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Nov 16, 2009

U.S. faces another test on European soil against Denmark

When the United States originally set up this Wednesday's friendly against Denmark, it was thought that the encounter would provide a fair assessment of where the Americans stood in comparison to another World Cup contestant. The chance to look at some fringe members of the team was also a benefit. Yet with both sides missing considerable chunks of their squad due to a combination of injury and club considerations, the match now appears to be veering toward experimental overload. Denmark's attack looks especially hard hit, with Dennis Rommedahl, Jon Dahl Tomasson, Thomas Kahlenberg, Soren Larsen and Nicklas Bendtner all set to miss the match. The Danish defense will also be without Liverpool's Daniel Agger, who is sitting the game out due to a back injury. Add in the fact that forward Martin Jorgensen has been getting little playing time with Fiorentina, and it's clear the U.S. will be facing a Denmark side far short of its peak. While the U.S. is in a better position than the Danes in terms of player availability, it won't have its full squad either. Long-term injuries had already ruled out forward Charlie Davies, as well as defenders Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit. A minor foot ailment then sidelined goalkeeper Tim Howard, while Landon Donovan is currently occupied by this Sunday's MLS Cup final. And with Clint Dempsey among those players who returned to their clubs following Saturday's 1-0 loss to Slovakia, the Americans will be missing more than half of their usual starting lineup. That doesn't mean Wednesday's game has been completely shorn of value, however, and U.S. manager Bob Bradley is intent on making the most of his team's opportunity to play another match on European soil.

U.S. men's schedule
Wednesday
U.S. vs. Denmark
NRGi Park; Aarhus, Denmark
2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
"There's only a few fixture dates from the end of qualifying to the start of the World Cup," said Bradley following the Slovakia match. "And these are important periods to train a little bit and test some players." One of those performers could be one-time Mexican national team member Edgar Castillo, whose application to switch his international allegiance to the U.S. is now official. And given the struggles that Jonathan Bornstein had against the Slovaks last weekend, the opportunity to grab a starting spot is still there for the Tigres left back. It was thought that Castillo's Primera Division colleague, Jose Francisco Torres, would also get a chance to stake his claim for more playing time, but the Pachuca midfielder begged out of the match due to undisclosed personal reasons. That is a pity given his skill on the ball and the limited opportunities he's had with the U.S. so far. His decision will likely clear the way for Houston midfielder Stuart Holden -- who has looked sharp in his few appearances with the national side -- to get some playing time on Wednesday.
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The inclusion of Holden and club teammate Ricardo Clark, combined with the absences of Donovan and Dempsey, should make things interesting for the U.S. midfield. One of the more encouraging aspects of the Slovakia match was the sight of the U.S. playing the ball out of the back instead of just lumping it long, allowing the Americans to control the tempo for most of the game. In particular, the passing of Benny Feilhaber and Michael Bradley in the middle third of the field looked crisp, although Feilhaber faded a bit as the match went on. Yet it must be said that as improved as the Americans' possession was, it was due in part to a tactical concession on the part of Slovakia. Once it had broken on top courtesy of Marek Hamsik's first-half penalty, the home side was content to simply put numbers behind the ball, and offered only token pressure in the opposition half for much of the game.
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When it came to the more wily aspects of breaking down a packed defense, the U.S. wasn't as successful, as clear chances were difficult to come by, with Bob Bradley bemoaning his team's lack of "sharpness and execution in the attacking third of the field." Some of this was due to some uninspired forward play, but the midfield bore some of the responsibility as well. It will be up to Bradley and Feilhaber to build on their performance against Slovakia with better service closer to goal. The latter performer will be especially keen to shine given that the game will take place in the home stadium of his club, AGF Aarhus. "I've been thinking about it ever since it got finalized," said Feilhaber in a phone interview. "And I'm going to play against two of my teammates from AGF, so it should be fun." Holden's clever passing will also be needed, and if he impresses on Wednesday, it could serve to give Bob Bradley some intriguing options going forward, especially as it relates to freeing Donovan or Dempsey to play closer to goal.
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That said, the tactical approach of Denmark will likely differ from that of Slovakia. While the Danes' successful qualification campaign was largely the result of some solid defending, it's a team that is comfortable carrying the game to its opponent, which should demand a bit more defensive concentration on the part of the Americans. And one of the few top Danish players who will participate on Wednesday is Juventus midfielder Christian Poulsen, whose notoriously physical style will no doubt take the fun out of the match for Feilhaber and Bradley. Yet in addition to the midfield battle, plenty of eyes will remain on the U.S. contingent of forwards. The aforementioned lack of service was partly to blame for their subpar performances, but players such as Jozy Altidore and Eddie Johnson also struggled with their back to goal, and against a Danish side that can dish out physical play, this aspect must improve. The task of stretching the Danish defense will fall to either Johnson or Jeff Cunningham. The latter performer's touch seemed sharpest among the forwards, although there is certainly room for improvement. And after he played just eight minutes against Slovakia, seeing Cunningham in a more prominent role will provide more data as to whether he is the long-term solution toward replacing Davies. That's certainly one experiment Bob Bradley is eager to see pay off.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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