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.

USMNT Player Ratings from win over Ecuador

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Gregg Berhalter’s United States men’s national team extended its clean sheet run to 180 minutes under the new coach with a 1-0 defeat of Ecuador in Orlando on Thursday.

[ RECAP: USMNT 1-0 Ecuador ]

The longtime Columbus Crew coach handed notable chances to several MLS mainstays who stood out in January camp, but also re-introduced Christian Pulisic to the fold.

The results were mixed, but the win was deserved as the U.S. did not allow much danger to reach Sean Johnson’s cage.

LINEUPS

Sean Johnson — 6.5 — Had to catch, what, one ball? Still, nice for him to get a clean sheet.

Tim Ream — 7 — A couple of dicey moments, sure, but the man with the captain’s band stood out at left back not just for his assist but his aggression in pressing high up the left flank.

John Brooks — 6.5 — Not much to do, but effective when needed with a win-saving stop. Here’s hope the thigh injury isn’t a notable one. Intelligent and accurate in his passing out of the back.

Aaron Long — 6 — His passing was a bit off early, and that will need to be better at the back of Berhalter’s defense, but overall he was composed and well-drilled.

Tyler Adams — 7.5 — Given he was playing an unusual position with immense responsibility (right), Adams deserves a lot of credit for keeping his motor high over 90 minutes. He only attempted two dribbles, staying in his shoes and venturing wide and forward on occasion. A very promising sign for an ambitious move by Berhalter. That’s a lot of green over there, and green is good —>

Wil Trapp (Off 59′) — 5.5 — He’s not supposed to be the guy who stands out in a game, and should be known for doing the little things, but he’s still not standing out from the pack as someone who should keep Michael Bradley or Tyler Adams from the center of the park.

Weston McKennie (Off 68′) — 5 — Potentially scary injury aside, he will have much better days for the U.S. than this and certainly didn’t show chemistry with Trapp. Second guessing is easy, but flipping McKennie and Adams might’ve been the play.

Paul Arriola (Off 77′) — 6 — An energetic, productive night on the wing takes a hit due to his inability to finish the match’s best scoring chance (even if the save was legit).

Christian Pulisic (Off 62′) — 7 — Not at his sharpest, but still quite lively in producing many American attacks. Had an memorable moment working over Antonio Valencia near the end line.

Jordan Morris (Off 68′) — 6 — Still learning how to be a winger, but a decent and industrious effort for the Seattle Sounders man.

Gyasi Zardes — 7 — It was the goal that did the trick for him over 90 minutes, and it was good to see the Columbus Crew man score a USMNT for the first time since 2016.

Subs

Michael Bradley (On 59′) — 6.5 — Quick decisions and possession-aiding passes with precious few mistakes (See Opta chalkboard from MLSSocccer.com at right).

Sebastian Lletget (On 62′) — 6 — Has to be a bit more careful in his own half, but we’d like to see him get a start against Chile.

Cristian Roldan (On 66′) — 5 — Sloppy with the ball in a short stint.

DeAndre Yedlin (On 66′) — 6 — Busy and ready to produce chances from the right side.

Jonathan Lewis (On 77′) — N/A —

Zardes goal pushes controlling USMNT past Ecuador

AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack
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  • Yanks have not allowed goal in 3 matches under Berhalter
  • Pulisic returns to USMNT set-up
  • MORE: McKennie stretched off
  • Zardes scores deflected winner off Ream feed
  • American control ball, but struggle in final third

Gyasi Zardes scored his seventh international goal and first since the Copa America Centenario as the USMNT handed Ecuador a 1-0 defeat at Orlando City Stadium on Thursday.’s

The win marks the third clean sheet victory in three tries for USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter, who leads the Yanks against Chile on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Player ratings ]

The U.S. came out of the gates flying, connecting passes with their wings and fullbacks sitting very wide to stretch the surface.

When Ecuador did collect the ball, the Yanks pressed very hard and won it back.

Industry and speed was the story of the USMNT game, with Christian Pulisic and Jordan Morris leading the way in forcing the match on Ecuador.

Weston McKennie did some heavy lifting in nice combo play with Pulisic and Gyasi Zardes for a chance that was just missing the finishing touch from Paul Arriola (and got a nice save).

Pulisic was felled by a hard foul just inside the Ecuador half in the 55th minute, but carried on and Paul Arriola took a yellow for fouling Jefferson Orejuela in response.

Michael Bradley entered the match for Trapp in the 59th minute, and Pulisic exited for Sebastian Lletget three minutes later.

McKennie then suffered a painful ankle injury and eventually accepted stretcher help to get to the bench.

Zardes put the U.S. ahead when his powerful strike from atop the 18 took a huge deflection off the calf of Robert Arboleda and looped over the head of a flailing Alexander Dominguez.

The play began when Sebastian Lletget’s pressing pushed a poor Ecuadorian clearance to USMNT left back Tim Ream, who spotted Zardes in the middle of the Ecuador half.

USMNT, Schalke mid McKennie stretchered off with ankle injury

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Schalke and USMNT midfielder Weston McKennie limped off the pitch during the second half of a friendly against Ecuador on Thursday in Florida.

McKennie appeared to twist his ankle shortly after being called for a foul in the match, which stood 0-0 at the time.

[ MORE: Hazard, Real, and the back-up plan ]

He left the match with trainer help, and was eventually carted to the bench while seated on a stretcher.

A key piece of the program’s future, the 20-year-old midfielder has been a utility knife in the Bundesliga, playing everywhere from right back to left mid.

Only six players have played more league minutes for Schalke than McKennie, who earned his eighth cap on Thursday.

Making the case: Raheem Sterling as PL Player of the Year

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Even a year ago, I wouldn’t have imagined someone making this case in a rational manner any time soon.

I especially didn’t think it would be me.

But as the Premier League takes a deep breath ahead of the stretch run, I’m going to have to say it.

[ MORE: JPW ranks the candidates ]

Raheem Sterling has been the best attacking player in the Premier League this season, and quite possibly the best player period.

Whether he earns the nod over defender Virgil Van Dijk is another story altogether, as it will probably comes down to wins and losses and one or two titles, but consider how deadly, consistent, and deadly consistent Sterling has been since the start of the season.

Of the four Premier League players who’ve accounted for some combination of 24 goals and assists, Sterling gets the least amount of positive publicity. Eden Hazard has largely been the Chelsea attack, Sergio Aguero has tied the PL hat trick record, and Mohamed Salah is riding his 2017-18 season through a remarkable cold snap of form.

But there’s Sterling, with 15 goals and nine assists in the second-fewest minutes of the bunch (Aguero).

How about these numbers — via WhoScored.com — in 2,149 league minutes?

Sterling is also averaging a tackle and .6 interceptions per match, the best of the bunch, while committed the fewest bad touches per game (most remarkable considering his second touch haunted him for several seasons).

A concession: For what it’s worth given the above stats, Hazard is easily in second of the bunch if not competing directly with Sterling. But Sterling hasn’t been a part of underachieving teams for three different managers, so we’ll abide.

There are two things going against Sterling, neither of which are his fault. The first is that Man City’s dominance of last season and run back into a title right this season has people imagining that the feast of talent at the Etihad Stadium makes numbers an afterthought; That is to say that Sterling, Aguero, and the Silvas (not to mention Leroy Sane) aren’t producing much more than their theoretical replacements.

And maybe there’s something to that, but here’s how important Sterling’s production has been to City.

In Premier League matches in which Sterling neither scored, assisted, nor drew a penalty, City has four wins, two draws, and four losses. When he has, that mark is 17-0 (He sat out wins over Huddersfield Town, Burnley, and Watford to complete Man City’s 24W-2D-4L record).

Aguero, for his part, racked up nine of his goals in three matches. I’m not here to hat trick shame, but Sterling feels a less replaceable part of Pep’s team.

The second thing going against Sterling is a bit more nefarious, linked to articles and conceptions about his gun tattoo or hairstyles. This part, hopefully, doesn’t require us to refute it.

Van Dijk has been phenomenal, and as a longtime defender admirer — those who can’t do it, love those who do it well — I’d be thrilled to see him join N'Golo Kante in non-scorers to claim such an honor.

But VVD was also on the scene for a moment that encapsulates what Sterling has become to City’s attack. He’s arguably been this season’s Leroy Sane, and coincidentally cues up the German with this incisive pass from well outside his office for the January winner against Liverpool.