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World Cup tune-up revelations—USA, Switzerland, and Croatia

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A week ago yesterday, a FIFA friendlies avalanche produced more telling results than routine ones. Some final score lines were downright revelations, peeks at what may come this summer in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In a series of articles we dissect the significance of 16 of those matches.

Ukraine 2, USA 0

The USA, ranked 14 by FIFA, played Ukraine, ranked 18, in Larnaca, Cyprus, on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. This neutral ground was arranged since the situation in the Ukraine was politically unstable.

The Ukrainians did not qualify for the 2014 World Cup. They came in second to England in UEFA qualifiers in Group H and faced France in the playoffs for a spot in Brazil. They beat France 2-0 at home and lost to them in Paris 3-0. One aggregate goal away from participation. Ukraine is a good team. USA 14 Ukraine 18

The USA, reached the 2014 World Cup atop the CONCACAF qualifiers and had played a 0-0 tie away to Scotland and a 0-1 loss away to Austria, before defeating Brazil-bound South Korea 2-0 at home. In all of 2013 they had played 23 games, losing 4, drawing 3, and winning the rest. Competition had not been fierce for most of those matches (6-1 against Belize and 6-0 over Guatemala), they had conceded 23 goals while scoring 54, and three of their four losses had been away. But somehow the team, even though they were playing well, simply did not look like they were ready for the prime time of the World Cup.

So, the game against Ukraine seemed a good match-up as coach Jurgen Klinsmann sought to settle his roster options ahead of a set of well-chosen warm-ups leading up to the cup. In succession, from April 2 to June 7, the USA will play home matches against Mexico, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Nigeria. The USA will probably use the same squad for those last four matches, solidifying the roster and starting line-up. But a final away look-see was needed.

The USA team for this game would be made up mostly of European based players so that Klinsmann could get one last look at a few of them. Unfortunately, nothing good came of the game for the USA as their makeshift defense fell apart on several occasions and particularly on the two crummy goals (Andriy Yarmolenko 12’ and Marko Devic 67’) and the offense only put up a few goal scoring opportunities—one in the entire first half (28’) three in a short, strong spell (48’, 50’, 52’) and an Ukrainian goal-line clearance at the 86th.

Then again, Ukraine wanted to point out to the world and the US media that they (the team and people of the troubled country) were near-prime time ready, while the USA (team) was not. The clash of mentalities and objectives made the sparsely attended game (http://bit.ly/1ilFfGA) a utilitarian experience at best, but it did show that the USA had two teams, and that was the revelation.

When the USA’s veterans are on the pitch, and in particular when the European starters used in this game are paired up with the missing Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, Landon Donovan, and Eddie Johnson, the team clicks and plays its best football. When any key pieces are missing, the team can be easily dismantled. Klinsmann should be troubled and encouraged by this, and the USA fans and coach should hope their team makes it to Brazil intact.

Switzerland 2, Croatia 2

Croatia visited Switzerland at St. Gall in a match-up of World Cup bound teams headed for similar group play in Brazil. The Swiss are paired with France, Ecuador, and Honduras in Group E where the first two are the clear favorites. The Croats are paired with Brazil, Mexico, and Cameroon in Group A, where the hosts are prohibitive favorites and the Mexicans the second best on paper.

Both teams coming into this match had something to prove, to each other and to themselves. The Swiss wanted to show that their high FIFA ranking (7) was deserved and that they should be in the conversation as the seeded team of Group E. Croatia wanted to show that they were rated too low by FIFA (16) and that in a finals group with the 9th, 20th and 50th ranked teams they should be seen as contenders.

The game showcased each team’s strengths and showed why the Swiss are highly regarded as Josip Drmic’s pretty steal and blast at the 33’ was both opportunistic and technically proficient. But Ivica Olic’s 39’ tie ensured the hosts knew they were in for a game. Then Drmi’s second goal, at the 41’, almost seemed to settle the match before half-time. The Croats seemed as much surprised by the immediate response as by the manner of the score.

But Olic’s 54th minute score matched Drmic’s brace and the match was tied early in the second half, allowing both teams to make substitutions while keeping close tabs on that measuring stick (http://bit.ly/1g3ybiV).

In the end, both got what they wanted, rare in such an acutely scrutinized contest. The revelation here was two-fold. Switzerland are no pushovers but they are not the seventh best team on the planet—Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands, Chile, Colombia, Portugal, Ecuador, Uruguay, Italy, France, and Belgium, might have something to say about that ranking. But those teams notwithstanding, Croatia is not nine rungs below the Swiss, certainly played them as equals, and will probably move on from Group A. Switzerland have a chance to move on from Group E, but 17th ranked France and 23rd ranked Ecuador seem better poised to do so.

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