Slovakia game to present U.S. with new challenges
World Cup qualifying is a journey where the opportunities for experimentation are almost nonexistent. The entire odyssey is one where the downside risks are extreme, and any changes are usually made out of necessity.
Yet with qualification now assured for the United States, those nagging questions that have been plaguing the men's national team can now be addressed, and Saturday's friendly in Bratislava against an up-and-coming Slovakia side represents the perfect venue to begin getting some answers.
"There's not too many games that we're going to get before it really starts to matter," said U.S. midfielder Benny Feilhaber. "So it's important that we get the results and play the way we want to play and start figuring out our identity as a team."
One of the more important issues facing the U.S. is how to compensate for the loss of forward Charlie Davies, who was seriously injured in a car accident the day before the team's final World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica back in October. And the problem goes beyond finding a way to replicate Davies' pace and finishing ability. The knock-on effect his absence will have on Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, and where they might line up on the field, must at some point be addressed.
"We don't really have any other forwards like [Davies]," said Feilhaber. "He's a guy that really spreads the defense out, and regardless of whether he's having a good or bad game, he's a guy that's going to be running all over the field and causing problems. I think we'll have to change our style to some extent."
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U.S. vs. Slovakia
Tehelne Pole; Bratislava, Slovakia 10 a.m. ET
However, the MLS playoffs have also rendered Donovan unavailable. The same is true for a couple of other potential puzzle pieces in Houston midfielder Stuart Holden and Chicago forward Chris Rolfe, all of which complicates matters for U.S. manager Bob Bradley.
That still leaves Dempsey -- who has scored in each of his last three league games for club side Fulham -- available to be tried in a few different roles. Does the U.S. coach keep Dempsey on the right side of midfield, especially with Donovan unavailable, or does he move the Texan up front, where some late-game cameos have revealed an uncanny knack for popping up for goals?
At minimum, playing Dempsey at forward for an extended period ought to be tried, even though he's struggled with his back to goal in previous spells up front. Dempsey remains one of the few U.S. attacking players with the ability to conjure up the unexpected, and getting that kind of unpredictability closer to goal might mitigate the loss of what Davies brings to the table.
However, the makeup of the current roster, with its paucity of flank players, hints that Dempsey will at least start the match in midfield. And if Bradley goes in this direction, then it presents an opportunity to two players who have long been out of the national team frame. It's been over a year since Eddie Johnson last took the field for the Americans, coming on as a sub in a 3-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago in the semifinal round of qualifying. Johnson's pure athletic ability has long been impressive, but his playing time for Fulham this season has amounted to just three substitute appearances, calling into question his level of sharpness as well as how much he's improved since he last donned a U.S. jersey.
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But the player lapping Johnson for the Man Who Came in From Cold Award has to be FC Dallas striker Jeff Cunningham. It has been four years since the MLS veteran last suited up for the Yanks, yet he is perhaps the most intriguing member of the roster. Cunningham is fresh off a season that saw him light up MLS to the tune of 16 goals in his last 15 games. And while he does have a reputation for missing the easy chances and scoring the more difficult ones, at age 33 Cunningham still has the pace to stretch opposition defenses. Even if Bradley begins the match with Jozy Altidore and Conor Casey up top, Cunningham represents an interesting option off the bench.
Opportunities to test the team's defensive depth abound as well. The losses of Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit due to injury have essentially made for an open audition in terms of who can partner captain Carlos Bocanegra in the center of the U.S. defense. The hope is that both Onyewu and DeMerit will be healthy again before the World Cup, but there are no absolutes, especially given the severity of Onyewu's knee injury that is expected to sideline him until April.
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That makes Saturday's match a rare opportunity for players like Chad Marshall and Clarence Goodson to get some minutes with the varsity, although Marshall did fill in against El Salvador in a World Cup qualifier back in September. Jimmy Conrad is another player who could step in, and thus re-establish his credentials with the full team.
As for Saturday's opponents, Slovakia has long lived in the shadow of its one-time compatriot, the Czech Republic, yet emerged as the winner from a qualifying group that included the Czechs as well as Poland. It marked the first time in the country's brief history that the Slovaks had qualified for a World Cup. In the process, manager Vladimir Weiss fashioned a talented side that is anchored in the back by Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel while the attack is bolstered by VfL Bochum midfielder Stanislav Sestak and Manchester City's Vladimir Weiss, the son of the coach.
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Yet the player the U.S. will need to pay the most attention to is Napoli midfielder Marek Hamsik. The 22-year-old has been in fine form this season, netting seven times in 12 matches, including a brace against Italian giants Juventus. And far from being an artist only, Hamsik's considerable attacking flair is accompanied by a ferocious work rate.
Hamsik's presence will make life plenty difficult for the presumed central midfield tandem of Michael Bradley and Feilhaber, although Sacha Kljestan could figure into the equation as well. And the team's overall ability to maintain possession, long a sticking point, will get a stress test against another World Cup finalist.
"Possession is definitely a little bit more important now that our counterattacking game won't be as efficient as when Donovan and Davies and those fast guys are on the field," said Feilhaber.
Will the U.S. show some progress in this area? It's just one of many questions that the Americans hope to answer in the affirmative.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.