AN UNAVOIDABLE DISTRACTION?
I'll go ahead and right away offer my apologies to Bob, Benny and the boys.
Having just wrapped up a berth in South Africa next summer, Bob Bradley and US Soccer were quick to schedule the first in what will be a long series of pre-World Cup friendly games. Starting with the November 18 game against Denmark in Aarhus, they will dedicate the next six months to tuning up, sizing up, whittling down and finally sharpening up the 23 faces which will board the plane to South Africa next summer.
Denmark isn't a team one would consider a high-profile opponent, but nevertheless they still quietly ended on top of a tough qualifying group which included regular entrants (and knock-out round participants) Portugal and Sweden. This won't be the same Danish "domestic" team which the boys have routinely sharpened their talons on in the meaningless late-January friendly, but the full squad which, through their tight, disciplined, tactically sound approach allowed a grand total of five goals throughout the entire qualifying schedule.
Even though they are lacking in clear star-power (Nicklas Bendtner's lovely selection of footware is probably the headline grabber) and I won't make any attempt to oversell them, this team offers an entirely different approach to the game from the usual CONCACAF slugfests, which will be a useful exercise with the big dance creeping ever closer.
Furthermore, this game will bear special meaning for at least one certain participant on the American team, Benny Feilhaber, who calls Aarhus' NRGi Park his home stadium. The game will see Feilhaber line up against usual Aarhus midfield partner (and current Danish man of the moment for his South Africa-clinching goal against Sweden) Jakob Poulsen, and could even see one-time national teamer and current AGF favorite Jeremiah White also take the field for the Stars and Stripes.
Perhaps more importantly, this mid-November set of friendlies (which will hopefully include another game four days earlier) will be the first chance for Bob Bradley to widen his view and experiment with players and schemes minus the pressure of qualifying forcing his hand to stick with the tried-and-true.
Will Edgar Castillo finally get a look at left back? Will Jose Francisco Torres have the opportunity to pull the strings in midfield from the start like he did in the final half hour against Costa Rica? Will Kenny Cooper get to have an extended shot on the field with the first-team midfielders? Who will step up in central defense in DeMerit's and Gooch's absence? By the time the final whistle blows in Aarhus, we can hope to have an idea if any of the numerous outstanding questions will get a look in the following half-year.
While the pressure is certainly off as far as the final result is concerned, this is still an important game on many levels and should set the tone of what to expect for the next six months of preparation.
So why am I already apologizing?
Because chances are I won't be watching it.
The pairings for the final four UEFA spots were announced just hours ago and predictably, the final games of the two-legged playoffs on November 18 will almost certainly provide some can't-miss viewing competition for the game in Aarhus. Two of the four in particular stand out.
In the second leg of their playoff, France, who have been entirely unspectacular throughout qualifying, will host Ireland, who proved a tough nut to crack in their own group. France was mediocre on the road throughout qualifying. Ireland was unbeatable at home...and on the road. While France will certainly be counted as the favorites (even with the "Domenech handicap") and are fortunate to have the second leg at home, everything points towards a tight socreline and tense winner-takes all situation heading into the encounter in the Stade de France.
If that wasn't enough of a distraction...
Elsewhere in UEFA is the matchup that has my mouth watering; cardiac-case Portugal against young upstarts Bosnia and Herzegovina. Portugal are coming into the playoff with a head of steam, winners of their last three and looking like an unstoppable juggernaut. Favorites? Sure. Easy ride? Not a chance.
On paper they limited their opponents to a paltry five goals through qualifying (three of them coming in one eight-minute onslaught by Denmark) but it's fair to say that didn't face anything like what the Bosnians have in store for them, and the Portuguese have indeed shown their frailties on several occasions in recent years. The Bosnian attacking quartet of Edin Dzeko, Zvjezdan Misimovic, Vedad Ibisevic and Sejad Salihovic - four of the most feared men in the Bundesliga - will simply run their defense ragged over 180 minutes.
The Bosnians will also have considerable trouble dealing with Portugal's class of world-renowned talent (they conceded 13 in qualifying), giving this playoff the possibility of an end-to-end shootout.
Ratcheting the whole thing up a level is the fact that the final leg will be played on the east side of the Adriatic sea in Bosnia's Bilino Polje Stadium, never a pleasant prospect for visiting teams. Barring a first-leg blowout in Lisbon, the November 18th game in Zenica stands to be one of the highlights of the marathon UEFA qualification process; Portugal trying to complete their miraculous escape, their upstart hosts fighting for their first-ever berth in a major international tournament, with both teams having the weapons to strike any number of fatal blows to their opponent.
So to all of you guys who will be up in Denmark taking also an important step towards South Africa, albeit of a different nature, I hope you understand if my attention is, for the evening, focused elsewhere (whether towards Paris or Zenica). What can I say? If Bob and Sunil do their jobs right with scheduling the next six months, I'll have plenty of chances to make up for it.