For starters, I'm just glad that this game is getting played. The game had to be moved to Cyprus following political unrest in Ukraine and the bombing of an top Cyprus referee's car also threatened to put the match in doubt. After numerous reports yesterday that the Ukraine federation would not be sending their players to Cyprus, the long awaited confirmation from US Soccer never happened and the game was still on. Ukraine's federation president mentioned some political overtones in why he had a change of heart, and while the obvious plight in Ukraine will weigh heavy on everyone's minds, we're still here for the soccer.
And on paper, this looks like mismatch for the United States. I'm not kidding, this Ukraine team is arguably the best team in the world not going to Brazil this summer. They finished second with a 6W-1L-3D record in their UEFA qualifying group that England, Montenegro (their only loss, 0-1 in Kiev), Poland, spunky Moldova and minnows San Marino. England beat Ukraine by only a point to secure qualification and forced Ukraine into the playoffs where they lost to France 3-2 on aggregate. At the time of the UEFA playoff draw, Ukraine was ranked 20th in the FIFA World Rankings, if you believe such things, and ranked fourth out of all the playoff teams that featured winners Portugal (14th), Greece (15th) and Croatia (18th) and of course France (21st).
And that team that actually held a 2-0 going into the second leg against France after an emphatic home win, it's basically playing against the US today. There's a lot of pretty solid players from mostly the Ukraine domestic league which includes teams like Shakhtar Donetsk, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Dynamo Kiev. Andriy Yarmolenko scored a team high five goals in qualifying and captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk has 131 international caps with Ukraine. Even with the suspension of the Ukrainian league due to the ongoing political unrest (the league did not resume last week following its winter break, neat story of rival fans of Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev playing a friendly on the day the two league giants were supposed to play), the squad Ukraine is bring to Cyprus is really good. Whether or not their minds will be on the game is another, totally understandable, issue.
And the USA is more or less bringing it's European All-Star Team, minus the following players: Michael Bradley (injury), Mix Diskerud (injury/not released by club), Tim Ream (birth of child, and congratulations to the Ream family). Jonathon Spector was called up to add to the defense. Julian Green will only be training with the club as he currently playing in competition with the German youth team.
Howard, Guzan and the wonder kid Cropper gets a little more camp time as he cements himself as the USA's future number one. That will happen at some point, trust me.
DEFENDERS (7): John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt), Oguchi Onyewu (Sheffield Wednesday), Will Packwood (Birmingham City), Jonathon Spector (Birmingham City)
Okay, so it's not exactly a first choice defense with MLS regulars Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Brad Evans getting ready for their season openers. And the two Birmingham players have only 20 combined appearances in all competitions this year in England. Geoff Cameron should be starting at right back, period, he's been in form at Stoke City for most of the year. The unsettled center back pairing of Onyewu and Brooks seems likely even if it scares me to death. The left side is in good hands between Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo and either player can feature on the left wing as well.
Well, if there was ever a game for Sacha Kljestan for force his way into Jurgen Klinsmann's May pre-World Cup camp, this would be it. The Anderlecht man doesn't get consistent minutes in Belgium but his utility could prove valuable to Klinsmann off the bench. I'd expect him to man the other holding midfield role with Jones, giving him the freedom to go forward and start the attack. The rest of the midfield is pretty much anyone's guess. Williams is likely to see time in the holding midfield role and it's possible that Bedoya starts at right wing opposite Shea on the left, but I think Shea will start the game on the bench before coming on as a second half sub.
Okay, I expect to see a combination of Dempsey, Altidore and Johannsson up top to start the game. The combination is anyone's guess but the idea is that all three guys will be on the field at striker, CAM and left wing. Since I think Klinsmann and his preferred 4-2-3-1 will be the formation, I'm obliged to think that it will be Johansson on the left and Dempsey behind Altidore who's up top. Agudelo and Boyd will both hopefully get long chances in this game as both are having decent seasons in Europe, probably Agudelo to maybe feature on the right wing.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP (4-2-3-1)
Howard; F. Johnson, Brooks, Onyewu, Cameron; Jones, Kljestan; Johansson, Dempsey [C], Bedoya; Altidore
SUBS: Castillo for F. Johnson (LB), Williams for Jones (LDM), Shea for Johannsson (LW), Agudelo for Bedoya (RW), Boyd for Altidore (ST), Packwood for Onyewu (CB)
Nothing fancy unless Klinsmann actually wants to play a 4-4-2 with both Jozy and Johannsson up top but then that would probably make for a bad center midfield combination and that's already a pretty odd situation without Bradley. Really this is a chance for the attackers, particularly the wingers like Shea, Bedoya and Agudelo to make a case for the May camp. I focus will be on Kljestan personally because this is the type of game I want to see him step up and drive the offense while doing a lot of other little things. And of course, we need to see if Dempsey and Jozy can get out of whatever respective funks they are in with Seattle/Fulham and Sunderland.
PREDICTION: 2-2 Draw
I think there will be goals, maybe even a spectacular strike from Jozy or Johannsson, but I think a draw is going to be the likely result. It probably won't be the best of games and to be fair, one team has a lot on their minds right now and that's completely understandable. Overall I just want to see an organized defense for the most part and some nice attacking soccer, it's difficult to make an impression in these one-off friendly weeks. But that impression could be the difference to making that 30-man roster in May.
The match kicks off at 2PM with coverage beginning at 130PM on ESPN2.
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