USMNT: Larruping in Larnaca
Austin Fido brings you his take on what happened between Ukraine and USMNT in Cyprus…
During the brief moment when it appeared the world of football had seen sense and decided to cancel this match, Vadim Furmanov (author of as fine a sociopolitical contextualization of this game as you will find) expressed the view that it might be to USMNT’s benefit, since he wasn’t convinced the Ukrainian players would be at all able to concentrate on playing soccer.
As it turned out, it was the Americans who didn’t have their heads in the game. Still, the garbled nonsense USMNT produced on the pitch was nothing compared to the superlative gibberish ESPN’s producers came up with as narrative for this match.
Poor Bob Ley, a tireless servant of American soccer, was forced to describe Ukraine vs. USA in Cyprus as “a window to a nation in crisis”. You are better off trying to discuss the Hegelian dialectic with a scrotum than seeking meaning in ESPN’s script for this game. Unless, of course, Mr. Ley was referring to USMNT’s World Cup preparations.
For most of the rest of the World-Cup-bound world, this March international date represents the final casting call for players hoping to play a part in Brazil. After this, the next milestone on the way to Rio is the mid-May deadline for preliminary squads to be named, and then there will be a friendly or two before 30 guys are whittled down to 23.
USMNT is charting a slightly different course. We’ve seen a February friendly contested by mainly MLS players, followed by this match played with a predominantly European-based team. Neither game featured more than seven guys with serious expectation of lining up on the field when the anthems are played on June 16th. Both matches started players who will be fortunate to make the standby list for Brazil, let alone the final 23.
Jurgen Klinsmann is mixing and matching as best he can. He’s not experimenting: we can be assured he thinks he knows his best team, and he doesn’t think it is the side that started either of USMNT’s last two matches. The evidence of those games suggests Jurgie is absolutely right.
In Cyprus, USMNT got trounced by a Ukrainian team playing smoother, smarter, quicker football. If the Ukrainians had found finishing to match their passing, they could easily have won 4-0. As it was, they cruised to one of the more comfortable 2-0 victories a team can experience at this level.
For USMNT, the result was an embarrassing reminder of the fact that all FIFA confederations are not created equal. Ukraine couldn’t get out of a UEFA qualifying group topped by one of the weaker England sides of recent memory; USMNT is the best team in CONCACAF. The Stars and Stripes will have to find a way past at least one UEFA team in Brazil (Germany or Portugal) to get out of their group, and this game produced a little cause for concern about the task.
That said, it’s unlikely Klinsi will be too worried about Jonathan Brooks and Oguchi Onyewu, the center backs whose erratic positioning was repeatedly victimized by Ukraine, and contributed directly to both goals.
For the first, Brooks strayed too close to Onyewu, leaving Denis Garmash space to run onto a lofted pass, and time to bounce a shot off Tim Howard before passing the rebound to Andriy Yarmolenko for the tap-in. For the second, both centerbacks were too high up the pitch to catch up with Marko Devic, who also had time to sting Howard’s hand before driving the rebound into the net. Fine, Brooks and Onyewu had a bad day – they aren’t the guys penciled in to start against Ghana, in June. They might not even be watching from the bench.
Nor will Klinsi be too vexed by Sacha Kljestan’s inconsistency or Edgar Castillo’s timidity. He’s not relying on either man to come through for him this summer. It would be nice if they stepped up, but, as long as Michael Bradley and DaMarcus Beasley stay fit, it’s not essential.
What was troubling about USMNT’s showing in this match was the lack of confidence of Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey. Each had promising moments, but the lasting memory for both (Altidore thumping a header over the bar when he had done all the work required to get a clean shot on goal; Dempsey just lacking the pace or timing of his run to get to a through ball before the ‘keeper) is of effort wasted.
These are the guys Jurgie has identified as part of his team’s “spine”, the men he expects to combine with Bradley, Howard and Jermaine Jones to form the core of the starting line up. This is why, on the cusp of the new MLS season, Bradley and Dempsey were called up for this fixture. Bradley never got the chance to play, Dempsey was a little too easily handled by the Ukrainian defense, and Altidore’s confidence appears so lacking he scarcely bothered to face the goal.
The spine needs strengthening, and there are issues with the extremities as well. Geoff Cameron’s performance on the night highlighted his claim to be the current player pool’s best defensive right back. Going forward, however, his crossing lets him down too often — especially when his overlaps take better distributors, like Alejandro Bedoya, out of the game.
There are some tough decisions to be made in the pre-World Cup camp this May: hope Cameron’s crossing improves, or continue to push Brad Evans to develop the defensive positioning he currently lacks? Stick with Dempsey playing under Altidore in a 4-2-3-1, or find room for Juan Agudelo or Aron Johannsson in a 4-4-2?
Taken together with February’s game against Korea, this match exposes a troubling fact about USMNT’s World Cup preparations: Klinsi just can’t get his best team together. Even that simple five-player spine hasn’t started a game collectively since June 18th (the 1-0 win over Honduras in Utah).
Part of that is due to injuries, but part of it is the downside to USMNT’s reliance on MLS. It is great to have a domestic top flight capable of developing and accommodating some of the best players in the national team pool. It’s less great when those players are missing scant opportunity to play as a national team because the domestic league cannot always release personnel for FIFA match days.
This is perhaps most problematic in the defense. When a striker isn’t able to blend in with the team’s overall tactical plan, we say he is “isolated”. When a defender gets caught out of position, we say he’s terrible. But good defensive units need time to work together, and USMNT’s defenders simply haven’t had much time. Lack of mutual understanding leaves gaps that good teams, such as Ukraine, will exploit.
The issue is not so much that these problems exist, more that the inability to reliably summon the best available players for a succession of friendlies undermines the purpose of those matches: to methodically identify and fix the weaknesses in the team.
From May 18th to June 16th, Klinsi will basically have a month to get his best team into its best shape for the World Cup. If we learned anything from the performance against Ukraine, it’s time he’s going to need.
Austin Fido is OTF’s USMNT and CONCACAF editor. Follow him @canetop.