The U.S. men’s national soccer team’s 2-0 defeat to Ukraine was not a bellwether game for the Nats in their World Cup preparations. This game was always intended as a final audition for most of the American players in Cyprus who were looking to make the 2014 World Cup Final roster.
Most of the starting XI in this game were already clear favorites to wear the new U.S. kit this summer, so the real drama involved the remaining players who are dark horses for the final 23-man roster.
USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer did a fantastic job scheduling friendlies in the lead-up to the World Cup Final. Given the American soccer diaspora, the first three games were set up to give everyone the ultimate opportunity to impress Klinsmann and his staff.
The first friendly against South Korea gave Klinsmann a chance to look closely at his MLS-based players following an extended training camp. The camp also gave U.S. Soccer an opportunity to check on their arrangements in Brazil.
The game against Ukraine did the same for the (mostly) European-based Americans to make their case for inclusion on the roster. A third game against Mexico on April 2 will give Klinsmann and his staff one final chance to evaluate North American-based players
Tactically, the Ukrainians deploy inverted wingers, which is something the USMNT will see from Portugal and, to some extent, from Germany and Ghana in the World Cup group stage. In this sense, the game was an excellent opportunity for the American flank players to make their case.
The Light Horse
Several of the U.S. players in the Ukraine match are already claiming the seats with extra legroom on the plane to Brazil.
Alejandro Bedoya and Fabian Johnson were key in World Cup qualifying and the record-setting 12-game U.S. win streak last summer. Bedoya continues to play at a high level for Nantes, while Johnson is a regular in the Bundesliga for Hoffenheim as well as the kind of versatile multitool player that often come in handy in tournaments. Both players are a near-lock for the roster.
Then there is Geoff Cameron, whose steady club play has him in in a positional paradox. The only question with Cameron is whether he will be a regular starter for Klinsmann or serve as another multitool that the coach can plug into multiple positions.
We should not read too much into Aaron Johannsson starting on the bench; Klinsmann clearly needed to buck up Altidore’s confidence after being left off Sunderland’s roster for the Capital One Cup Final. Johannsson is in fantastic club form and his skills and versatility make him a safe bet for the final 23.
He came on for Kljestan in the 62nd minute but moved up top in the 4-1-3-2 formation that Klinsmann has used to good effect in the second half of games. Johannsson had probably the best scoring chance of any U.S. player, seeing his volley off a corner kick cleared off the line by a Ukrainian defender.
These players are penciled into the roster and, barring injury or a serious fall from grace, did enough against Ukraine to warrant their inclusion on the final roster.
The Dark Horses
So how did the rest of the Americans do in Cyprus? Did any players do enough to move into a dark-horse position for a roster spot?
Oguchi Onyewu and John Brooks got the start in central defense and were exposed in the 11th minute when Ukrainian midfielder Denys Garmash made a deep run past the poorly positioned Brooks to set up the opening goal. Brooks is clearly an athletic talent but mistakes like this highlight his relative inexperience.
Onyewu had the opposite problem with his experience carrying him through the match, though, his lack of athleticism made it difficult for him to pick up the speedy runs of the Ukrainians.
Both center-backs were workmanlike in possession, avoiding the light Ukrainian pressure in the Americans' defensive third, and Brooks showed a decent passing touch with his forward balls.
This positive play, however, was undermined by their repeated ball watching, which contributed to the Ukrainian's second goal in the 67th minute.
Sacha Kljestan started in Michael Bradley’s usual role as Jermaine Jones’ midfield wingman. Kljestan seemed more interested in getting forward than supporting Jones and the wings on defense. His link-up play was so anemic that Clint Dempsey had to repeatedly drop deep into the American midfield to help the U.S. keep possession.
Edgar Castillo was the lone player to make the trip from North America and earned a spot in the starting lineup. His inclusion perhaps reflects Klinsmann’s need to find quality outside backs to contain the wide play of the Nats’ World Cup opponents.
Castillo found himself reading the backs of Ukrainian jerseys as they marauded down his wing, though, this could be as much a function of the lack of inside support from the midfield that is crucial to neutralizing inverted wing tactics.
He did better in attack, earning several fouls after beating his man and getting some of the only wing penetration the Americans produced in the first half.
Brek Shea entered in the 63rd minute for Castillo taking the left wing and moving Fabian Johnson to left-back. He did well penetrating the final third but continues to lack the tactical judgment and technical accuracy to create any danger.
Danny Williams replaced Jones in the 80th minute as the lone defensive midfielder and looked good connecting with his teammates and tracking runners out of the midfield.
Juan Agudelo came on for Altidore in the 85th minute and gave the U.S. a bit of a spark with his energy and technical skills.
Bet My Money on the Bobtail Nag?
So did any of the dark horses do enough to warrant a boarding pass for Brazil? Not really, though, a couple may still be in the running.
We mostly saw what we would expect from this cast of characters.
- Onyewu was game, as always, but he’s done.
- Brooks proved he is too inexperienced at this point to warrant a roster spot despite his talent.
- Kljestan was OK, but given the Nats’ midfield talent, he needed to do more.
- Castillo has showed his offensive game but remains a defensive liability.
- Brek Shea is still too inconsistent to knock any of the other wingers off the roster.
Only Danny Williams and Juan Agudelo performed well enough to still be in the conversation, though, that may be more a function of the limited minutes they played. Both of these players are trying to work their way up the deepest positions on Klinsmann’s depth chart. Some stellar club play this spring or an injury to a player above them could see their World Cup dreams materialize.
Really, the only two takeaways from this game involved players with secure roster spots.
First, the good news. Cameron got the start at right-back, his regular club position, and had a decent game. He is the only outside back in the U.S. player pool who regularly faces the kind of quality wingers the U.S. will have to contain this summer.
Cameron struggled with his deliveries from the wing, going one of six, according to the MLSsoccer.com chalkboard, though, he did connect with Altidore early in the second half for the Americans' best chance to that point.
More importantly, Cameron’s defensive marking and weak-side cover were spot-on, and he did really well on the dribble. He also has the size to deal with the physical presence of players like Cristiano Ronaldo, though, nobody on the U.S. team should be expected to contain the Balon de Oro winner one-on-one in the open field.
The Ukrainians ran plenty of overlapping patterns down the flanks, which the U.S. dealt with for the most part with the main Ukrainian threat coming right down the middle. According to mlssoccer.com, the U.S. gave up zero “successful crosses” in the game.
Cameron may find himself playing some center-back at the World Cup if Klinsmann’s preferred center-backs are injured or disqualified, but he may have done enough in this game to finally nail down the starting right-back spot.
The bad news was that the Nats’ top two scorers, Dempsey and Altidore, continue to struggle. Both played numerous errant passes to their fellow attackers that killed off one offensive foray after another.
Only an injury or a huge scandal will keep them off the roster, but U.S. fans will be working their worry beads all through the spring hoping that these key players regain their qualification form.