offense for the U.S.
With events in Ukraine still unfolding, games such as these can seem trivial. While the U.S. will certainly be looking for the win, and Klinsmann will hope to learn about his squad, in the end, the result is meaningless. It is a strong test of the U.S.’s mettle, as Ukraine is a highly ranked team in world football, but individual performances are more important than the team outcome. Will Altidore start firing? Will Dempsey shake off the rust? Will Onyewu stake his claim to another World Cup place? Will Spector?
In the end, we here in the U.S. should feel lucky that we are able to focus on questions like these, rather than questions of the sort facing the people of Ukraine.