Neil W. Blackmon and Jon Levy
The conflict in Ukraine, and the subsequent Russian intervention in Crimea has been framed in a million ways, and since this all ratcheted up during the Olympics, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to view the situation through the lens of sport. We’ve had a Ukrainian skier pull out of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at the games in Sochi. We’ve had one boxer (Vitali Klitschko) standing with the protesters in Kiev, and another (Vasyl Lomachenko) doing everything he can to stay true to both his Russian roots and Ukrainian nationality amid intense media scrutiny as he embarked on the first title shot in what’s supposed to be a legendary career in the making. And even more recently we’ve seen the US pull its presidential delegation from the Paralympics in Sochi as a show of support for Ukraine. But perhaps the best window into the souls of the Ukranian sports fans came amidst the enforced stoppage in country’s football league, when Dynamo and Shakhtar supporters donned their favorite team’s uniforms and played a good natured match on the day that the two big Ukrainian clubs were set to meet. We can only hope that Wednesday’s match, which has been moved from Kharkiv to Cyprus, is imbued with the same indomitable spirit.
It does, and can, seem silly to play an international friendly given the political situation in Ukraine. And while we’re without a source on the issue– credit likely is due the US Soccer Federation (and the power of the almighty dollar) for keeping this game “on”– media reports from within the Ukraine yesterday indicated the match was cancelled, and, sadly, in the era of “we were first” social media journalism, most outlets just assumed these reports were accurate without waiting for the US Soccer Federation to confirm that story. It can’t be emphasized enough that cancelling this game given the political situation in Ukraine would have made sense– just as reports indicating the game was cancelled, initially coming out of Ukrainian media outlets– shouldn’t be lambasted for their error. There are, after all, more important things than a soccer match going on in Ukraine right now. Chances are high that if this weren’t a World Cup year, there would be no game. Last night, however, the US Soccer Federation confirmed the game would go on in Larnaca, Cyprus, as planned, and here we are waiting for a soccer match despite the geopolitical turbulence it is shrouded in.
The game itself is, or should be, fascinating. Ukraine bring ten of their eleven starters from their star-crossed and ill-fated World Cup qualification playoff defeat against France to Cyprus, offering a playing style that is, at its core, similar to what the US will see in Manaus against Portugal this June, sans the greatest player in the world. The United States counter with a mix and match unit brimming with “last look” European-based club players, making it a delicate exercise in “earn a result” and “evaluate the players you can’t see until May” for US manager Jurgen Klinsmann. There quite simply isn’t enough room for everyone in this camp and the injured/healthy-and-awaiting-MLS-opening-weekend players to fill the thirty man “Send Off Series” camp from which Jurgen Klinsmann will select his team for Brazil, so there’s desperation and urgency involved in tomorrow night’s proceedings, especially for the likes of Oguchi Onyewu, Will Packwood, Jon Spector, Danny Williams and probably to some extent, Sacha Kljestan. Throw in the sideshow that is the latest new-toy Germerican Julian Green roaming around the US training camp all week, and you have about as much intrigue as you’re going to get for a March friendly date.
Let’s dish out the usuals and kick the particulars, shall we?
The Series: Fourth Meeting. Ukraine lead, 2-0-1. This is the first match between the two nations since before the US hosted the 94 World Cup, however, so there’s very little to make of the history here. Before the match was moved to Larnaca, this would have been the first match between the two countries on Ukrainian soil; it now settles for being the first match between the two nation’s on European soil.
Weather and Fabian Johnson Misery Index: 59 or 60 degrees and mostly clear at kick. Beautiful Fabian Johnson footballing weather and our lowest “Fabian Johnson” misery index score to date– 1.
What to watch for from the Yanks:
A hungry team. Competition for spots in the starting lineup and on the plane to Brazil should be fierce, and thus far, it has been. Some of these guys (read: Dempsey, Altidore) aren’t having the best time of it at their clubs. This match be a slump buster, or it could further beat guys like Jozy, and yes, even now-grizzled veteran captain Clint Dempsey, down.
For formatting’s sake- we can start at the back and move our way forward, sprinkling a dash of tactical acumen in along the way.
The goalkeeper will be Tim Howard. Rarely at TYAC do we spend much time on goalkeepers– an American privilege, more or less- but spare us a paragraph. Howard has had a fantastic year at Everton. He’s been in great form for the national team since the debacle in Costa Rica. BUT…he’s been uncharacteristically prone to devastating error. Early in his career you’d wince at a bad distribution or wonder why he surrendered so much space near post. At this point in the arc of his career, it’s less about these technical things and more about mental errors. Two errors– failing to clear a relatively easy ball against Chelsea and a “hero complex” hopeless charge and red card against Sunderland– are almost entirely mental and have cost Everton four points this season. It’s difficult, with Lukaku scoring again and Everton producing goals at a rate they haven’t in over a decade at Goodison, to identify a game where Howard saved Everton’s bacon this year, save maybe a nice draw with Arsenal– so what you have is a goalkeeper in tremendous form whose actually cost his side points. It goes without saying that can’t happen this summer– and tomorrow night is a good test in the mental regard– Ukraine’s Roman Zozulya is precisely the type of player whose read the scouting report on Howard (you can beat him from distance, of late he falls asleep) and can exploit it. I’d expect Ukraine to fire away from distance early and often– which is a test for Howard and much-maligned center half Oguchi Onyewu, who will be tasked with shutting down the space Ukraine has in which to attempt those shots.
We’d expect John Brooks to join Onyewu in the center of the US defense. Brooks has, in your writer’s view, a legitimate shot at making the 30 man “Send Off Series” grouping- whether he can demonstrate enough to Klinsmann here to sneak onto the plane is an altogether different tale. Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson (Jurgen’s security blanket against big lumbering Portuguese strikers), right or wrong, are locks along with Matt Besler to make the plane. Geoff Cameron’s flexibility and questions about the right back spot mean Klinsmann realistically could bring only the three true center halves to Brazil. Brooks can make the decision harder with a good show tomorrow.
The US fullbacks have a more difficult task and are, most likely, the key to this match. Geoff Cameron, the duct-tape “people’s champion” will start on the right and he’ll be tasked with doing two things we don’t know if he can do internationally: 1) Prevent an inverted winger (tomorrow it will be Yevhen Konoplyanka) from blasting in off the touchline and directing traffic when Konoplyanka drifts centrally to create space for the overlaps. Cameron can’t afford to be too aggressive– he just doesn’t have the pace to deal with fast wingers and it’s the largest reason we’ve said Geoff Cameron is an international CB of the Phil Neville/Phil Jagielka “I can be a DM if you need me too” mold internationally– so the key for him is to remain disciplined and know where his help defense is (and is supposed to be) at all times. The US can’t afford to have Jermaine Jones do all that work either– but more on that in a moment. Konoplyanka has been utilized by Ukrainian manager Mykhaylo Fomenko in two primary ways: 1) as a slightly more advanced central midfielder with liberty to drift towards the wing (See, France, second leg, November 2013) and 2) purely as a wing with license to tuck-in centrally to open things up when fullbacks get up in support. He’s more dangerous the second way, from what I’ve seen, and that’s a big challenge for Geoff Cameron.
Fabian Johnson will start on the left, and with Cameron preoccupied on one flank and less potent offensively, particularly when there is ball-pressure, Johnson will be tasked to aid the Americans in attack. You can counter against the Ukrainians– France’s tie equalizer through Debuchy came largely because Ukraine had pushed extra bodies forward after working the ball up the flanks– but the passes must be quick and you have to overlap. Johnson is so much better when he can drift centrally and still play on his strong foot– how much he’s able to do that against Ukraine and not, say, Panama remains to be seen.
In the center of the field I’d expect Jermaine Jones and Danny Williams to start, although it wouldn’t shock me if Sacha Kljestan got the call. Kljestan is far more capable than Danny Williams in mixing up distributions, and you can’t (or likely won’t) break down the organized Ukrainians through short distributions alone. Indeed, it was Matthew Valbuena’s ability to mix things up that gave France the confidence it needed to secure the first two goals in the home leg of the World Cup playoff, and while I’m not about to compare Kljestan to Valbuena, who France simply can’t win without, I’ll say that on this roster with Diskerud out of the picture that’s the best chance for the US to score a goal with extended build-up.
The problem with playing Kljestan is what it demands of Jermaine Jones- read: is it sensible to utilize Jermaine Jones as a defensive/holder to help Geoff Cameron contain Konoplyanka or does it make more sense to give Danny Williams the extended look there? We think the latter, not just because Williams is playing well at Reading and it’s Klinsmann’s last real chance to give him a look, but also because it makes more sense tactically to keep Jones moving forward and hope he can make enough of the right passes to get the US moving in attack.
The Americans will likely deploy Ale Bedoya on the right side of the pitch and hope he can do enough work, both helping Geoff Cameron with overlapping fullback Vyacheslav Shevchuck (assuming Fomenko keeps his left back from the France matches in the starting eleven) defensively and offensively, where he will have all sorts of freedom to make the passes with Clint Dempsey and an incutting…
Aron Johannsson, who should start on the other side of the pitch. Johannsson is in form (obviously), but he also gives the Americans a versatile threat from width they haven’t really had since young Landon Donovan took the world by storm in Korea nearly a decade ago. Johannsson can beat you on the blow-by because he’s fairly tidy and quick on the ball, but he also can stretch you in the passing game or incut and pressure an uninspiring Ukrainian CB pairing of Yevhen Khachiridi (whose mind-numbing red card after a tackle on Franck Ribery sealed Ukraine’s fate in the World Cup playoff) and Oleksandr Kucher, who is spelling the only starter missing from Ukraine’s preferred eleven, Vitaliy Mandziuk.
Up top- it’s plain go time for the much-maligned Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey. It is frightening that the only two American players (save Chris Wondolowski and Landon Donovan, Gold Cup, last summer) who have really been able to score goals for the Yanks in the last two years are both mired in terrible slumps. There’s no reason to have faith in Clint Dempsey except for his experience, so we’ll do that, and focus our concern on Altidore.
Jozy has a bit of “Good, not Great Scorer’s” syndrome– the disease that afflicts stars in any sport who score a lot of goals/points in bunches. When things are going well for Altidore, it elevates the rest of his game– remember his hold-up play late in the World Cup cycle– so much more composed, so much more effort, even more ideas? And remember that sterling free kick in Sarejevo? And remember him tracking back, Herculez Gomez style, in Columbus? That’s infectious and when Altidore is right and scoring he tends to do the other things better too. Good scorers and players do this in bunches. The great ones don’t let their failures in one area impact their play in other areas. Here’s hoping the US get a full-throttled effort from Altidore tomorrow. The funny thing (sensible, really) is that when you do the other things well, the goals tend to follow.
And what will we see out of Ukraine?
Well, the USMNT vs. Eastern European team on foreign soil should be in full effect, meaning what we’ll see is a lot of goals, but those goals will be answered by the Yanks in what turns out to be an incredibly open and exciting match. And this is not coming from analysis. This is coming from USMNT matches against Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia, and Slovenia (twice!)
The newly Shevchenko-less Ukrainian national team a duo of talented inverted wingers/forwards: Meet Andriy Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka, and watch this video!.
After narrowly missing on the World Cup in 2010, Ukraine reverted to an older team for EURO 2012 and the results were poor enough on home soil for the Ukrainian FA to essentially rush the youth movement forward about a half-cycle with an eye on Brazil. The Ukrainians were ninety minutes from the World Cup before an ill-timed red card and a sublime Matthew Valbuena and Franck Ribery halted those dreams, but the future on the footballing side of things is bright even as the country politically is mired in a dark storm.
We’ve written above about what Yevhen Konoplyanka is capable of, and there is an outstanding tactical breakdown of the Ukrainian attack in the always excellent Shin Guardian match preview linked here. That said, we’ll touch briefly on right winger Andriy Yarmolenko, who had Ukraine’s best chances against France in Paris this November and, to be fair, was a Mathieu Debuchy “on the goalline” save away from giving Ukraine a 3-2 lead just before the half of the second leg. Yarmolenko has no weak leg, having been trained on both sides as a youth player, and is particularly dynamic when he’s able to intercept and initiate counters (the defensive training comes in handy), so the US (READ: JERMAINE JONES POINTLESS TURNOVER ALERT!!)will need to be careful not to give up the ball when it moves toward Yarmolenko’s flank. Yarmolenko would prefer to hug the touchline as far down the pitch as he can, but he’s adept at drifting inward when need be, though largely, in limited film study, this is to keep defenses honest.
In the center of the pitch, Ukraine likes to utilize Roslan Rotan in a more advanced spot, with a trailing holder– either longtime captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk or youngster Taras Stepanenko. It’s worth noting that another key member of Ukraine’s youth movement, Dynamo Kiev’s Denys Harmash, is also in camp and he could find himself in Rotan’s role, meaning either Rotan is bumped forward behind the aforementioned striker Roman Zozulya or Rotan is out and veteran Edmar, who got the nod behind the target forward in the France fixtures, gets the call. Roman Bezus is also adept at playing that role or featuring up top (where he plays for his club), but he’s shown on the wing of late for Ukraine, featuring there with a tucked in Konoplyanka against France, and it remains to be seen whether that was a temporary tactical maneuver or Bezus will play out wide and withdrawn (a bit like Eddie Johnson vs. Panama or the first half of the Bosnia and Herzegovina match) internationally moving forward. Zozulya, aka “Ukraine’s Wayne Rooney”, is pacy and can beat you on the dribble, but also a more than capable shooter from distance– the US will need to quickly close space when he’s outside the area.
As noted, the Ukrainians have a fairly capable set of fullbacks in Shevchuk and Yaroslav Rakytskiy, and they’ll charge forward on the overlap behind Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko and create havoc that will test the US backline, but they are weaker through the center, and Clint Dempsey’s ability to move off the ball is a stern challenge for the positionally-sound but not particularly quick Yevhen Khacheridi and the aging Oleksandr Kucher, who hasn’t started in a long while.
US Player to Watch: Geoff Cameron. Explained above. Nods to Danny Williams, John Brooks, Oguchi Onyewu, Jon Spector and Sacha Kljestan. Sense the trend there?
Ukrainian Player to Watch: Yevhen Konoplyanka. Explained above.
Prediction: US 2, Ukraine 1. The Ukrainians have vowed to play together and for a unified Ukraine, and it is admirable they are playing at all. Expect the US to keep with its recent trend against Eastern European sides: a slow start, a tactical adjustment, a moment or two of brilliance and a strong second half. If I were a betting man, I’d wager on a goal from Johannsson and a “Hello There!” substitute goal by Juan Agudelo, who has just the type of skillset to give the center of Ukraine’s defense fits.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.