Soccer game with Ukraine could help U.S. find a starting striker
It’s generally not a good sign when a team starts all its games with its best scorer on the sidelines. But unless Coach Juergen Klinsmann suddenly decides, at 49, to suit up and play, that’s the situation his U.S. soccer team finds itself in less than 100 days before the World Cup.
In the three world championships Klinsmann appeared in as a player, he scored 11 goals for his native Germany. But in the last three World Cups the U.S. appeared in as a team, it scored only 14 times.
So Klinsmann will continue auditions for a starting striker Wednesday when the U.S. meets Ukraine in Cyprus, in the first of two tests before preliminary World Cup rosters are due in May.
The friendly was originally scheduled for Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, but when deadly demonstrations in the capital of Kiev widened last week, the game was moved to Cyprus.
Then on Monday, with Russian troops taking up positions in the Crimean peninsula, the Ukrainian soccer federation changed course again, saying its players would not leave their homeland during such “troubled times.” More frenzied negotiations followed before the Ukrainians again agreed to play Wednesday.
"[We] reached a consensus to play the USA, after all,” Anatoliy Konkov, president of the Ukraine soccer federation, said in a statement. "[The Americans] stood behind us to protect the national interests and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
For Ukraine — at No. 15 in the most recent FIFA rankings, the highest-rated team to miss out on this summer’s World Cup — the game doesn’t mean nearly as much as it does to Klinsmann, who will be getting a last look at his European-based players before the American team’s training camp opens in 10 weeks.
“The door is still open,” Klinsmann said of his search for a scorer. “It’s about what happens over the next couple of months. We coaches are going to do our homework as well.”
Klinsmann thought he had found the solution to his scoring woes last summer when Jozy Altidore followed a 31-goal season for AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch league by scoring in a record five consecutive games for the U.S. national team.
But then Altidore went cold, scoring only once in his final five appearances with the national team and only one more time in his first 24 games this season with Sunderland of the English Premier League.
Galaxy star Landon Donovan matched Altidore with a U.S. team-high eight goals last year, but only one of those came after July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.
And Clint Dempsey, who scored five times in his first five games for the U.S. in 2013, had only one goal after June 2. That slump followed him to his club teams, with Dempsey scoring once in 12 Major League Soccer games with Seattle before getting shut out during a two-month winter loan to British team Fulham.
If all that wasn’t enough bad news, last week Klinsmann was forced to scratch Michael Bradley, his most important midfielder, from Wednesday’s game because of an undisclosed “minor issue.”
So where will U.S. goals come from this summer?
Klinsmann hasn’t given up on Altidore yet but he’ll be watching the forward closely in the coming weeks.
Aron Johannsson, who spent 19 of his 23 years in Iceland, has also impressed Klinsmann since becoming eligible to play for the U.S., scoring in his fourth appearance for the national team. Plus he already has had experience replacing Altidore, having scored 14 times in 24 league games since taking over for U.S. teammate at AZ Alkmaar.
Indeed, there is a history of U.S. strikers emerging from the shadows in the final months to play themselves into the World Cup lineup. Four years ago, Herculez Gomez wasn’t on anyone’s short list to make the U.S. team. But a strong spring won him the last seat on the plane to South Africa, where he would up starting in the final game of group play.
“In any World Cup you’re going to have surprises,” said Dempsey, who was one of those surprises in 2006, when he went on to score the only U.S. goal of the tournament. “That’s what it’s all about. People stepping up.”
Or stepping aside. After Wednesday, the domestic half of Klinsmann’s World Cup player pool will get one final chance to impress in a friendly with Mexico in early April. Among the forwards in that group is Eddie Johnson, who started nine times for the U.S. last season, scoring five goals, and former MLS scoring champion Chris Wondolowski, who has eight goals in his last nine games with the U.S. national team, including both goals in a 2-0 victory by the U.S. over World Cup-bound South Korea.
“For us, it’s great to have now competition,” Klinsmann said.
Come the World Cup, though, it will be even better to have someone who can score.
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