[HEXAGONAL COUNTDOWN] Be it a competitive match or a friendly, be it played in January or June or any other month, breaking down a bunkered defense is a difficult task. Several elements are essential for success in such situations and against Sweden on Saturday the U.S. men displayed enough of them to win their first match of 2009. In wowing a crowd of 9,918 at Home Depot Center by scoring all three goals in a 3-2 victory, Man of the Match Sacha Kljestan displayed one of those elements, a clinical finishing touch. He curled a free kick from 35 yards into the top corner, he confidently tucked away a penalty kick, and he polished off his hat trick with a crisp first-time strike.
Kljestan also contributed in other departments, connecting his teammates with smart touches and sharp passes, and getting back into his own defensive third to win tackles and gobble up loose balls. His free kick that swirled into the top corner of Sweden's net 17 minutes into the game loosened its resistance, and enabled Ricardo Clark and Brian Ching to prevail in their roles and force the Swedes into chasing mode.
Ching didn't earn an assist, yet set up the first and third goals with plays that typified the rugged determination he brought to bear. Kljestan's free kick resulted from Ching absorbing just one of many harsh fouls inflicted on him, and on the third goal he controlled a long ball from Danny Califf with an incredible touch on the ball as it dropped over his shoulder, which gained him enough time and space to lay off a ball Kljestan stroked left-footed low inside the far post.
The second goal, five minutes before halftime, provided a 2-0 lead that fairly rewarded the U.S. pressure and persistence. Right back Marvell Wynne dribbled up the flank and continued into the penalty area though his entry pass hit an opponent. John Thorrington got possession and slipped the ball into the penalty area as Wynne cut inside defender Adam Johansson, who clipped Wynne's heels and sent him sprawling.
From the penalty spot Kljestan, whose free kick marked his first goal in 13 senior internationals, sent Swedish keeper Johan Dahlin the wrong way for his second goal.
The USA had controlled play in the first half without generating a lot of chances. Ching struggled to link up with forward partner Charlie Davies, and on the left flank, outside back Jonathan Bornstein and midfielder Robbie Rogers seldom maximized their possessions. Sweden's central defenders repelled Bornstein's crosses, and Rogers lack of acceleration and reluctance to shoot terminated a few promising sequences.
Davies and Ching just couldn't click, though the effort was there. Either Davies couldn't react quickly enough on Ching's flicks or one player couldn't read the other's intent. When Davies got to the byline to cut a diagonal ball back, Rogers neglected to hit first time, and on another attack Davies passed up a shooting chance and instead played a ball that Sweden easily repelled.
Clark gave a few too many balls away but those were usually efforts to slice open the Swedish back line. He and Kljestan played the full 90 minutes, and he ranged from side to side as well as front to back to offer Kljestan numerous starting points with which to launch attacks. He tested Dahlin with a decent shot from distance and found Kljestan often with short, simple, first-time passes.
After a spotty yet overall solid first half, the U.S. labored through brief breakdowns induced by fatigue and six substitutions while conceding a pair of goals on balls crossed to the far post. Wynne and a few teammates failed to apply pressure on Alexander Farnerud, who came into the match just after Rolfe had replaced Thorrington.
With the U.S. defensive shape unbalanced by the absence of Thorrington and a few players tiring, Farnerud soon took command of Sweden's left side, and swung balls for Daniel Nannskog and Mikael Dahlberg to nail headers between keeper Troy Perkins and the near post. Both goals came after Sweden seized possession in the middle third and played quick passes that offered Farnerud prime crossing opportunities.
Nannskog evaded Michael Parkhurst, who started in central defense with Califf, to score in the 73rd minute, and substitutes Chris Wingert and Ugo Ihemelu were stranded by Dahlberg's run in the 89th minute. Up until Farnerud's entrance, Califf confidently cleared most of Sweden's crosses and Parkhurst effectively tied down the middle.
Kljestan deservedly took home accolades after scoring the 11th hat trick in team history, yet Ching and Clark showed again they are among the viable domestic options for Coach Bob Bradley as he maps his strategy for a very busy, and important, year of play.
On Feb. 11, the USA hosts Mexico to kick off the final round of World Cup 2010 qualifying.
Jan 24 in Carson, Calif.
USA 3 Sweden 2.
Goals: Kljestan 17, Kljestan (pen) 40, Kljestan (Ching) 74; Nannskog (Farnerud) 73, Dahlberg (Farnerud) 89.
USA -- Perkins, Wynne, Califf, Parkhurst (Ihemelu, 82), Bornstein (Wingert, 79), Thorrington (Rolfe, 61), Clark, Kljestan, Rogers (Carroll, 69), Davies (Cooper, 46), Ching (Gaven, 77).
Sweden -- Dahlin, Jonsson, Lindberg, von Schlebrügge, Johansson, Dahl (Elm, 62), Andersson (Ericsson, 71),Svensson, Holmen (Farnerud, 62), Dahlberg, Nannskog.
Shots on Goal: 6/6
Corner Kicks: 7/1
Yellow cards: USA - Califf 59; SWE - Andersson 27.
Referee: Silviu Petrescu (CAN)