World Cup Preview — a tough outing for the U.S.

Last week, the U.S. soccer team suffered a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Ukraine. The match was supposed to take place in Kharkiv, but the political crisis imposed by Russia caused it to be moved to Cyprus at the last minute.

Consequently, the stadium was almost empty. I enjoy such matches (typically they occur when the home team is forced to play in an empty stadium as punishment for fan behavior) because you can pick up what the coaches and players are shouting on the field. In this match, much of what USA/Everton goalkeeper shouted at his defensive unit isn’t fit to be printed.

I knew from watching Everton matches that Howard is a fiery guy. But does he talk this way to Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin?

Perhaps. But unlike Jags and Distin, the U.S. defenders provided plenty of cause for Howard to curse. They left Howard horribly exposed, and not just on the two goals, both of which produced terrific saves only for the Ukrainian to score on the follow-up.

Two factors should mitigate concern over this defeat. First, Ukraine is a good team. In their near-miss World Cup qualification campaign, they defeated France 2-0 and outplayed England in a 0-0 draw.

To be sure, both of these matches were played in Ukraine. But Ukraine also produced a draw at Wembley Stadium in London. Moreover, although the U.S. match did not take place in Ukraine, it’s likely that the Ukraine team was playing with home-team style emotion given the political situation.

Second, the U.S. didn’t field anything close to its strongest team. For example, the two highly culpable central defenders, Oguchi Onyewu and John Brooks, had never played together as far as I know, and left-back Edgar Castillo is not a regular in the U.S. side.

Onyewu has been out of the international picture for several years due mainly (I think) to injury. The inexperienced Brooks, just 21 years old, is considered “one for the future.” The future, it seems, is not now.

Still, we should recognize that despite the quality of Ukraine’s team, it has nothing on the teams the U.S. will have to contend with in their World Cup “Group of Death.” Germany is clearly superior to Ukraine; Portugal and Ghana are probably a bit better.

The other worry is the poor performance of Clint Dempsey, who seemed completely out of sorts. Anyone can have a bad match, but Dempsey also looked poor this winter for Fulham in the English Premier League, a team with which he once starred.

The U.S. team will be at a significant disadvantage in Brazil if Dempsey fails to recapture his customary form.

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