USA fail to impress in 2-0 exhibition loss to Ukraine

March 5th, 2014

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The United States men’s national team slumped to the occasion in their 2-0 loss to Ukraine in a friendly marred by circumstances on Wednesday. Goals from Andriy Yarmolenko and Marko Devic dealt Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad a harsh blow in a wholly deserved loss. It was the final game in which Klinsmann had his European-based players at his disposal before convening his World Cup camp in mid-May, and he cannot have been pleased with what he saw.

"This game helped us a lot to see where individual players are, collectively where we stand with this group of players," Klinsmann said on ESPN after the match. "Obviously we had to form a couple of new things there, starting from the back line — and you could see that, that they never played together that much."

His motley USA side, comprised of a few regulars and a slew of players on the bubble, were outsmarted by a cunning Ukrainian side. Knowing full-well where the Americans were weak, Yarmolenko and Yevhen Konoplyanka tore their flanks to shreds while the high defensive line was pelted with through balls.

The tentative American defense let the Ukrainians stroll through its line several times early on. In the 12th minute, a simple ball over the top caught the central defensive pairing of Oguchi Onyewu and John Brooks well out of position. That put Denys Harmash through on Tim Howard’s goal by himself. The American goalkeeper made a fine stop on his attempt, but Harmash coolly collected the rebound and laid it wide for Yarmolenko for him to pass the ball into the net.

Just a few minutes later, the Americans were caught out again on a clever play off a Ukrainian corner, but they were saved by a possibly erroneous offside call that time – Alejandro Bedoya actually appeared to keep the play onside. Sloppy and unimaginative in possession, the Yanks produced just two attacks of note in the entire first half. On the first, goalkeeper Andriy Pyatov alertly picked off the cross; on the second, Edgar Castillo’s cross wasn’t quite right and cleared. And they would give away several more fat chances, which a more incisive opponent might have punished, before the halftime whistle brought a respite.

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The USA came out of halftime far more composed, injecting its game with a  pace and sharpness. This resulted in a flurry of early chances, namely for Bedoya, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey. The Americans seemed to be taking control with a fresh assertiveness, but then, out of nowhere, Ukraine put the game away in the 68th minute. With yet more shambolic defending, Devic was played into a sea of space. Howard again stopped the point-blank finish, but Devic rolled his rebound into an open goal. That effectively ended the game as Ukraine mostly receded into its own half and let the Americans crash into their tightly-packed banks. Only an Aron Johannsson volley in the dying minutes mustered some danger.

The point of this contest, and the reason the USA insisted on playing it in the face of such adversity, was to give those who needed it the chance to make their case for the World Cup. But Brooks proved too raw and Onyewu out of practice, after years of scarce playing minutes. Castillo isn’t up to the level. Geoff Cameron is ineffective going forward and so doesn’t fit the system as a right back. Sacha Kljestan was too timid and conservative in midfield.

Among the regulars and those certain of spots, Altidore, Bedoya and Fabian Johnson were largely isolated and almost entirely invisible while Dempsey was far from sharp. Only Howard was his usual imperious self.

Absent core players such as Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan and the first-string back line, this unhappy band of Americans gave a damning account of itself against the highest FIFA-ranked country not to make the World Cup.

That the game was played at all, in an eerily empty and quiet stadium in Cyprus, was something of a surprise. Originally slated for Kharkiv, the popular uprising that led Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to flee his palace took that off the table. But after the game was relocated, the head of Ukraine’s soccer federation claimed his players wouldn’t be traveling as political turmoil continued to roil in their home country. In the meantime, the car of the referee assigned to the game was bombed – nobody was hurt — causing the weekend’s Cypriot league games to be canceled.

But if the Ukrainians could rightly hide behind the mayhem in their country, theirs was a composed performance. The Americans, meanwhile, who had no such excuse to mitigate their malpractice, were all over the place in a disheveling display of disorganization.

With the World Cup less than 100 days away, the pack of Americans in contention to be appearing in it should now be a good deal thinner.

Pictures courtesy of AP and Getty

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