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Ukraine vs. United States: Looking back on our five focal points

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Wednesday’s match in Cyprus was all about the U.S. Men’s National Team’s depth chart: who was staking a claim to a starting spot; who was putting themselves in contention for the 23-man team; and who was trying to earn a place on May’s 30-man preliminary roster. In an ideal situation, Jurgen Klinsmann would have seen players hungry to improve their stock make life difficult for the Major League Soccer players who couldn’t make the trip. The depth chart would have been complicated.

The 2-0 loss to Ukraine did anything but. A flat performance defined by defensive mistakes, midfield ineffectiveness, and a lack of chances gave the U.S. nothing positive to take into new month’s friendly against Mexico. With most of today’s squad unlikely to feature in that out-of-window friendly, players like Sacha Kljestan will be left watching their competition try to make the impact Wednesday’s team could not.

(MORE: Ukraine 2-0 USA: Disjointed U.S. display sees fired up Ukraine prevail)

Last night, we identified five areas of focus for the U.S. national team. Here’s how they played out:

1. Geoff Cameron‘s chance to lay claim to the right back spot

How Cameron did depends on who you ask. Joe Prince-Wright felt he vaulted himself to the top of the right back depth chart, though as Cameron stood staring at a Ukraine attacker that had drifted into his channel ahead of a first half cross, you couldn’t help but wonder if the Stoke City starter had tuned out. Would Brad Evans had made the same mistake?

After taking two steps toward the middle of the field, Cameron allowed his Ukrainian mark to settle in the space between himself and Oguchi Onyewu (turned toward the left flank). Moments later, after a successful cross for Cameron’s man helped beat the U.S. defense, an offside call saved the Americans from conceding a second goal. On a ball Cameron should have positioned himself to attack, the U.S. nearly conceded a goal.

That was one of Cameron’s bad points. A more apropos moment came earlier when Cameron was isolated against Yevhen Konoplyanka. The Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk winger, through multiple moves, initially had trouble shaking the U.S. right back. Eventually, however, Konoplaynka was able to create room toward the line to float a left-footed cross near post.

Compared to the rest of the defense, Cameron’s day was fine, but that’s comparing a bent fender to a caved in engine compartment. Still not providing much of wide as the U.S. builds through the middle, Cameron didn’t help his stock on Wednesday. Unlike the rest of the defense, though, he didn’t hurt it, either.

(MORE: Three things we learned in USA’s defeat to Ukraine)

source: Getty Images2. Is Jermaine Jones carrying any rust?

Jones’ performance in front of the defense was consistent with somebody who has played one club game in two months. In the first half, as the deepest man in midfield, he often failed to provide a third passing option for his center backs, who were often left to play back to Tim Howard. Jones compounded that problem with an inability to serve as an outlet when the ball reached the attackers. Though he improved as the game went on, Jones’s overall performance was languid, one that looked especially ineffective in the absence of Michael Bradley.

3. Will “U.S. Jozy Altidore” transcend “Sunderland Jozy Altidore”?

Jozy Altidore was one of the few players who looked decent from the opening kickoff, but with the U.S. unable to build many decent opportunities, Altidore was given few chances to play beyond ‘decent’. Some nice work holding up play led to a few forays forward before intermission, but ultimately, Altidore was unable to pose a meaningful threat on Andriy Pyatov’s goal.

Given the U.S.’s problems all over the field, there’s a risk of being too harsh on Altidore, yet the kind of descriptions you read above could apply to almost any of Altidore’s performances at Sunderland. At some point, hard work is not enough for a forward, and while one game with the U.S. isn’t enough to pass judgment on his suitability for Brazil, this game’s fit in a bigger, unproductive pattern is one of the most worrying parts of the current national team.

4. Wanted: Clint Dempsey of 2012.

Speaking of fitting into patterns, Wednesday’s Dempsey looked eerily similar to the man who struggled to get anything going at the end of the 2012 season for Seattle. In the first half, with the U.S. midfield broken, Dempsey was forced to drop deeper and deeper to get the ball, taking him out of position to do what he does best – pick up opportunistic goals.

This will be the key to Seattle’s season, but it may also define whether the U.S. can threaten to get out of their World Cup group: When will Dempsey’s teams stop trying to make him into something he’s not. With good technical skill, it’s tempting, even logical, to say ‘We need to get Clint on the ball more.’ After two years of seeing teams do this, it’s time to admit: Dempsey is not that type of guy.

Find another plan. Tweak the system. Bring in other players, or just go back to the drawing board. As Sounders fans now know, if you’re starting Dempsey underneath a striker and counting on him to be a focal point in a  possession game, you’re going to see a lot of performances like today’s. Perhaps this was a worst case scenario, but it was still another example of Dempsey’s versatility being used against him.

As has been the case since he left Fulham (in 2012), Dempsey wasn’t put in a position to succeed. As a result, his day in Cyprus was an ineffectual one.

source: Getty Images5. Midfield spots up for grabs

Jones’s partner on Wednesday, Sacha Kljestan, didn’t help his case. If anything, he highlighted the contrast between him and Mix Diskerud.

When, in the first half, the U.S. was trying to hard to build through the middle, he was often nowhere to be seen. For every time he came back to help Jones, OguchiOnyewu, and John Brooks get the ball out of defense, there was another time where he was in no position to offer the outlet the team needs in the middle of the park. He’d give and go and never be heard from again, a performance that forced Dempsey to keep dropping in midfield.

Brek Shea, in the 27 minutes he saw, showed he can provide the change-of-pace option your can afford to gamble on with the World Cup’s huge 23-man rosters. His brief flashes on Wednesday may keep him in the picture, with similar displays from Danny Williams in the middle perhaps earning the Reading man some momentum going into May.

As for Alejandro Bedoya, the man who started on the right, he was as victimized by the U.S.’s play as Dempsey or Altidore. Too often the answer to “why isn’t Bedoya doing more” was “because the ball’s nowhere near him.” But just like the U.S.’s forwards, Bedoya probably didn’t lose any ground. A heavy favorite to make the World Cup squad before the match, Bedoya may have been helped by others’ struggles. He didn’t seize his opportunity, but he didn’t waste it, either.

Klinsmann: USMNT’s Pulisic earning respect with “no-fear” approach

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Christian Pulisic #17 of USA attempts to chip a pass past Guillermo Viscarra #23 of Bolivia late in the second half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Christian Pulisic, whose name was known to only the most ardent of U.S. national team supporters six short months ago, is the fastest rising star in American soccer these days, but you’d never know it just listening to him talk.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Speaking after the USMNT’s 4-0 victory over Bolivia here at Children’s Mercy Park on Saturday — having made a big bit of history of his own in the process — Pulisic seemed to have just walked off the field following just another ordinary game — something you’d be easily tricked into thinking he’d done 500 times thus far in his career.

USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has something of a theory to explain Pulisic’s meteoric rise, from making his Borussia Dortmund debut three months ago, to scoring his first international goal on Saturday: the youngster is fearless — perhaps because he’s not been around the block enough to know any better, but without fear of conscience in the face of any challenge nonetheless.

“I think he is a wonderful kid. He’s grounded, he knows that he has a long way to go, but he has no fear, and this is very important — not having fear, especially when you play in our region (CONCACAF), where it becomes really physical. What you’re going to see next Friday will be very, very physical.”

[ MORE: Three things we learned — USA 4-0 Bolivia | Player ratings ]

On that lack of fear, Pulisic says it’s something that was instilled in him at a very young age, playing soccer and living an ordinary childhood in his hometown of Hershey, Penn., before it became clear that his future was to be anything but ordinary. Fear does seem a foreign concept to the now-three-times-capped USMNT starlet when asked how he’s made the transition from Dortmund Under-19s, to Dortmund first team, to USMNT impact-maker, so seamlessly.

“It’s just what I learned since I was a little kid. My dad taught me no matter what — I would play against these bigger players — to just be myself. I knew that I was good enough, that I had the ability, so I never shy away from any moment and I don’t think anyone should.”

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

The challenges for a 17-year-old earning his stripes on a team chock-full of established stars such as Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and on and on, are innumerable. From trying to impress Klinsmann and earn a share of first-team minutes, to “making friends” with the senior members of the squad, Pulisic is just doing his best to fit in and prove he can contribute at next week’s 2016 Copa America Centenario — the USMNT’s last major tournament before the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

“The guys have taken me in, they’re all really nice, and it’s helped me a lot that I’ve been with them a few weeks now. It’s getting more and more comfortable. I’m making more friends. Normally, you’d hang out with some of the younger guys — kind of work your way up. You really have to earn your respects on the field. Off the field, they’re all nice guys.”

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]

And yet, with all of that said, an air of naiveté hangs over Pulisic as he talks of becoming the youngest goalscorer in USMNT history, the 17-year-old that he is. Does the magnitude of such an accomplishment register an hour after that record-breaking strike?

“Honestly, no. I’m just living life, living in the moment. It’s cool — stats and stuff are cool — but I want to win this tournament coming up. That’s the overall goal, so I don’t really care too much about being the [youngest] goalscorer.”

Player ratings from a historic, comfortable USMNT win over Bolivia

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Michael Bradley #4 of USA directs a header away from the Bolivia forwards in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
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Yes, the United States should beat Bolivia at home, and soundly, but that doesn’t make Saturday’s 4-0 win in Kansas City any less fun.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s men throttled Bolivia, picking up the biggest win over a South American foe in national team history while writing in the U.S. men’s record book from an individual standpoint as well.

[ MORE: Match recapThree things we learned ]

Christian Pulisic became the youngest goal scorer in USMNT history, and the Americans will be feeling pretty good after improving to 7-1-1 in their last nine games before the start of the Copa America Centenario on Friday in California.

So who showed well? See below:

Starting XI

Brad Guzan — 7 — Called on only once or twice, but made the saves. Always hard to know what to score a goalkeeper who doesn’t have much to do. We’ll go with 7.

Matt Besler (off HT) — 7 — Filling in at left back wasn’t a problem for Sporting KC’s center back, and he even pulled off a nifty attacking trick or two.

John Brooks — 6 — Made up for a horrible giveaway by charging into the play to score the Yanks’ second goal. Out of position on a late chance that Guzan handled well.

Geoff Cameron — 7 — This team is so much better when he is healthy. Have to wonder if the Confederations Cup berth would’ve been assured with him last summer.

Michael Orozco (off HT) — 6 — Wasn’t noticed much, and that’s good for him.

[ WATCH: USMNT’s first two goals | Pulisic makes history ]

Michael Bradley (off 73′) — 9 — Weird how he’s good in his best position, pinged balls around the field and keeping things moving like a Newton’s cradle.

Jermaine Jones — 6 — Was just fine. Hard as nails and set to make an impact in the Copa America, and made a great takeaway and pass on the Pulisic goal.

Alejandro Bedoya 9 — The Nantes man had two assists, and looked capable of pulling as many strings as he wanted against Bolivia. Showed a hard edge against a nasty Bolivia side, too.

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Alejandro Bedoya #11 of USA knocks down Alejandro Meleán #13 of Bolivia in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

Bobby Wood — Lively and active, even if his finish was off.

Gyasi Zardes (Off, 64′) — 7 — If he wasn’t fighting his first touch, might’ve scored 3 or 4. Two is pretty good, though, right? He’d be a center forward, but Klinsmann needs to know the man up top can handle his first touch better.

Clint Dempsey (Off, 73′) — 6 — By no means bad. Is it too far off to say he’s doing the American version of the waning years of Cuauthemoc Blanco’s Mexican prime?

Subs

Fabian Johnson (On, HT) — 6 — Slow to get back on Bolivia’s only scoring chance.

DeAndre Yedlin (On, HT) — 6 — Like Orozco, had very little to do on the right side.

Christian Pulisic (On, 64′) — 7 — He’s a mouth-watering prospect, and became the youngest goal scorer in USMNT history.

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]

Darlington Nagbe (On, 64′) — 7 — His work on Pulisic’s goal was everything MLS fans have been imagining while waiting for Nagbe to be USMNT eligible.

Graham Zusi (On, 73′) — 6 — Game was over when he entered, and did just fine. See below.

Chris Wondolowski (On, 73′) — 5 — Missed his only chance on a dynamite feed from Zusi in stoppage time.

Three things we learned from USMNT’s 4-0 victory over Bolivia

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: The USA soccer team poses for a group photo before taking on Bolivia in the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — For the most part, the U.S. national team systematically dismantled Bolivia, to the tune of a 4-0 victory (as it should have done), in its final pre-2016 Copa America Centenario tune-up Saturday night at Children’s Mercy Park. We learned a few things about Jurgen Klinsmann’s side ahead of Friday’s tournament opener…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Klinsmann settles on the right midfield … finally

Michael Bradley is the USMNT’s no. 6. End of story. His ability to play himself (and teammates) out of trouble at all times and hit (quick) long balls out to the wings changes the point of attack in an instant. The USMNT actually resembles a dangerous attacking side in these brief moments. (He’s also the quickest thinker in the player pool, doing things like this to set up goals.) Not to mention, he’s got the wheels to recover tons of space when a quick counter is inevitably launched the other way — something that Kyle Beckerman, for everything he’s been to the USMNT the last few years, simply doesn’t have anymore.

Alejandro Bedoya was easily the standout performer Saturday night, though, bagging a pair of first-half assists as the USMNT took a 2-0 lead into halftime. Speaking of circulating the ball quickly, Bedoya’s first-time chipped helper was the only ball that puts Gyasi Zardes into space with enough time to compose himself and beat the goalkeeper the way he did for the opener. With Bradley and Jermaine Jones capably waging the possession battle a bit deeper, Bedoya has the license — and ability — to flair out wide when a pocket of space presents itself (reference: USMNT goals scored in above links).

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]


At their best playing with width

Matt Besler and Michael Orozco, who are center backs by nature, started the game at left and right back respectively. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world defensively, but tasked with overlapping a pair of narrow-sitting wide players ahead of them, Zardes and Bobby Wood, much was left to be desired.

Klinsmann brought Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin, full back-winger hybrids by nature, on at halftime, and things opened up all over the field. Bolivia’s full backs had to stay wide, given their speed and (actual) ability to pick out a cross. Remember those long diagonals from Bradley that we talked about above? It was open season for “The General,” who played the decisive ball over the top to free Wood down the left, at which point his cross for Zardes was the final piece for a 3-0 lead.

[ MORE: Ranking Copa America contenders — what are USMNT’s chances? ]


USMNT (finally) has impact subs … if they’re not going to start

Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic are the future — feel free to debate amongst yourselves whether or not they should instead be the present; I won’t stop you — but for now, they’re the impact substitutes the USMNT has been missing for so long. The dynamic duo came on after 63 minutes on Saturday, and immediately they looked to link up and run at opposition defenders every time they got on the ball.

Whether on the halfway line or the edge of the opposition penalty area, it’s quick one and two-touch passing and moving from these two, as was the case in the 69th minute, when Nagbe turned one defender inside the box before sliding a simple square ball to Pulisic. The 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund prodigy made no mistake on the finish and bagged his first senior international goal.

At this point, perhaps they’re best suited for 30 minutes of running at tired defenders with heavy legs. At some point, though — in the not-so-distant future — they need to be given the opportunity to prove themselves as 90-minute players.

USMNT 4-0 Bolivia: Bedoya one of many stars in final Copa America prep match

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Alejandro Bedoya #11 of USA knocks down Alejandro Meleán #13 of Bolivia in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.  (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images
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  • Bedoya sets up two first half goals
  • Zardes gets brace
  • Pulisic becomes youngest U.S. scorer
  • Brooks scores, too.

Don’t look now, but the United States men’s national team is looking pretty darn good ahead of Friday’s Copa America Centenario opener against Colombia.

Gyasi Zardes scored twice, while John Brooks and Christian Pulisic also scored in a comfortable 4-0 win over Bolivia at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City on Saturday night.

[ MORE: Three things we learned ]

Pulisic became the youngest USMNT goal scorer in history with his second half goal, set up by Darlington Nagbe. Alejandro Bedoya had a hand in two goals as well for Jurgen Klinsmann’s Yanks, who open up Copa America play on Friday against Colombia.

Bolivia is no power, but the Yanks gave them little room to maneuver after 20 minutes of play.

The U.S. started Matt Besler and Michael Orozco at fullback thanks to Edgar Castillo not having arrived yet to replace Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson having played in Tuesday’s 1-0 win over Ecuador.

[ MORE: Real Madrid wins Champions League ]

Bolivia had moments early, specifically on a 15th minute set piece that saw New York Cosmos striker Yasmani Duk a split second offside in heading wide of goal.

Zardes put the Yanks ahead in the 26th minute on a cool bit of passing. Geoff Cameron found Clint Dempsey, who clipped the ball over to Alejandro Bedoya. The Nantes midfielder played a pretty ball through to Zardes, who calmly fired past a charging Guillermo Viscarra. 1-0.

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Gyasi Zardes #9 of USA celebrates after scoring the first goal against Bolivia in the first half of the COPA America Centenario USA 2016 on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

This game was very chippy, with Bolivia doing the little nasty things to go with big, card-worthy fouls. The Yanks kept their composure, though, and made it 2-0 when Bedoya slid to knock the ball outside the six for Brooks to pass home with his left foot.

Bobby Wood made a lightning quick cut while running onto a Clint Dempsey pass, only to see his shot saved Viscarra on the edge of stoppage time.

[ WATCH: USMNT’s first two goals | Pulisic makes history ]

The Yanks made a pair of changes at halftime, introducing DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson for Orozco and Besler.

There was a terrific build-up for the Yanks on goal No. 3, as Bradley played a gorgeous diagonal ball into the box for Wood. The Bundesliga striker worked his man and then fed Zardes for a left-footed, close-range goal. 3-0.

It took 67 minutes for Bolivia to really trouble Guzan, but the Aston Villa keeper rose to the challenge when Brooks and Fabian Johnson were a bit lax in returning to the back line.

[ COPA AMERICA PREVIEWS: Group A | BC | D ]

USMNT: Guzan; Besler (Johnson, HT), Brooks, Cameron, Orozco (Yedlin, HT); Bradley (Zusi, 73′), Jones, Bedoya (Nagbe, 64′); Wood, Zardes (Pulisic, 64′), Dempsey (Wondolowski, 73′).

Goals: Zardes (26′, 54′), Brooks (37′), Pulisic (69′)