How quickly things can change in the world of international soccer, especially when you change the lens through which you perceive success. Last month we were staring at a couple key games that could have seen The Yanks eliminated from the 2014 World Cup before even reaching the final hexagonal round of qualifying, but this week I’m getting emails from US Soccer telling me the USMNT could finish 2012 with the team’s highest ever winning percentage. Suddenly the narrative has shifted from grave concern, to adding a third marquee away win to the historic (exhibition) triumphs in Italy and Mexico.
This shifting of perspective makes sense, and not just from a PR standpoint. It’s the harsh reality that a small sample size imposes on the international game. And while a relatively low number of incredibly important games can be a dangerous proposition, it also adds fuel to the argument that a dark horse team like the US could actually win the World Cup in my lifetime.
But first it’s Russia on their home turf, as winter approaches, which is nothing to sneeze at, friendly or otherwise. History is littered with ambitious types invading Russia and seeking historic results as winter rustles itself from slumber. And unless your Rocky Balboa, history is littered with failure in those scenarios. It’s the Cold War on nearly frozen grass if you’re into 20 year old storylines like I am.
The Series: The United States has never defeated Russia in soccer, at 0-2-2 all-time. US Soccer did a nice retrospective in its pre-match collection on the last (and only) US team to engage Russia on their soil- a 2-0 defeat in 2000. Look at the US Roster that day, featuring a young(ish) Claudio Reyna, Frankie Hejduk and Brian McBride– and try to tell me the federation hasn’t made leaps in class over the last decade. For those of you curious, the Americans never beat the Soviet Union either– going 0-3-1 dating back to 1979. That puts the total at 5-0-3 for the artists formerly known as the CCCP. Roger Bennett’s piece at ESPN outlines the rather dormant, but no less chilly and fascinating, tale of the US-Russia soccer rivalry. The Wynalda quotes are golden.
Weather: Cold, of course. 40 degrees, a bit breezy and humid (read: damp cold) at kick.
Television: ESPN 2, 10 AM (ESPN 3)
What will we see out of The Yanks?
Wednesday should be winger tryout day in Krasnodar, and that’s a good thing. Jurgen Klinsmann’s system, even when he plays a formation with two strikers up top, is built on sustaining attacks and ball possession through width, speed, and quality. That makes the wide midfielders and wing forwards very important to this scheme. So who we got?
We’ve got one guy that’s proven he deserves to be there and doesn’t come with a whole bunch of built-in questions. I’m lookin’ at TYAC darling Graham Zusi. Everyone else with real first team experience has an asterisk by their name for one reason or another. Landon Donovan’s USMNT future is up in the air, Sacha Kljestan and José Francisco Torres aren’t natural wingers, Brek Shea’s gotta look up “defending” in the dictionary and has a nasty gash on his foot, and Stuart Holden is injured forever.
This lack of real entrenched starters has opened the door for new blood out wide, and Joe Gyau, Josh Gatt, and Mixx Diskerud should have the opportunity to shine against Russia. At least one of that group should get a start (probably Gatt), and hopefully all three will see significant time in this match. They’ll also be buoyed by the talent and experience around them. Germericans Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson will likely man the defensive wings, and Michael Bradley will be an available security blanket in the center of the pitch. All in all, a good environment for young wingers to try and prove themselves.
This is especially true given our traditional short-camp tactical analysis caveat: these friendlies with shortened camps don’t provide great opportunities for tactical experimentation, because, obviously, the camps are too short to implement much of anything. They also aren’t really a great breeding ground for system implementation, because often times the folks called in are there to get “a look” that has previously been too brief or has not yet occurred. So tactics take a bit of a backseat to the usefulness of evaluating individuals and building chemistry within the larger pool. The more combinations you try, the better the players get to know each other, etc.
Of those mentioned above, Joe Gyau would appear to have the longest to go, though with the largest upside. On loan at St. Pauli’s from Hoffenheim, he plays regularly, but there’s a lot in front of him at the top division and the move is surely temporary. Josh Gatt is the most stable, playing consistently(and not on loan!!) for Norwegian Champions League qualifier Molde. Gatt brings blinding pace, composure on the ball and a knack for finding himself in good positions– and given his consistent role on a winning team, he seems to have the most at stake tomorrow evening (morning), especially given the barren cupboard at right wing.
Fortunately, if all experiments fail, there’s still MB 90.
What to watch for from Russia:
The Russian’s have been training for this match with the use of ahead-of-its time late 1980’s technology, so it’s going to be a tough task for The Yanks who have been growing beards and training in the snowy wilds of Siberia. We hear rumors of MB 90 killing a moose with his bare left foot, but… You didn’t think you were getting through this USA/Russia preview without a Rocky IV reference did you?
This Russian team is still in transition, from the old guard of Arshavin and Pavlyuchenko to a slew of new attacking talent, and from the Dutch coaching guard of Hiddink and Advocaat to Fabio Capello. But one constant has carried over from Advocaat to Capello, and in a big way. The Russian counterattack by itself is enough to beat even very good international sides. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s a fullback, midfielder, or striker getting forward, they always do it with speed, and they’ve always got help on the way. Even more impressive, Russia passes really well on the counterattack despite the high speed, and they don’t overpass, always generating a good chance on goal before the defense has time to get back.
US Player to Watch: Jermaine Jones/Danny Williams
The fun thing to do here is to pick Timothy “now that Germany doesn’t want me…” Chandler. Read about that here. Then be sensible. The Russian counterattack is reason enough to make the USMNT’s starting defensive midfielder my US Player to Watch (change “Jermaine Jones” to “Danny Williams” if Klinsy starts the teacher’s pet). Both teams should have a good share of the possession in this match, but Jermaine can’t afford to get too involved in helping build the US attack in the final third. He’ll have to be vigilant in his defensive positioning to avoid getting caught out by the Russian speed. This is especially critical if the Americans decide to play high up the field as they did in Paris, pressing the issue. One would expect they will– this is, after all, what Klinsmann wants to do against better international sides, regardless of venue– to do it, however, will require responsibility, something Jones occasionally leaves in the hotel room. One lob from somewhere close to underrated goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev and the red team could be in business, especially with US fullbacks Johnson and Chandler constantly overlapping the midfield and getting forward. The Yanks’ solo defensive midfielder will have a thankless job on Wednesday, but it will be absolutely necessary if the US is to get a result in this match.
Russian Player to Watch: Alan Dzagoev
He’s in the middle, he’s on the side, he’s all over the pitch, and he’s only 22. The versatile and always dangerous attacking midfielder Alan Dzagoev might as well be the mascot for a group of young Russian players that US soccer fans are about the get to know a lot better. Dzagoev should be loving life under Fabio Capello after struggling everyday to break through Dick Advocaat’s well documented Zenit Saint Petersburg bias as a CSKA Moscow player.
Think Frank Lampard plus speed, and be wary of Alan Dzagoev.
Prediction: Russia 2 – 2 USA
Jozy Altidore scores. I’m really getting sick of predicting that and it not coming true. Thankfully, this match is “on continent” in Europe where Altidore seemingly has special powers as of late. Jozy gets a goal, finally.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!
Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of the Yanks Are Coming. You can e-mail him at email@example.com and you should follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.