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Godfrey's Column

5 Thoughts Ahead of the U.S.—Ukraine Friendly

Given the turmoil in Ukraine, it's hard to believe that this match will be played. But if it does go forward, Jurgen Klinsmann will have a tremendous opportunity to assess his team ahead of the 2014 World Cup.
BY John Godfrey Posted
March 04, 2014
5:40 PM
WITH ANY LUCK Wednesday's friendly between the United States and Ukraine (2 p.m. ET; ESPN2 and UniMas) in Larnaca, Cyprus, will give Ukrainians a brief moment of distraction, and perhaps even a little bit of joy, as the country deals with increasing tensions, armed occupation, and talk of civil war.

Ordinarily I don't take a rooting interest in soccer matches, but these aren't ordinary times. I have to say I wouldn't mind if Ukraine pulled out a victory against the Yanks tomorrow—they need it more than we do right now.

Which is not to say that United States men's soccer coach Jurgen Klinsmann shouldn't put this exhibition against the No. 18 team in the world to good use. He should. And I'm willing to bet he will.

Klinsmann will no doubt have a long list of things he wants to see in this match. My list is limited to five, and here they are.

1. Build the Backline around Geoff Cameron

Geoff Cameron’s versatility is both his strongest attribute and his greatest liability. Because he can play anywhere along the backline—and even in a holding midfield role—Klinsmann has made Cameron the Bert Campaneris of the U.S. national side.

The problem is, Cameron should be treated less like a utility infielder and more like Reggie Jackson. He’s the most talented player on the backline, he’s in great form, and he deserves a chance to claim a position as his own.

Is that position right back? You could certainly make a case for it, as Cameron has played consistently well at that spot for Stoke City. Is it a central defending role? That’s another viable option, and apparently Cameron’s preference.

Regardless, three months out from the 2014 World Cup, it’s time to give Cameron a set position and build the rest of the backline around him. Unlike Omar Gonzaelez and Matt Besler, Cameron has pushed himself to play at the highest-possible level. Unlike Brad Evans and DaMarcus Beasley, Cameron does not play in the midfield for his club. So why not make him the priority?

Klinsmann will be missing many of his top defenders for the Ukraine match, and will no doubt be tempted to place Cameron in a position that will give the U.S. the best chance to win. The U.S. coach should fight that urge and give Cameron 90 minutes at the position he expects him to play in Brazil. Defensive continuity and stability is a much higher priority than a result against Ukraine.

2. Dempsey: What’s the Dang Deal?

Clint Dempsey, once the crown jewel of the U.S. soccer player pool, seems a mere shadow of his former self. A year ago he played for one of the top teams in Europe and was far and away the best player on the U.S. national team.

These days? Not so much.

Since June 2013 Dempsey has scored just twice—once for the U.S. and once for his new club, the Seattle Sounders.

Has he lost a step? More importantly, has he lost that relentless drive that made him one of the most exciting Americans ever to step on a soccer pitch?

Dempsey’s torpid, goal-free, two-month stay at Fulham didn’t answer either question, but some of the disappointment associated with his loan deal can be attributed to the coaching change at Craven Cottage and the fact that Dempsey was never going to be a part of Fulham’s long-term plans. The Texas native is absolutely essential to Klinsmann’s World Cup plans, however, and he should be expected to play a central role against Ukraine.

What will the U.S. captain do with this opportunity? Can he still put his stamp on a game against top-level international competition? Does he still have that snarl? If so, I want to see it.

A strong showing against Ukraine would go a long way toward building Dempsey's confidence, and giving American soccer supporters a sense of what they can expect from their captain as the World Cup approaches.

3. Is Klinsmann Set on a 4-2-3-1?
According to the U.S. Soccer Federation, Klinsmann used a 4-2-3-1 formation 14 times in 2013, resulting in 10 wins, two draws, and two losses—pretty impressive stuff. The U.S. coach also used a 4-5-1 twice last year, and won both contests. That’s 14 positive results in 16 matches featuring a single-striker setup.

I expect to see more of the same against Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I feel strongly that the U.S. talent pool would be better served with a two-striker setup—4-1-3-2 or 4-4-2—and if Klinsmann rolled out either formation against Ukraine it would suggest that the coach is at least considering something other than his preferred 4-2-3-1.

Why don’t I like a single-striker formation? Because Jozy Altidore, the undisputed first-choice forward on the team, often struggles when isolated up top. Altidore is not a true target forward, as he rarely wins aerial battles and isn’t particularly adept at hold-up play. Altidore is not likely to outpace most top-flight defensemen either, so opponents don’t have to constantly worry that he will slip in behind them.

Instead, Altidore thrives making quick exchanges with other attack-minded players, working the give-and-go, and using his strength to create space in front of goal. But when he’s 20 or 30 yards away from his closest teammate, these considerable attributes are mostly neutralized.

If Brian McBride—a maestro in the air and a tireless runner—was still around for the U.S., by all means, send him out on his own. But that’s not Altidore’s game.

Here’s a better idea: Start Altidore and Aron Johannsson up top in a 4-1-3-2. Altidore and Johannsson can work on building some chemistry ahead of Brazil, and the U.S. can fine-tune a dual-striker approach that will give Ghana, Portugal, and Germany something to worry about for 90 minutes.

4. It’s Decision Time on Danny Williams

In January 2013 Danny Williams was ranked ninth in the ASN 100 and seemed like a shoo-in—and likely even a starter—for the 2014 World Cup.

But then he got injured and missed the final three months of the Bundesliga season, as well as some key U.S. qualifiers. Sensing a better opportunity abroad, Williams left Hoffenheim last summer and joined Reading in the English Championship. But injury woes followed him to the U.K. and delayed his emergence there.

Yep—2013 was a terrible year for Williams.

But 2014, it has to be said, is looking much better. Williams is healthy again, he’s a first-team regular for Reading, and on Wednesday he has a chance to show Klinsmann that he deserves a seat on the plane to Brazil. With Michael Bradley opting to stay in Toronto and prepare for the coming MLS season and Mix Diskerud unavailable, Williams could start alongside Jermaine Jones in the midfield against Ukraine. If that happens, Williams has a tremendous opportunity to stake a claim for a roster spot.

I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Williams has a big game, and earns his way onto the team.

5. Hey Julian—Let's Keep in Touch
Eighteen-year-old Bayern Munich forward Julian Green trained with the U.S. national team ahead of Wednesday’s friendly against Ukraine. According to U.S. Soccer, Green, a dual-nationality German-American, is not authorized to play in the contest.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t be wooed.

“We have our eyes on the 2014 World Cup in Brazil,” Klinsmann said. “We also have our eyes on developing the next generation of players, and Julian is a very important part of that.”

Jurgen Klinsmann never wastes a calorie, a word, or an opportunity to improve his team, and Green’s inclusion in U.S. camp gave U.S. players and coaches a chance to put their arms around Green, make him feel special, and subtly suggest he consider playing for the United States.

It doesn’t hurt that Klinsmann called in six German-American players for this match: Terrence Boyd, John Brooks, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, Alfredo Morales, and Williams. This was the perfect time for bonds to take shape, allegiances to be formed, relationships to be built. Here’s hoping the U.S. gave Mr. Green plenty to think about as he headed back to Munich.

OK, your turn. I want to hear your thoughts on my thoughts. The comments section is yours to do with as you see fit.

John Godfrey is the founder and editor in chief of American Soccer Now. Like the U.S. national team, he is going to Brazil.

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