By Jon Levy
The Yanks are over in Europe for a long weekend with their cool Uncle Jurgen; supposedly he’s going to take them out to discotheques, let them drink and talk to girls, and really help them find themselves. Meanwhile, they’re tasked with making some sort of progress as a national team in the face of quality European competition. No small feat considering Klinsmann’s USMNT is having trouble getting goals and results against everyone.
The “revenge match” against Slovenia looms large on the horizon for those that want to play up the 2010 World Cup storyline, but the bigger test for the US takes place in Paris on Friday night (afternoon here in the States). The France match is a marquee friendly for US Soccer, but not so marquee now that Landon Donovan will not be abandoning his LA Galaxy teammates prior to the MLS Cup Final. You can’t really blame Landon—particularly as this could be Beckham’s last hurrah—and LD isn’t getting any younger—but what’s more curious is that Klinsmann has opted to roll with 22 players in lieu of calling in a replacement for Donovan. Several players were called up by US Soccer after being eliminated from the MLS Playoffs in the past week and a half, but they were all sent to the under-23/20 joint squad. So Juan Agudelo and his buddies will watch the senior national team from Caleb Porter’s first Olympic team training camp in Germany.
What to watch for from the Yanks: The US comes into this match hungry for goals. And I’m sick of writing that sentence. The Klinsmann goal drought is becoming an unfortunate and ironic theme. Prolific German striker coaches team that doesn’t score goals. Cute.
Let’s not get too confident in the other side of the ball going into the France match either. The Yanks haven’t allowed many goals under Jurgen, and they’ve generally looked disciplined at the back, but now they’re playing on the road against quality European opposition. A quick glance back at September’s Belgium friendly should remind you that the Yanks didn’t actually deserve the flattering 1-0 scoreline in their defeat. The midfield was overrun, defenders were scrambling, and you might have been muttering hushed apologies to Bob Bradley. Some weren’t so hushed.
But every loss provides instruction, and hopefully we’ll see a coach and a team that have benefitted from taking their lumps over the last few months. Jurgen’s 4-2-3-1 isn’t operating at the high level he envisions, but it’s not stinking up the stadium either, which is good since he seems married to the formation. My biggest questions going into the France match concern Clint Dempsey’s deployment, and the “leftover” attacking midfield position. Break Shea gets the starting berth on the left, but will Clint play the hub in the center of the attack, or will he split out to the right?
He can play either spot, but I don’t think our boys brought any other qualified candidates for the central role, so I’d start Deuce there and give DaMarcus a shot on the right wing. Beasley had some spring in his step last run out—and Mexcio seems to have breathed new life in bones that were aching from the Scottish and German cold. That wish may be a pipe dream though, as Klinsy probably has it on good authority that Fabian Johnson is the second coming of Zico. So he’ll just pair him with fellow German-American Danny “Giggs” Williams on the right side and we’ll win the World Cup. Let it be known that I’m fully in support of this plan if it works. Johnson/Williams 2014, Kickin’ Ass & Learnin’ English!
And what will we see out of France?
Outside of maybe Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny, who’s again in line for his first cap, this match shouldn’t feature any Frenchmen who ply their trade in the England. (Newcastle spark plug Yohan Cayabe’s groin is touch and go.) This version of Les Bleus will consist primarily of Ligue 1 stars, and that’s just how manager Laurent Blanc likes it. It’s easy to forget that Blanc inherited a team characterized by chaos and disarray less than 18 months ago, but he’s done a good job cleaning up Ray Domenech’s considerable mess. Need a primer on Domenech’s madhouse, or just a quick laugh at French expense? Click here. Or if you’re just looking for that laugh, you can watch any Pink Panther movie, or this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Back to business then. Blanc has rebuilt the national team by drawing on his domestic league to supplement established stars like Franck Ribéry and Karim Benzema. He’s done a great job, but barely edging Bosnia and Herzegovina for first place in a weak Euro qualifying group is a good indication that it’s not about to rain trophies in Paris just yet. So Blanc keeps trying out new talent like Montpellier’s Ligue 1 leading goal scorer Olivier Giroud, and he keeps challenging his team in the press. In response to Giroud’s call-up, Blanc told the papers that France doesn’t have players that actually score goals aside from Real Madrid’s Benzema, a shot at half the players in the pool. In an even more audacious tactic, Blanc called out Franck Ribéry for not performing up to his usual standard for the Les Bleus. The manager was smart enough to compliment Franck’s new mindset on the back of that jibe. Or maybe he just knows an effective Ribery might have more to do with a great Euro 2012 than the fact the French are due to play great, given their great tourney-ok tourney, horrible tourney international pattern. Either way, the US is precisely the type of team you have to grind it out against in the Euro quarters or group stages, and this is a go-time type test for the French.
So the Les Bleus squad that takes the field in Paris on Friday will be a conglomeration of starters and fringe players, all of whom are hungry to show their manager and their home crowd what they’re capable of. They’ll be more talented than the Yanks on most individual levels, and they’ve got a year’s head start on mastering their new manager’s philosophies. Not pretty for the US considering that even a B squad for France would be favored to out-possess and out-chance our boys on technique alone.
US Player to Watch: Brek Shea
Now seems like an appropriate time to quote The Big Lebowski.
“Sometimes there’s a man, I won’t say a hero, ‘cause what’s a hero? But sometimes there’s a man, and I’m talkin’ ‘bout The Dude here. Sometimes there’s a man who, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there, and that’s The Dude, in Los Angeles.”
And that’s also quite possibly Brek Shea on a Friday night in Paris. It just feels like now is Shea’s time. Thanks to the Klinsmann/Wenger connection he’s being afforded the opportunity to train with Arsenal for the next month, but before he even arrives in London, the giant winger will have the eyes of European soccer trained on his blonde flo-hawk. The France match could very well be Flock of Sheagulls’ international coming out party.
It’s hard to believe the meteoric rise from USMNT fringe player to surefire starter that Shea’s made in five matches under Klinsmann, and it’s even harder to imagine Brek won’t continue his ascent. He’s the rare US fan flavor of the month who actually has the goods.
France Player to Watch: Franck Ribéry
Laurent Blanc said he’s going to play a stronger squad against Belgium than against our Yanks, but I’d expect that we’ll still see some Franck Ribéry in this match. The coach called out his best player for underperforming in the France shirt– now he should give him a forum to respond. And make no mistake about it, whether he starts or enters the fray in the 80th minute, Franck Ribéry will be the best and most dangerous player on the pitch for every single minute he’s out there. Franck could sit on the ball for 90 minutes, and he’s still the best player in either France or the US, with apologies to Clint Dempsey, Karim Benzema, and Tim Howard. (Probably in about that order.)
Want to find out more about Franck? He’s not Martin Short’s character in Father of the Bride, and my admiration for one of the world’s most unfortunate looking footballers is well documented. Time for some shameless self promotion, Franck Ribéry style.
Prediction: France 3 – 1 USA
The Yanks get the offense flowing and even score a goal, but the back four starts springing leaks. Painful prediction, but building a new national team can be a painful process. Klinsy moves to 1-4-1 heading into the rematch of the game Bob Bradley won. By tying. With a halftime speech. Or the game Koman lost. Or something.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!