By Ridge Mahoney
Here’s what I’d like to see during the last USA match of 2013, a friendly against Austria Tuesday in Vienna:
NO INJURIES.This is as basic a request as it gets in competitive sport, and the main reason so many people -- fans, coaches, players, pundits -- would do away with friendlies altogether. They can be important tests for players and coaches but there's always a risk of injury.
While players are rarely injured in friendlies, it happens. (Germany may have lost Real Madrid midfielder Sami Khedira for the World Cup with a knee injury Friday against Italy.) The U.S. game against Austria could be an important one for midfielder Brek Shea, whose career was threatened last July when he suffered a knee injury playing for Stoke City in a friendly against Philadelphia.
Shortly after Shea scored a goal, Matt Kassel crunched him in a bad tackle. He left the field on crutches. The sprained MCL he suffered sidelined him for a month, and he’s been scraping for playing time with Stoke since regaining fitness. Given the long-running injury sagas of Stuart Holden and Steve Cherundolo, and the dings that kept Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan off the roster, for the last two games of 2013 the U.S. needs a smooth finale.
So, let’s have a game without bad tackles, flailing elbows, hospital balls and head-on collisions.
GUZAN IN GOAL. He’s the No. 2 behind Tim Howard, but he needs action in case suspension or injury or poor form necessitates a change in the nets. He stuck it out for a long time on the Villa bench before earning the starter’s jersey and is thus fulfilling the proclamation of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann that club playing time is imperative for national team players.
Plus, he’s a very good goalie -- solid temperament, sharp leadership skills, quick reactions, safe hands, unbounded courage --- and a fantastic representative for the American squad. He deserves at least a half.
MORE SACHA.Deployed against Scotland in an unfamiliar role -- in the hole behind lone striker Jozy Altidore-- midfielder Sacha Kljestan played a conservative game and by drifting away from goal pulled himself out of the attack. The incisive attacking play he was expected to provide seldom materialized; instead, he reverted to more of a third central midfielder alongsideMichael Bradley and Jermaine Jones.
During his days at Chivas USA, neither of his head coaches -- Bob Bradley and Preki -- thought he brought enough range and effort to give him extended time as the attacking catalyst. He often played out wide and thus drifted inside whenever possible. When Bradley took over the national team, the song remained the same, yet it must be said Kljestan also gave a few lackluster showings in the center. He’s a much more mature player now than he was then.
He plays in the middle for Anderlecht, but as a deeper-lying link player who gets forward selectively. In Belgium he’s added tactical awareness and defensive discipline to his remarkable skills. A regular starting spot for the USA is probably beyond him, but off the bench he can handle the essential elements of midfield play: aiding the attack, maintaining possession and fending off the opponent. Maybe he plays one of the central roles with Mix Diskerud in the attacking slot, eh?
MORE OF THESE GUYS, TOO. There aren’t many choices at left mid and Shea can burst and dribble past players to threaten the goal with a cross or shot. His rangy ruggedness enables him to handle the physical demands. His struggles at Stoke notwithstanding, he brings attributes to a position that’s been a problem area for the USA.
Aron Johannsson, with all of five caps, is already a favorite of American fans and with good reason. He just turned 23 and looks the part of a shrewd forward well-steeped in the nuances of timing, positioning and anticipating. He can move fluidly and effectively on and off the ball and shoots well with either foot. He just might have the right skill set to play as a lone forward, underneath a striker, or in some kind of hybrid role.
Edin Dzeko, one of the top strikers in Europe, gave defenderJohn Brooksa rough time in the BiH game but he does that against just about everybody. A World Cup team needs at least four good centerbacks and if Klinsmann does give Geoff Cameron a shot at right back or in midfield or an injury crops up, there’s another available slot in the middle.
EURO WIN.Friendly victories in Italy, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia since Klinsmann took over may not amount to much in a global sense, but the stark fact is that for most American players, every game against a European national team is a vital educational tool.
Watching Johansson is an indicator of what a player learns in Europe even if he doesn’t start out in a top league; he played in Denmark before joining up with AZ in the Netherlands last summer.
(Next year, how about a “thank you” USA-Iceland friendly?)