Europe has long been where American soccer dreams go to die. Granted, the U.S. has taken its lumps in other non-CONCACAF locales as well, but nowhere has its reputation taken as much of a beating as it has across the pond. It's something coach Bob Bradley will be looking to change when the U.S. faces Sweden on Wednesday in Goteborg's Ullevi Stadium (2:30 p.m. ET).
The numbers make for Steven King-like reading. Since 1998, the U.S. is a woeful 3-14-3 on European soil. Included in those games is the debacle of the 1998 World Cup in France, a 0-2-1 performance in the 2003 Confederations Cup and the colossal letdown that was the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Friendly results haven't been much better, save for an odd hoodoo over Poland, which has fallen twice to the U.S.
All of this only fuels the perception that the Americans are the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players" of the international game -- that they are CONCACAF Kings and nothing more. And since Sweden is preparing for a European Championship qualifier against Denmark on Sept. 8, you can bet that coach Lars Lagerback will field as many first-choice players as he can.
But some subtle changes are tilting the playing field more in the Yanks' favor ahead of Wednesday's match. One item being trotted out is the fact that Sweden is winless in its last 11 friendly matches. The Swedes' last win in a noncompetitive fixture was a 2-1 victory over the Czech Republic on Aug. 17, 2005. But since Sweden currently leads Group F in qualifying for the 2008 European Championships with a record of 6-1-0, and only two of the matches in that friendly stretch were at home, the winless streak is misleading.
A bigger factor for the U.S. is that more of its players than ever before are plying their trade in Europe, with 21 American-born performers making at least one first team appearance last year in the major European leagues of England, Spain, Germany, France and Italy. And scores of others are toiling in the lower divisions of these countries and in Scandinavia, providing the American pool with players of a broader range of experience.
|U.S. vs. Sweden,
Ullevi Stadium, Goteborg, Sweden
2:30 p.m. ET
This trend is reflected in the roster Bradley has selected for Wednesday's match. Fifteen of the 19 players are currently on the books of European clubs, whereas prior forays across the pond usually saw more of a 50/50 split between domestic and European-based players.
So what does this mean for Wednesday's set-to with the Swedes? Fewer players making the 5,000-mile transatlantic jaunt for one, which should lead to a fresher, less jet-lagged group. The roster also has a nice blend of youth and experience, with players who will be more familiar with European environs. Even players with relatively few caps like Jay DeMerit, Michael Bradley and Benny Feilhaber have a few years experience playing in high-pressure games in Europe, and all three are coming off solid performances with the Yanks this summer.
For Bradley and Feilhaber, who along with Pablo Mastroeni appear set to receive most of the playing time in the center of midfield, Wednesday's match should prove to be another indicator of their progress at the international level.
Sweden's midfield has been dealt a considerable blow with the news that captain Freddie Ljungberg and holding midfielder Tobias Linderoth have both withdrawn from the squad due to injuries. But Sweden will have the services of attacking midfielder Kim Kallstrom, whose ability to shoot from distance is something the American midfield will need to keep an eye on.
But even with Kallstrom's long-range shooting, cutting off the supply line from the Lyon midfielder to striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be the major priority for the Americans. Ibrahimovic's unique blend of skills poses a tricky challenge for the elder Bradley as he prepares his team. At 6-foot-4, the Inter Milan striker possesses considerable strength, meaning that a matchup with hulking American defender Oguchi Onyewu would seem to be in the offing. Except that Ibrahimovic also possesses considerable ability on the ball as well as a knack for delivering the unexpected, traits that Onyewu hasn't dealt with well in the past.
Those latter skills would indicate that DeMerit might be a better candidate to shadow Ibrahimovic. DeMerit showed well during last July's Copa America, but at 5-foot-11, the Watford defender's height disadvantage might be too much to overcome, especially given the way he struggled in the air against the likes of Paraguay's 6-foot-3 striker Roque Santa Cruz in July.
In attack, expect Bradley to continue with the twin greyhound alignment that will see DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan patrolling the left and right wings, respectively. The speed these two players possess proved to be a handful for teams at the Gold Cup, and the U.S. will need both players to test the pace of the Swedish back line.
Of course, any success the U.S. has will depend on its ability to convert chances, something that has plagued the team throughout Bradley's tenure, regardless of who he has put in the lineup. A forward pairing of Clint Dempsey and Brian Ching seems the most likely approach, although Donovan's chemistry with Ching could mean that they'll swap roles. If any of those players can finish, the U.S. just may be able to claim a rare European conquest.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.