It took quite a lot of doing. A political uprising made the game impossible to play in its original locale. The bombing of the referee’s car cast doubt on even the alternate venue’s viability. And less than 48 hours before the game, the president of the Ukrainian soccer federation claimed his team would not be playing. But in the end, the United States men’s national teams friendly against Ukraine, their last with their European-based players ahead of their mid-May World Cup camp, will go ahead in Cyprus on Wednesday.
"The Football Federation of Ukraine confirmed that their team will travel to Cyprus and the match will proceed as scheduled," US Soccer said in a statement on Monday night.
Originally slated to be played in Kharkiv, Ukraine, the game had to be moved following the popular uprising that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych. A UEFA Europa League game between Dynamo Kiev and Valencia had also been moved to Cyprus and the Ukrainian domestic league suspended indefinitely.
Then, less than 24 hours after the United States Soccer Federation confirmed the move to Larnaca, a Cypriot town with a large Ukrainian population, a car belonging to the referee reportedly assigned to the game was damaged by a car bomb. Nobody was hurt, but last weekend’s slate of games in the Cypriot domestic league was canceled.
On Monday, Anatoliy Konkov, the president of the Ukrainian soccer federation appeared to be calling the game off. "We cannot hold the national championship so what kind of football can we talk of at all?" he told the commercial Ukrainian ICTV channel, according to Reuters. "If we do not have an opportunity to play on home soil, why shall we go to Cyprus in those troubled times for your country? We play for our people and country. Our team do not fly to Cyprus and stay at home."
On #USAvUKR: "The Football Federation of Ukraine confirmed that their team will travel to Cyprus and the match will proceed as scheduled."
But once US Soccer had managed to get in touch with their Ukrainian counterparts, a statement was put out that all would proceed as normal and that the fraught friendly was still on.
In any other year, the Americans might have concluded that this game wasn’t worth the bother, much like they did in January 2011 when they called off a friendly in Egypt where the Arab Spring was gaining critical mass. But this isn’t just any other year. This is a World Cup year. And otherwise marginal games take on meaning then.
Since taking over as head coach in the summer of 2011, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has done things his way, enjoying strong results after a somewhat shaky start. And whereas most countries know pretty well who will be representing them at this summer’s World Cup, Klinsmann has mostly held off on culling his sizable pool of potential players. At January camp, he was still taking a look at brand-new players. And for this friendly, he has called in a debutant, a host of players who have been out of the picture for a while, and some who have hardly featured in the program.
That’s what imbues this game with such importance, relative to other friendlies anyway. It’s worth all that logistical fuss for Klinsmann to get a good, hard look at players who might sneak onto the roster. Because a World Cup is an arduous task, and you can’t afford to bring mere passengers along. In 2010, Herculez Gomez rode a late scoring-run in the Mexican league to a spot on the World Cup team even though he had just two career caps, both coming in 2007. He played in three of four US games. These things happen.
Klinsmann plainly wants to ensure that he has exhausted all of his resources before he commits to the 23 men he’ll take to Brazil, or even the 30 he can bring to camp. And so those with imaginary question marks hovering over their heads will get a last best chance to answer them. Are young defenders John Brooks, Alfredo Morales and newbie Will Packwood ready for the big-time? Do veteran defenders Oguchi Onyewu and Jonathan Spector still have it? Can gifted winger Brek Shea produce something that resembles consistency? Are midfielders Sacha Kljestan, Alejandro Bedoya and Danny Williams quite up to the international level? Do strikers Juan Agudelo and Terrence Boyd need more seasoning?
There are even questions to be asked of the regulars. How far off his best is Clint Dempsey, after a tepid loan stint at Fulham and an injury that ruined his homecoming with the Seattle Sounders? Can Geoff Cameron play right back in Klinsmann’s system as well? Has Jermaine Jones properly adjusted to his move from Schalke 04 to Besiktas? And where on the left flank should Fabian Johnson play, if at all?
After two days of training in Frankfurt, Germany, the team was due to travel to Cyprus early Tuesday morning. There, they will face a sturdy team that missed the World Cup by a hair — the highest FIFA-ranked team at 18th in the world not to qualify — having surrendered a two-goal aggregate lead in the second leg of the European playoffs with France last November.
Anybody who can overcome the logistical hubbub and an opponent galvanized by a home country on the brink and thrive under all of these pressures, may well prove himself worthy of playing in the world’s headiest tournament.