By Clemente Lisi – PRINCETON, NJ (May 24, 2010) US Soccer Players — With 18 days to go before the US takes on England in their World Cup opener, the Americans will face the Czech Republic on Tuesday in the first of three friendlies before the start of the tournament. The road to South Africa will begin in earnest at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, CT, when Landon Donovan and his teammates face the Czechs in the first match since coach Bob Bradley named a provisional 30-man roster on May 11th.
The team, which has been training at Princeton University for the past week, will be whittled down to 23 before flying for South Africa on May 30th, two days before FIFA’s deadline to finalize rosters.
The tune-up against the Czechs before an expected crowd of 40,000 is supposed to give the US roster some experience against a European side ahead of its Group C opener against England on June 12th in Rustenburg and Slovenia six days later in Johannesburg. The core of the Czech roster plays in the English Premier League and employs a similar playing style to Slovenia – traits that will allow the US to get some experience ahead of the World Cup.
Optimism has been high inside the US camp. After all, South Africa has been good to the National Team.
“We are the same team from last year, with the exception of Charlie Davies. The Confederations Cup gave us lots of confidence for the World Cup,” said Donovan. “We hope that carries over.”
Against the Czechs, Bradley will likely pair Jozy Altidore with either Herculez Gomez or Edson Buddle (or both), while Donovan plays the role of playmaker.
“Both Edson and Herculez have had a very good season. Both have helped their teams a great deal," Bradley said when he announced the 30-man roster. “Edson has been the hottest goal scorer in MLS and has helped the Galaxy get off to a great start. Herculez was an important player with Puebla and scored a lot of goals.”
Buddle and Gomez have very little National Team experience. Between them, they have a mere 77 minutes in a combined three games (67 minutes and one start for Gomez and 10 minutes for Buddle).
Meanwhile, the Czech Republic, currently No. 29 in the latest FIFA rankings, finished third in Europe’s Group 3 during World Cup Qualifying – behind Slovakia and Slovenia – in what was one of the toughest groups on the continent. The Czechs lost many points along the way, but made decent showings against Slovenia – winning 1-0 in October 2008 and playing them to a scoreless draw in March 2009.
The Americans and Czechs are no strangers to each another, particularly when it comes to competing on the World Cup level. Four years ago in Germany, the Czechs – ranked No. 2 in the World at the time – outplayed the Americans in the tournament opener, winning 3-0. At the 1990 World Cup in Italy, then-Czechoslovakia routed the US 5-1 in the Americans’ first game following a 40-year absence from the tournament.
The Czech Republic roster that traveled to the US bares little resemblance to the team that failed to qualify for South Africa. It features mostly youth and a batch of untested players looking to become regulars in time for the 2012 European Championship. Missing from the roster are injured midfielder Tomas Rosicky and striker Milan Baros. Rosicky, who plays for Arsenal, was left at home in order to rest a sore ankle, while Baros, currently with Turkey’s Galatasaray, has an injured thigh muscle.
How much of a competitive test the injury-laden Czechs will be for the Americans remains to be seen. Given that the core of his team is sidelined, coach Michal Bilek, a 45-year-old former Sparta Prague midfielder and 1990 World Cup veteran, will be missing four other key players: Hertha Berlin defender Roman Hubnik, FC Copenhagen defender Zdenek Pospech, West Bromwich striker Roman Bednar and Sochaux striker Vaclav Sverkos.
“We always want to put together the most competitive team possible,” Bilek said following Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Turkey in a friendly at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ. “Our players have suffered many injuries as a result of the long European season. This was really the best possible group of players left for me to call.”
Bilek favors a 4-4-2 formation that often morphs into a 5-3-2 with an emphasis on a hardworking midfield to help move the ball forward. Long gone are the days when former Juventus star Pavel Nedved, now retired, roamed the midfield. Instead, the Czechs rely on lesser-known players – such as Mario Holek and Libor Sionko – to do the dirty work. They will likely give the US a tough time with their gritty play and ability to run at players.
Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech, one of the few regulars on the team to make the trip to the US, will be in net, giving the Americans a real chance to test their scoring abilities against a World-class netminder who recently won the Premiership and FA Cup titles. Bilek’s 22-man roster includes Anderlecht midfielder Jan Polak, who returns from a knee injury that kept him sidelined for most of the year, and two players – Anderlecht defender Ondrej Mazuch and Slavia Prague midfielder Milan Cerny – who earned their first-ever caps against Turkey.
Down 2-0 against Turkey, the Czechs, who played a particularly poor game, were only able to pull one back in the 81st minute thanks to a defensive blunder by Turkey defender Emre Gungor. After Gungor attempted a weak pass back to the goalie, Cerny was able to intercept the ball and score. The absences of Rosicky, Baros, Bednar and Sverkos, meanwhile, means Bilek will need to get creative offensively. In the loss to the Turks, Bilek used Polak and Cerny as second-half subs and could use them from the start against the US in an attempt to jump-start his attacking line.
“They are both good teams," Donovan said of the Czechs and Turks. “When it comes to teams not in the World Cup, it doesn’t get any better than these two to try and test yourself against.”
Clemente Lisi is the author of “A History of the World Cup: 1930-2006.” His new book "The US Women's Soccer Team: An American Success Story" will be available in June. Contact him at: CAL4477@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/ClementeLisi