Wednesday’s USMNT match will be a game of shadows.
The stratified and sweeping pall of turmoil dragging south from Ukraine, clinging to the nation’s players like a wet lapel in unrelenting snow.
The Ukrainian republic compacted in a beleaguered state of revolt, tamped down under the sole of the imperialistic whimsy of Vladamir Putin and Russia. And, as is such with many smaller Eastern European republics, the narrative of the national football team somehow gets interwoven tightly with the national dealings. This week–in fact yesterday–became an exercise is media manipulation as reports–
apparently perhaps erroneous–out of the former Soviet state claimed players unwilling or refusing to travel for competition.
More, European rags just two months ago were enlivened by the cartoonish words of recently-ousted Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych who shook his fist at none other than John Terry–yes freaking that John Terry–blaming the centerback for his country’s rickety state of affairs, sternly pointing to the Chelsea centerback cleaning a ball off his goal-line in a key Euro 2012 match and consequently dumping the Yellow-Blue out of the Euro championship tourney. That Euro championship of course was partly held on Ukraine soil in what now seems like a half-decade ago.
Many a fair accusation has been laid at the feet of the villainous English defender; this however is not remotely one of them.
[Note: Simon Schuster, Reporter for Time, is a must-follow on Twitter for events happening on the ground in the Ukraine.]
For the US, the theme is shadows too–none as magnanimous or important as the ones their opponents will tote with them, respectfully.
The States were expected to have a fairly rigorous test here as the World Cup countdown marched into double digits–playing Ukraine on their home pitch with a fairly flush US side.
However, injuries to Michael Bradley and even Tim Chandler–word was the Nurnberg man finally played his way back into contention–Mix Diskerud retained by his club and MLS’s season kickoff have conspired to further muddle the prospects of the match for the visiting side and making it more an individual player fact-finding mission.
The US training path wrapped through Frankfurt this week with some player story lines distilling into focus–none more omnipresent than Bayern II man Julian Green in camp for a look-see.
Another want-away refugee from what seems like a bottomless vat of German-American dual nationals, Green brings as much or more of the sizzle that American fans grasped at with the early reviews of Juan Agudelo in South Africa or YouTube watch sessions of Josh Gatt.
Green is already who we thought Charlie Davies might be–and then some.
Word around the camp is that US skipper Jurgen Klinsmann is dangling Brazil in front of Green, knowing that the 22nd-rostered man may or may not make a difference in South America, but the commitment could see Green blossom into a force come Russia 2018….if he chooses the red, white and blue.
A few other fresh and grizzled faces of note are in camp. Birmingham defender Will Packwood who just overcame a Bryan Oviedo-esque leg injury gets a look. Long time centerback Oguchi Onyewu, coming off an injury, is in camp and looking to scratch his way into May’s 30-man roster. RFK October 2009 seems like just yesterday.
Also, of note, leftback Edgar Castillo and left wing Brek Shea are both in camp and it sure looks like “a Klinsmann tell” here. With DaMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson already locked in to Rio, Castillo and Shea may be battling for the final southpaw role.
Likewise, Sacha Kljestan and Danny Williams (with Diskerud’s club embargo) may be battling for an ultimate look in midfield. Since Mo Edu has trailed off, the US has been desperately lacking a tracking central midfielder to guard against inverted wingers. (More here in a minute.)
Williams has a golden opportunity to put his star back on Klinsmann’s clipboard. Then again and once again, Alfredo Morales has somehow “earned” a call. Morales is to Klinsmann as Findley was to Bradley…or something like that.
Without further Freddy Adu, we get to our customary preview. This time it goes:
» About the Opponent: Ukraine
» TSG What We’re Looking For
» 11 At the Whistle
About The Opponent: Ukraine
Not only did Ukraine get bounced from their home Euros in 2012, but the former Soviet state is still smarting from getting knee-capped–hard–from a World Cup birth at the eleventh hour by a resilient French side just a few months ago. That loss all the more compounding as Ukraine bowed out in a similar style for a 2010 World Cup bid, succumbing to Greece on their home turf. Tragic poetry that you just cannot make up under present circumstances.
Irrespective of outcomes, Ukraine have been struggling since that 2010 qualification campaign to develop their style, but under former FC Dynamo Kyiv defender Mykhaylo Fomenko–their fifth manager in six years when he assumed the top spot in December 2012–the national team hopes are now at minimum flickering. It appears a committed youth movement is in flight. In fact, only one or two starters remain from the side that crashed out of the ill-fated 2012 Euro.
For USMNT watchers, most are pinning Ukraine as a warm-up for the States’ third group match against Germany in Brazil. However, a closer look at the Ukrainians unveils a side that is nearly identical to how the Portuguese play, replete with similar strengths and weaknesses.
Ukraine organizes well as most Eastern European sides do, explodes into attack on turnovers when it presses the opponents’ backline, but they can have difficulty breaking down good defensive sides.
For Ukraine, like Portugal, it all begins on the flanks in attack.
Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko, Ukraine’s Ronaldo and Nani in some one-two order.
Both are the future for Ukraine. They are both strong, technical inverted wingers who must be accounted for at all times.
Konoplyanka is arguably the chief conductor of the Ukraine attack. “Kono”–a Liverpool transfer target this past January and dubbed the “Ukrainian Messi”–actually plays like a sturdier version of Brazil’s Robinho, matching the Milan man’s skillset and uncanny ability to exploit space between the lines.
The winger can often be found looking to drive the touchline or tucking in centrally between the lines (above) and allowing for his left fullback to overlap. Those fond of the Robinho comparison will immediately recall Michel Bastos marauding down the flank as Robinho caused fits off the 18-yard hashmarks at World Cup 2010. (The Dutch remember.)
Kono is a spirited and well-balanced dribbler and Geoff Cameron’s movement and communication will be tested in handling him–especially in transitions. (More on the Cameron-Konoplyanka dynamic below.)
On the other wing is the Ukrainian Nani to continue the narrative and frankly mangle it a bit too.
Strong and stout at 6’2”, Andriy Yarmolenko actually plays a lot closer to another United player–an inverted Valencia. Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko both came up through the ranks together, but with Kono preferred at left wing, Yarmolenko was tried unsuccessfully at leftback before settling in on the right. (Look for the pair to switch if the opportunity or advantage presents itself Wednesday.)
On to Ukraine’s weaknesses which ape Portugal’s, keenly the lack of a true striker and central midfield management.
Up top, 23-year-old Roman Bezus has been demoing. He’s a fair if not freakish facsimile for Portugal’s Postiga. Bezus will be a nuisance for the uninitiated Onyewu-Brooks combo and can scurry through on probing balls on the floor but will get worked over if he needs to fend in the air. Think Soldado for Spurs if Postiga’s game play escapes you.
As for the midfield management, Ukraine can get caught in two mindsets that are as much the challenge of their tactics as of the players.
The formation will be labeled a classic 4-2-3-1 but how it truly plays is more of a 4-1-3-1-1.
In attack, it will likely be the aforementioned Bezus with veteran Ruslan Rotan pushed forward from his box-to-box role.
Rotan moved forward accounts for Denys Harmash to make the first eleven.
Harmash will be expected to form the base of the attacking midfield and has developed chemistry with Konoplayanka and Yarmolenka since the youth teams. Few discussions about the prospects of the Ukraine team begin without the mention of this trio.
Harmash will be backed by another youngster, Taras Stepanenko recently back from injury. The 24-year-old was thought to ooze potential but common thinking on the Shaktar player is that’s he up for nearly any one-vs-one battle, but is positionally naive or just negligent.
This is where Dempsey’s movement off Jozy Altidore–think Deuce against Panama in Seattle–
may should create a chance or two.
The fullbacks in the Ukrainian equation are the unspectacular Yevhen Khacheridi on the right and Yevhen Makarenko on the left. Khacheridi, of course, is the rightback who chopped down Ribery with 40 minutes to go in the French home-and-away elimination series to all but scuttle Ukraine’s bid for Brazil.
Makarenko–who should see his first cap–on the other hand has the homeland (as it much as it can be right now) buzzing. He’s Ukraine’s Josh Gatt so to speak–fast, fearless, but inexperienced.
The centerback pairing is Oleksandr Kucher and Yaroslav Rakytskiy.
And finally, at keeper is what should be a settled situation for Fomenko but is not (a courtesy to English journo-on-Ukraine John Bradley on Twitter for this intel).
Not traveling to Cyprus is Oleksandr Rybka who completed a two-year PED ban just days ago. By all accounts, Rybka is the future for Ukraine in goal but with less than two full matches since his ban ended, Fomenko went with Shakhtar Donetsk’s Andriy Pyatov–who comes with the memo, “Just shoot because you never know which way he’s blowing on the day.”
The Ukrainians–excepting a mindset that is likely worlds away from the match–will look to pressure high sporadically and create some chances.
When not commanding the run of play or pressing, Fomenko’s team will drop to a low block defense and look to swarm the ball once the US fullbacks have committed to being in possession at the top of the attacking third–it’s a defensive strategy that perennially gives the US fits.
In the back Oleksandr Kucher and Yaroslav Rakytskiy can sometimes be sucked in to trying to win aerial balls in their opponent’s defensive half. The young pair can be had with balls measured into space behind the them–that sound you heard was Aron Johannsson revving his engine.
Also, the Americans need to be wary of Ukraine’s set piece game–it’s less physically dominant than cunning.
The Ukrainians tend to take quick restarts looking for a down the line run when deep or for a quick switch or set play that catches the defense off guard. A gambling man would likely get good returns on betting Ukraine to get one on a restart or scrum after a restart.
The similarities to Portugal again are many.
TSG – What Are We Looking For
Cameron v. Konplyanka. UFC 238.
No one is Ronaldo and the Ukrainian Messi is certainly hyperbole, but Konoplyanka will ape Ronaldo well–a strong right-footed winger who is devastating coming off the left touchline. This is precisely the type of movement the US will need to solve in Game 2 in a few months and similar quick movement that has troubled Geoff Cameron at his rightback spot. (Remember this publication thinks Cameron should be inked in permanently at CB for the States and Stoke City though we’ll take him over all comers still at RB too.)
The first series of images here is from the US – Belgium friendly almost a year ago in Cleveland. Any defender asked to defend an international caliber forward in space will have a challenge as Cameron does here when Kevin Mirallas is floated an over-the-top ball. The sequence here leads to Mirallas gaining space centrally and Tim Howard spilling a Romelu Lukaku shot on a criss-cross run. Eden Hazard cleans up the mess for Belgium’s first goal on the evening.
Once again, just a month ago against Chelsea in the League Cup, Cameron is foiled–this time directly–by Hazard. Early in the game, Cameron closes aggressively on Hazard. The Belgium winger skips by him on his stronger right foot and buzzes centrally to create a chance.
It was the work of a pedestrian Andres Guardado in the US’s 0-0 draw in Mexico City that gave Klinsmann pause to anointing Cameron his rightback last year and Cameron–who has improved dramatically on the corner this year–still struggles with pacey wingers.
Of course, as is the change in state of the US team under Klinsmann, team defense, not emergency defense is the focal point. The US tries desperately to keep the ball off its weaker right flank early in the match. A situation above where Cameron is caught in space is already a breakdown of the defense ahead in defending the long pass. Continually, it’s the play of the defenders around Cameron who will be tasked with–and are just as culpable if–a breakdown occurs.
Wednesday that should be Danny Williams centrally and Oguchi Onyewu at centerback. This is where the US defense should be evaluated as well.
Take a look below at Konoplyana going up against England at the end of 2013.
In the first set of images, Kono has gotten loose with Steven Gerrard tracking him. This is good defense by the Three Lions here as Gerrard insures that a cutback doesn’t happen by playing almost behind Kono’s run. Gerrard knows it is Gary Cahill–not Jamie Carragher–helping over the top. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
In the second set of images here, Kyle Walker bites on the fullback overlap and Kono has a channel centrally. Whether Kono is respecting Walker’s speed, doesn’t like the look or whatever Kono fails to be aggressive and issues a relatively harmless entry pass that is well-defended.
Cameron vs. Kono will be the marquee match-up for Klinsmann’s staff Wednesday from the individual duel as well as the team defense. It’s one for fans to watch with Ronaldo dawning.
• Can you pass for a centerback?
It goes without saying that distribution is not at the top of the checklist for many a Yank centerback–save Matt Besler perhaps.
With the challenges of moving the ball and the desire to provide a layer of protection ahead of Tim Howard, Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley can often be found dropping deep, separately or in parallel, in hopes of grinding the attack into motion.
Wednesday will showcase Onyewu–a lead-footed passer–paired with John Brooks–smoother handles, but inexperienced. Like Portugal, Ukraine will jump on vertical passing mistakes. How will Gooch and Brooks fare? And will Jones have to drop deep and attempt hero balls to get the attack moving.
[The sound of a bunch of dishes crashing]
• “I hear you knocking, but you STILL can’t come in!”
The US has found its attack lacking on road in Europe lacking under Klinsmann, save the a wild result 4-3 result in Slovenia.
Call it a 4-4-2 contact high. Remember that?
As with any team that swarms at the top of its defensive third, the US will need to proactively find the passing triangles– yeah those things–and get the ball moving horizontally. In the land of gang tackle, the square pass is king–that made sense I swear when I wrote it.
Anywho, for this reason, the US Thomas Muller–look I’m going to beat the sh*t out of this comparison so deal with it–Aron Johansson. Johannsson will be instrumental in coming all the way across the field to support on the right flank and integral is allowing for Fabian Johnson’s overlaps on the left. Space monkey!
11 At The Whistle
G: Tim Howard
The skinny: Duh.
DEF: Geoff Cameron, Oguchi Onyewu, John Brooks, Fabian Johnson
The skinny: Some veteran European presence here….and that is important as the US will trot out “Not Michael Bradley” in the shield role. Geoff Cameron again here looks to wrest the RB job away from Brad Evans. Geoff Cameron again here looks to wrest the RB job away from Brad Evans. That’s not a typo–the Brad Evans thing always takes another minute to sink in.
Onyewu and Brooks should be aerially superior, but at times positionally-challenged. Omar Gonzalez has shown similarly, but with good emergency defending–will these guys?
And Fabian Johnson in what should be a freer and better role. Leftback certainly looks like Diamond McBeasley’s position to lose but with Johnson given rope to push up the flank he may pencil in a good camp battle with a solid showing against Yarmolenko.
CDM: Danny Williams
The skinny: Danny Williams is playing and playing well for Reading while Sacha Kljestan has been in and out of the line-up in Belgium.
Have you ever thought to yourself, “What happens is Geoff Cameron’s my rightback of choice and Michael Bradley gets Costa Rican’d in the first game?” I bet Klinsman has on his mind-clearing copter rides and so should you … so should you.
Welcome back Danny Williams. I bet you’d even take playing out at right mid again; wouldn’t you?
CM: Jermaine Jones
The skinny: ‘Sup Pharrell.
I love everything about Jermaine Jones’s instagram account and intensity …. and almost nothing about the way he starts off game. A 20-30′ JJ drinking game should get every US fans loose on Thursday.
Short pass to the opposition. Take a sip.
Long ball to where only Robbie Findley roams. Drink twice.
Frustration foul in the back. Pound it.
Shank to the ankle of the opposite #10 with a concealed weapon in his heal. Pound two. (Oh what, you don’t think that can’t happen?)
RM: Alejandro Bedoya
The skinny: TSG dubbed Ale Bedoya The Ambassador to Brazil way back in 2011. Looks like it’s coming good. We also thought that Robbie Rogers might surprise on the road to Brazil. Wrong category though.
Nice spotting by Dax McCarty to find Bedoya on the Oscar’s the other night by the way.
LM: Aron Jóhannsson
The skinny: This is a bit of a stab here, but it makes some sense. Johannson is on form. Moves well laterally and will be asked to come centrally to support Dempsey in the attack.
If it’s not Johannsson, expect it to be Fabian Johnson in the midfield with Edgar Castillo behind him.
CM: Clint Dempsey
The skinny: Paging Clinton Drew. Clinton Drew. Will Clint Dempsey please report to the pitch in 2014 and “TRY SOME SH*T!”
How do you think Don Garber feels about dollars recouped from Dempsey’s Fulham spell? It’s almost like getting comped at the casino. “Oh I’m sorry, you lost $1200, but here take a watered down Jack & Coke and please do come back.”
STR: Jozy Altidore
The skinny: I actually subscribe to the theory that Jozy’s education in hard knocks at Sunderland is better than tapping in shots in the Eredivisie.
Elsewhere: ESPN’s Rog Bennett with a cool retrospective on the 1994 World Cup.