The United States A- team is in Sarajevo today as they prepare for tomorrow’s encounter with the Dragons of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
This will be the US’s first action since its successful Gold Cup run last month, but rather than trying to keep building the momentum of the Costa Rican snowball here in the Balkans, this US camp is really more about getting under the hood on a few players, specifically two dual nationals who may contribute as early as September to the US qualifying engine: Aron Jóhannsson and John Brooks.
The former–Jóhannsson–caused a ruckus a few weeks ago when he melted the hearts of Americans by decoupling from his “native” Iceland and declaring himself eligible for the States.
Jóhannsson who is Jozy Altidore’s successor at Eredivisie outfit AZ Alkmaar, filed his one-time switch and is hoping to give the US another option in attack in tandem with either Altidore or Clint Dempsey going forward in qualifying.
The latter–Brooks—has US fans frothing something awesome–for most, though, sight unseen. A rundown of his data is enough to pique even the casual fan’s interest: 6’4”, centerback, 20-years-old, southpaw, handling like a top-of-the line Corvette, scoring touch. It’s like someone ran Oguchi Onyewu through a Bayern Munich car wash a few times.
Beyond the awaited debuts of the dual nationals, the US will take on a Bosnian side that is brimming with talent. Most of the heavies are rallying for this one, including: Manchester City’s Edin Džeko, Stuttgart’s Vedad Ibišević, Roma’s Miralem Pjanić and Leverkusen’s Emir Spahić. While the game is a friendly, the US nevertheless sit 19th in the FIFA rankings while Bosnia sit in 13th. So a win for either side–extrapolating broadly–could affect group placement at Brazil 2014.
The US will need to rely on the strength of their midfield fulcrum–Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley–who will have to do yoeman’s work to marshall the integration of a number of new faces and remain compact against a team that can punish them on their home court.
Without further Freddy Adu, we get to the mini-preview. It goes this time:
About the Opponent: Bosnia & Herzegovina
States’ Keys To the Match
TSG: What We’re Looking For
11 At The Whistle
Bosnia devalues Greece’s World Cup bid dropping a 3-1 in a World Cup qualifying (May 2013)
About The Opponent: Bosnia-Herzegovina
Bosnia & Herzegovina is a tricky Euro side and one that is on the brink of qualifying for their first major tournament, Brazil 2014.
B&H (we’ll use this for short, no disrespect) can be considered similar to many Eastern European sides–good discipline, attractive football at times, difficulty at time augmenting their plan in-game.
However, there is also a bit of a Belgium-feel to the team. They are a team of superstars–many of whom have been playing together through the trials of Portugal (losses in 2010 World Cup qualifying and Euro 2012 qualifying still stinging from the buzzing Ronaldo) and many who developed outside of the country’s borders.
For this match, veteran coach Safet Sušić, the steward since 2009, has called in most of his veterans. Each match counts to gain reps and test new things as the margin to qualify in Europe is razor thin.
The Dragons will roll out in a formation that looks very similar to the US thus presenting this as a war of attrition. B&H will oscillate between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 depending on personnel.
For the Dragons, Geoff Cameron’s Stoke City mate Asmir Begović will man the sticks. He’s the undisputed first stringer and, at 26, is teetering at the prime of his career.
The centerback pairing may be Leverkusen mainstay and B&H captain Emir Spahić (good luck getting through him) with Gent’s Ervin Zukanović as the complement.
At the corners, first choice rightback Freiburg’s Mensur Mujdža, sustained an injury over the weekend and withdrew from the camp. Mujdža is a fan favorite–a player who excels in 1v1 defense and is adept at getting forward when called upon. His loss should be the States’ gain on that flank.
The deputy may be Ermin Bičakčić. Bičakčić, a German dual national, is the big newcomer in this camp–no caps notched on his belt–and the expectation is for him to get the runout and see if he can prove worthy for first team time at 23. A centerback by trade, with Mujdza out, Bičakčić should slide to rightback. (Note: Bičakčić still needs to file his one-time switch, but is expected to play.)
Like the US, B&H will push higher on the left as their choice of leftbacks, Hoffenheim’s Sejad Salihović or Lazio’s Senad Lulić are both club midfielders, wingbacks at best. Lulić in fact has played mostly at left wing until recently for Sušić and will likely aid in the attack so Salihović gets the nod.
The central midfield will be hubbed by Elvir Rahimić–who will drop deep, almost sweeper deep in a Kyle Beckerman-esque role. The towering 37-year-old counts over 230 games played at Russian CSKA Moscow on his resume. (Note: It’s toss-up whether Rahimić starts or his battery mate when in a 4-2-3-1, Bochum’s Adnan Zahirović, is on the team sheet first.)
Zvjezdan Misimović will play ahead of him–sort of like Bradley when Cameron is inserted for the Yanks–with Lulić likely playing slightly left.
And as for Lulic here’s what a Lazio follower, Ryan Hall, had to say about the player nicknamed “The Train” in Serie A, “Lulić is a beast! My .02: Kind of a poor man’s Gareth Bale.” Hyperbole? You be the judge.
At RM in the #7 role is Michael Bradley’s Roma teammate (for now), Miralem Pjanić who is rumored to be headed to Spurs. Pjanić though is a very deliberate player who would appear to mesh with Serie A’s more technical and admittedly slower game tempo. If Pjanić gets loose between the lines against the States, a nouveau CB pairing for the States will find themselves staring a playmaker with two highly capable options ahead of him that again could cause some “Belgium-like” problems for the States.
The more well known of Pjanic’s options is Man City’s mercurial striker Edin Džeko. Džeko is adored by the home crowd and, like his efforts at City, when he’s motivated the whole team falls in synch behind him. Džeko is big, strong, technical and liable to go Luis Fabiano-versus-Jay-DeMerit on either of the Yanks’ centerbacks.
Lining up with Džeko will be Stuttgart’s Vedad Ibišević with even money odds to score against the Americans. Bundesliga follower Phil Neezy said this about Ibišević on Twitter, “[I] feel like he’s always going to try to outwork you and find the spot to score a goal. Can score in bunches. Streaky.” Ibišević is precisely the type of player that has given the US trouble running off the shoulders of the backline… like Bengston did for Honduras or Zelaya did most recently for El Salvador. He can find the spots and he’s constantly moving.
States Keys To The Match:
» The midfield pairing of Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley must boss and dictate the game. The US central midfield duo is better physically than their counterparts. They should be able to own and direct traffic in those areas.
» Find Pjanić as soon as the ball turns, but manage the deep service of Misimovic. The Roma playmaker Pjanic is so good at finding space–a little Werder Bremen Diego-like if you will–just aft of the opponent’s midfield. Bradley will likely track Pjanić and needs to snuff out the lead pass to him. Continually, this means Jermaine Jones needs to step up on Misimovic who will look ping balls ahead to Džeko and Ibišević.
» Push left per usual and hit at the newbie Bičakčić. Pjanić often wanders to find space. Bičakčić is new and the only true weak link on the Bosnian backline. The US has proven adept at attacking down that flank. Make it business as usual and gain the corner.
» Contain Eden Džeko, but also manage the forward runners off him. Good luck Geoff Cameron and John Brooks. Try to avoid the Sportscenter Not-Top-10.
(For more on the Bosnian team and another good read, this here from the Bosnian point of view.)
TSG: What Are We Looking For:
Is it time for US fans to put the centerback disappointments of yesteryear behind them and get busy living? Hertha Berlin BSC’s John Brooks represents the future and just may represent the present as well for Klinsmann’s US side.
The Hertha Berlin product was tabbed by noted American soccer journo Brian Sciaretta as his top prospect as far back as the spring of 2011. If you recall, this is the same stretch where fans gushed a little more rhapsodic about the likes of Tim Chandler and Juan Agudelo.
Brooks, the son of a US serviceman, came up through the Hertha academy and graduated to Hertha’s first team last year as the club graduated from a temporary drop back to the Bundesliga 2. With Hertha promoted, Brooks will thus get first team Bundesliga reps at centerback this year. That puts the 6’4” lithe back at the top of the US CB class based on relative level of competition.
The lefty should start for the US on Wednesday and, should he impress, may domino a reconfiguration in the middle of the backline–personnel-wise and tactically–for the States.
It’s been well shown by the US, that they’re using the rear distribution of DaMarcus Beasley and, at times, Matt Besler on the left as the first-choice option for building out of the back.
Besler has been excellent–minus two or three giveaways–in this regard.
However, Besler has also been the line caller for the US, often staying at home as Clarence Goodson or Omar Gonzalez wander forward to keep high pressure on the opponent’s target striker and win aerial duals on clearances by the opponent.
With Brooks potentially taking a run at the LCB position, the US could push forward more on the left where there wide fullback–Beasley or FJ–is often getting forward. It’s merely a different look for the US and one that would then force some MF point-of-attack movement ahead of it. The diagram on the left speaks to the flip-flopping positionally of the CBs–pending Brooks’ use–and begs the question of whether the #6 moves laterally more to the right flank (which could, in theory, improve possession up that side out of the back as well).
Further with Brooks pushing on the left, it may open up the US to play Geoff Cameron as a parter on the right. With Brooks in the line-up, Goodson and Omar’s high pressure- aerial ability would–conceivably–be less important.
Of course, a single USMNT observation does not a Best XI selection make, but the contradictory talents of Besler and Brooks would create a number of new options for the US coaching staff.
Continually, if the belief is that Geoff Cameron and John Brooks are potentially the best US defenders and likely to get reps against better competition this year than Gonzalez, Goodson and Besler, then it’s not only Brooks’ entrance on Wednesday but the pairing with Cameron that should be under the microscope.
(Note: There is a precedent for a player of Brooks’ “immaturity” to play in the World Cup. Danish centerback and current Ligue 1 player Simon Kjær started the first two group games for Denmark in South Africa in 2010. His play was widely lauded; he sat the third game with card accumulation.)
» The Button-Down Chessmatch
One can imagine that the duel for playing time at RB between Brad Evans and Michael Parkhurst as two chess players quietly contemplating their next move, studiously scanning the board to avoid making mistakes (as both do on the field) and pensively going over attack options before going forward.
The battle of the two rightbacks often considered “just not physically good enough to play in Brazil, but ‘students of the game'” has quietly been percolating. Parkhurst manned the right flank for the US at the end of the last round of qualifying, spelling Steve Cherundolo as necessary. Then in came Brad Evans–much to the chagrin of many–for the lengthy friendly and qualifying series in June. Evans banged home with the game winner against Jamaica and bent, but didn’t break against Panama and Honduras.
With that move–Evan’s threatening Parkhurst on the board–the Seattle captain made himself a viable candidate for a 2014 ticket.
Not to be outdone, Parkhurst stewarded the US through their Gold Cup straits at rightback. Though he faced inferior competition, Parkhurst was still nevertheless nearly flawless in his backline work.
Thursday represents another good test and it should be Evans–
who has yet to play Euro competition–who gets the call. Bosnia, like the States, attacks frequently up the left side so Evans’s–or Parkhurst’s–ability to hold against more formidable competition will key to the US maintaining defensive integrity. (Taylor Twellman notes to me that Evans did play the friendly against Germany.)
Getting back to their physical ceilings, it’d be tough to expect the US to carry both on their 23-man next summer. That said, Tim Chandler looks to be staring in from the periphery right now, shrouded in a semi-opaque oleo of fear of flying and low commitment level. Steve Cherundolo will be 35 at next year’s World Cup and the odds of a Giovanni Van Bronckhorst (me oh my!) run through the competition are tempered with the data that he came up gimpy in the critical final game after five games at the 2011 Gold Cup.
So for now, the battle of Evans v. Parkhurst is a battle for starter’s minutes.
»» Aron Johannson’s one-time switch the States is now approved. He will likely feature in the match tomorrow for the Yanks.
»» Will Sacha Kljestan, whose father grew up two hours from Wednesday’s match stadium, get a chance to wave to the crowd?
»» Who plays from the Americas contingent? It seems a lock that Eddie Johnson, Brad Evans and Edgar Castillo aren’t making a length trip just to get a few minutes.
11 at The Whistle
G: Tim Howard
The skinny: There is none. Fresh fish Cody Cropper has hair. Learn the ways of the US keeper Jedi young chap. Then you may play. Tim Howard and Brad Guzan are likely both a tad more focused on the start of what will be critical EPL campaigns for both of them.
DEF: Brad Evans, Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Fabian Johnson
The skinny: A toss-up between Parkhurst and Evans, but with Evans fit
and not having got a runout versus a quality side, he gets the nod. Fabian Johnson slots back to leftback. It’s a night game for him, so odds are that he’s more impressive. Fab J no like day games in the heat.
CM: Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones
The skinny: Win the battle, but for Jones keep battling the Freelance Monster that seems to come out of his closet on USMNT game days.
LM/CAM/RM: Alejandro Bedoya, Mix Diskerud, Eddie Johnson
The skinny: Count TSG not in the Diskerud camp just yet, so if this start comes to fruition–it may be Corona in the middle–then this is his chance to impress. Mix will be pushed up the field which will help with his defensive responsibilities, but he’ll need to be effective in distribution if this is the calling.
STR: Jozy Altidore
The skinny: Playing against the B&H backline should be just the right physicality level for Altidore who will be hit with some harder defense each week in the Premiership than he did in the Eredivisie.