After watching Sacha Kljestan's performance Saturday against Sweden, perhaps U.S. manager Bob Bradley will be tempted to let more of his charges skip training camp for trials with European clubs. Just days after returning from a week's stint with Scottish champions Celtic, Kljestan looked plenty energized against the Swedes, notching a hat trick in a 3-2 victory that was closer than it should have been.
Such a development counts as manna from heaven for Bradley, who has been searching desperately for a more attack-minded presence in the center of his midfield, the better to complement the tough tackling of his son Michael, as well as players like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. Kljestan certainly looked the part Saturday, although the passive approach Sweden took in the game's opening stages helped his effectiveness.
Still, it was refreshing to see an American player carry the game to such an opponent (even taking into account that like the U.S., the Swedish team was devoid of most of its big names). While Kljestan's first-half penalty that put the U.S. up 2-0 was run-of-the-mill stuff, there can be no doubting the quality of his other two strikes. The first came from an inch-perfect free kick from 34 yards that put the U.S. ahead 1-0 in the 17th minute. His last came on a perfectly timed run in the second half; just moments after Sweden's Daniel Nannskog had pulled a goal back for the visitors in the 73rd minute.
In both cases, Kljestan was aided by the industry and, dare I say, artistry of forward Brian Ching. It was Ching, showing his usual amount of grit, who won the free kick that led to the first goal. And his sublime takedown of Danny Califf's long ball, and subsequent feed to Kljestan for the third was easily the most eye-catching moment of the night.
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There were other solid performances among the American contingent to be sure. Both midfielder Ricardo Clark and defender Michael Parkhurst did plenty to help their respective causes. But even if the play of every other Yank on the field had been subpar, the performances of Kljestan and Ching would have made the night a success for the Americans. With the upcoming World Cup cage match against Mexico now less than three weeks away, it was imperative that the two U.S. players on the field who are most likely to partake in that match show at least a hint of sharpness against Sweden. They did that and more, continuing a trend of everything lining up perfectly for the Americans while injuries and suspensions continue to dog Mexico.
The rest of the evening was a chance for Bradley to evaluate some of the younger and more dynamic elements of the U.S. player pool. Charlie Davies, Robbie Rogers, and Kenny Cooper are all players who fans have been eager to see more of, but they did little to distinguish themselves. Davies in particular will consider the match a missed opportunity, especially given his fine form at the end of 2008 for both club and country.
Bradley will also be less than pleased with the two second-half goals the U.S. conceded. The goals added some unnecessary tension -- if there is such a thing in a friendly -- to what was at one point looking like a comfortable win. The flurry of substitutions on both sides no doubt contributed to this development, with Sweden's Alexander Farnerud doing much to unlock an American defense that looked increasingly vulnerable out wide.
But for now this information can be locked away for a future date. The Hexagonal is about to begin.
Player ratings: (Scale of 1-10)
GK, Troy Perkins, 5 -- The Valerenga keeper appeared headed for a comfortable night only to concede two second-half goals. While the primary faults lay further up field, his positioning seemed a bit suspect on Sweden's second.
D, Jonathan Bornstein, 5 -- Was solid for long stretches, but his failure to track Nannskog on Sweden's first goal means Heath Pearce's job is safe for now.
D, Danny Califf, 6 -- With Marvell Wynne constantly pushing forward, it was left to Califf to cover the right side. He won nearly everything in the air, and his pass to Ching helped complete Kljestan's hat trick.
D, Michael Parkhurst, 7 -- Coped well with the physical Swedes, and showed his usual composure on the ball.
D, Marvell Wynne, 5 -- Got forward often, and did well to win a first-half penalty. Some lapses in concentration made him work harder than he needed to defensively, and his tendency to give too much space to wide attackers bit him on Sweden's second goal.
M, Robbie Rogers, 4 -- Struggled to get going, as he rarely looked to be on the same page as his teammates. At least now his baptism with the senior team is over.
M, Ricardo Clark, 6 -- Solid showing for the Houston midfielder. He was clean with his passing, and covered plenty of ground.
M, Sacha Kljestan, 9 -- If Celtic were watching, they had to be pleased with the midfielder's performance. Kljestan continues to emerge as the best option to partner Michael Bradley when the full team is together.
M, John Thorrington, 6 -- Provided some added bite in midfield, which took pressure off Clark, but was equally adept on the ball. Showed good vision in picking out Wynne in the lead-up to the penalty.
F, Brian Ching, 7 -- Did all of the little things, which ended up being big things. Held the ball up well, and won his share of free kicks, including the one that Kljestan potted for the first goal. His takedown of Califf's long ball and subsequent assist on Kljestan's third was pure magic.
F, Charlie Davies, 4 -- Looked a bit too eager, although given he was facing off against some familiar Swedish league opponents, this was a bit understandable. Was only able to use his pace a few times, and failed to connect with teammates when he had the chance.
F, Kenny Cooper, 4 -- Was just marginally better than Davies, despite the game opening up in the second half. His failure to convert a late breakaway summed up his night.
M, Chris Rolfe, 5 -- Had some shaky touches early on, but eventually found his feet.
M, Eddie Gaven, 5 -- Given a late cameo, but had little impact.
M, Brian Carroll, 5 -- Ditto.
D, Chris Wingert, 5 -- With Bornstein fading, Wingert shored up the left side.
D, Ugo Ihemelu, 5 -- Appeared to earn his pay with a late clearance off the line, but then lost Dahlberg on Sweden's second goal.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.