U.S. faces Russia with one more chance to evaluate talent in 2012
Some U.S. stalwarts aren't involved, but Timmy Chandler and Jozy Altidore return
Young talents Josh Gatt, Joe Gyau, Mix Diskerud and Juan Agudelo also may play
Carlos Bocanegra would do well to show he can still keep up with good forwards
I wish I could say that Wednesday's Russia-United States friendly (10 a.m. ET, ESPN2/3, Univision Deportes) is a game of heavy import between two hypercompetitive rivals from the Cold War. But the fact is it's not. The statute of limitations on Cold War sports rivalries expired a few years ago, and on Wednesday in Krasnodar two hastily assembled teams will meet in one of those shrug-your-shoulders November friendlies whose result will be quickly forgotten.
Yet there is never such a thing as a meaningless friendly with hardcore soccer followers, and Russia-USA is no different. U.S. mainstays Clint Dempsey, Steve Cherundolo and Landon Donovan may not be involved, but this game does mark the return of Timmy Chandler and Jozy Altidore to the U.S. fold, as well as the inclusion of young prospects Josh Gatt, Joe Gyau, Mix Diskerud and Juan Agudelo (who may get some mop-up time in a game with heavy substitutions).
Plus, I'm fully expecting the night will conclude with some sort of vodka-drenched feast in which U.S. Soccer officials will extract the promise of a first-rate training base in Russia for World Cup 2018. (And you think I'm joking.)
Anyway, back to the game. Russia coach Fabio Capello has his team rolling in World Cup qualifying with a 4-0 record (including a 1-0 victory over Portugal), and Capello did everyone the favor of calling up a solid squad that includes Alexander Kerzhakov, Roman Shirokov and Euro 2012 star Alan Dzagoev. (Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko haven't been involved at all lately, but keep an eye on 21-year-old Denis Cheryshev, a rising left winger who plays for Real Madrid's reserve team.)
As for the U.S., here's my predicted lineup:
Tim Howard; Timmy Chandler, Geoff Cameron, Carlos Bocanegra, Fabian Johnson; Danny Williams; Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Sacha Kljestan; Jozy Altidore, Hérculez Gómez.
The U.S. should be at full strength along its spine, from goalkeeper Howard to center backs Cameron and Bocanegra to central midfielders Williams and Bradley to forward Gómez. (Bocanegra, in particular, would do well to show coach Jurgen Klinsmann that he can still be counted on to keep up with good opposing forwards.)
Bundesliga starters Chandler, 22, and Johnson, 24, may be the favorites to start for the U.S. at the fullback positions at World Cup 2014 -- though Cherundolo will have something to say about that -- and their ability to provide width moving forward could free up Klinsmann to start the inside-leaning Jones and Kljestan in the midfield. Altidore, for his part, could play up top, or he could flash out wide as Eddie Johnson did for the U.S. last month.
In the end, this game is about seeing how individual U.S. players perform, from a few older guys to the younger players who may be getting their first chance with the national team. There is always value in bringing the team together and in building the relationships that will come in handy on, say, a pressure-packed night in Honduras in February.
But let's do ourselves one favor: If the U.S. defeats Russia, let's not overhype it, as too many did for friendly victories at Italy and Mexico this year. Take these games for what they are -- and for what they are not. The games that matter most are coming when World Cup qualifying starts again on February 6.
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