Photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
Three months might be all that separate the U.S. Men’s National Team from the World Cup, but there are still plenty of lingering questions that head coach Jurgen Klinsmann will try and get answers to in the final friendly before this summer’s pre-World Cup camp.
From seeing where several of his regulars currently stand in terms of form and fitness to which role players will make a deep push for the World Cup roster, Klinsmann has several things to look out for when a U.S. team comprised of mostly European-based players takes on Ukraine in a match that will be played in Cyprus on Wednesday.
The form of U.S. captain Clint Dempsey is chief among them. Dempsey has been on loan with Fulham since the start of the new year, and has not had the best of times there. Dempsey did not make the type of impact at the club that was expected of him or that was the norm back when he was playing for the Cottagers two seasons ago, and it led to him being benched towards the tail-end of the loan stint.
Regardless of Dempsey’s struggles at Fulham, his performance against a tough and somewhat underrated Ukraine team will go a much longer way in giving Klinsmann a clearer idea of where the veteran is at ahead of this summer’s tournament in Brazil.
Another pair of key players that will attempt to deliver a strong performance in a match that was originally scheduled to be played in Kharkiv but moved because of the violence in Ukraine are Jozy Altidore and Jermaine Jones. The two U.S. mainstays will not only try and lead the U.S. squad to its latest victory on European soil, but also make cases for why Klinsmann should not start considering other options at their starting spots.
For Altidore, the last few months have been plagued with subpar performances for relegation-threatened Sunderland. Altidore is also on a scoring drought that has drawn heavy scrutiny from media and fans on both sides of the pond, and he will try to snap that scoreless streak while reminding fans of the type of striker he showed he can be last summer when he was scoring in bunches for the U.S.
Jones needs to make a statement of his own. The veteran center midfielder has not convinced in recent outings for the Americans and only recently played in his first match for Besiktas (he suffered an injury that delayed his debut shortly after signing with the Turkish club).
Jones’ fitness is likely not in tip-top condition, but how he fares against a talented Ukrainian midfield that includes Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Oleh Husyev in the early parts of Wednesday’s match will serve as a real measuring stick to where the German-American is right now.
The friendly against the Ukrainians, which is the European-based Americans’ last until Klinsmann selects his preliminary World Cup roster in May, is not just about the veterans. Fringe players like in-form Danny Williams and Juan Agudelo should also have a chance to make a case for themselves, something which Klinsmann has stated he wants to see from the current group of players.
The ones that seem to have the biggest chance at doing that are the centerbacks. With starters Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler with their clubs ahead of the beginning of the MLS season, the door is wide open for the rest of the centerback pool to try and impress Klinsmann. Veteran Oguchi Onyewu and youngster John Brooks are among them, and there is a chance they start alongside each other in their first games back into the national team fold.
With so much at stake vs. Ukraine for the U.S. players, this is not your average friendly. The Americans will look to show well not only as a team that high presses, maintains possession and creates scoring chances, but also as individuals who are determined to make the World Cup roster.