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Canadian Game Day: Men @ Ukraine, 11:00 AM PDT

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UKRAINE
 
CANADA
FIFA ranking: 26
vs.
FIFA ranking: 88
Elo ranking: 15
 
Elo ranking: 54
11:00 AM PDT, Olimpiysky National Sports Complex, Kiev, Ukraine
No Canadian television; shown on Inter TV in Ukraine

To tell you the truth, I've always had mixed feelings about these sorts of friendlies.

On one level, they're fantastic. Canada's taking on a highly worthy adversary, and this is a national team that's had problems booking any opponents let alone good ones. There's something exciting in watching a rather mediocre soccer nation, like Canada, test itself against a team that's hosting the European Championships and expecting to put on a good show. There's no way to lose, not really: we can get thumped and that's just what you'd expect, but if we go out and get a point then it would be a tremendous victory both for our players and our FIFA ranking.

On the other hand, well, we're not going to get a point, are we? Ukraine isn't ranked so far ahead of us because of how wonky FIFA's rankings are, they're ranked that far ahead of us because they're better than us. We're playing on the road in inclement conditions: Canadians at the training camp in Kiev have been complaining about the cold for the last week and that's saying something coming from Canadians. We haven't got our best players together, because for a European friendly in the middle of the North American season that's always going to be impossible. Last time we were in Europe, under similar circumstances, we lost 1-0 in Poland and 3-0 in Macedonia despite match fixing in the latter case that gave us two penalties we missed. Ukraine is clearly better than either one of those teams, and our lineup perhaps a little weaker. Playing superior teams is nice, but nobody learns anything from being run over and trying to get the license plate number of that truck.

I don't see any way we can draw, let alone win, with this lineup. Defying the ethos of one of the great philosophers of our time, Ukraine is not weak and we will not be putting the hurt on much of anything. I just we don't get smashed too brutally.

If Stephen Hart sticks to his guns from the Honduras friendly and goes with the old 4-3-3, which in my opinion he should, my starting lineup would run as follows: Lars Hirschfeld in goal, Marcel de Jong at left back, Adam Straith and Dejan Jakovic down the middle, Paul Stalteri at right back, midfielders Atiba Hutchinson, Pedro Pacheco, and Patrice Bernier. Up front, Josh Simpson and Issey Nakajima-Farran on the wings for Simeon Jackson.

This lineup is, inevitably, imperfect. Without Jaime Peters, Paul Stalteri is pretty much the only choice at right back. I realize Adam Straith has played a fair bit of right back with his club, but as Kevin McKenna is injured I'd rather have him stabilizing the middle with Jakovic. We're also one central midfielder short. I don't have faith in the 31-year-old Patrice Bernier to be starting at this level any longer, but we need a stable, defensively-oriented central midfielder who can let Hutchinson do his thing. Pedro Pacheco has been fighting fitness issues but looked good in his previous cap and is pretty clearly our best remaining midfielder. The only two real alternatives are Nikolas Ledgerwood and moving Issey Nakajima-Farran back from the wing. I'm a big Ledgerwood fan, but given his utility at defense as well as midfield and given our lack of depth I'd rather have him available as spark off the bench. As for Nakajima-Farran, he'd certainly be capable of going in central midfield but he's at his best on the wing; moreover, moving him back would require me to put Simeon Jackson on the wing in his place, and Jackson has struggled acutely in that role. I even flirted with going Edgar - Straith as the centre backs and putting Jakovic in midfield, but I'm not sure he's played there since college.

That's a long-winded way of saying "my kingdom for Terry Dunfield". If we had one more quality option in central midfield, we could use Pacheco off the bench and have some spark left for when we inevitably go down a couple goals. Jonathan Bourgault, well, I like the kid and he plays a good, simple game that Canada needs sometimes, but he's in the German fourth division right now and if you put him out against the likes of Andrey Shevchenko he's going to get windburn.

Another guy who it would be great to have along is Tomasz Radzinski. Yes, he's thirty-six. I really don't care. I can't think of anyone else playing in Europe who's part of our national pool and could give us what Radzinski is capable of: run in at the sixty minute mark, give us a healthy dose of pace, skill, and sublime passing along the wing, and possibly turn a game around. I haven't seen Radzinski since last year in Poland but his athleticism didn't seem to have abandoned him then, apart from a slight lack of endurance. It's not like he'd be taking someone off the roster who'd be a key part of 2014 qualification, either: I'm not buying this Marcus Haber bunk for a second. You can't tell me you wouldn't feel just a little hope if we were down 1-0 and old man Radzinski came in as a substitute to try and save the day.

As it is, our substitute options are pretty limited. David Edgar simply must see the pitch; I'd probably put him in for whichever one of Jakovic, Straith, and Stalteri looked worst at half time. As indicated above, Nikolas Ledgerwood can play whereever in defense or midfield we need help (I'm thinking he's probably Pacheco's replacement, and pretty early at that). I replace Jackson with Olivier Occean at some point, and late in the game I give young Julian Uccello his first cap on the wing. Bourgault can go on for a central midfielder late if the game's not too tight. Haber and David Monsalve don't leave the bench barring injury.

It's our attack I'm really concerned about. Josh Simpson looks better every game at both club and country level, and both Olivier Occean and Julian Uccello are long overdue to return to Canada's setup. None of them, however, are exactly elite international players. And Simeon Jackson, the guy who more than any looks like he should pile up goals, has scored once in twelve caps for Canada. Jackson's lack of goals leaves me at a loss. He's what Canada's been calling out for: a small, relatively quick striker with good instincts and nice finishing touch. Ali Gerba, but smaller and more athletic. Yet he simply can't score for us. What distinguishes Jackson from Rob Friend, to me, is the fact that Jackson is only 23 years old and has at least had moments where he looks like he might score: still, his international career is clearly heading the wrong way.

If Jackson is going to break out of his slump, Ukraine will be a tough team to do it against. Ukraine is not the best defensive team in the world but Canada's attack has been erratic enough that young Andriy Pyatov is unlikely to be overworked in Ukraine's goal. Canada's greatest chance comes in the relative inexperience of Ukraine's back four: none of them have more than twenty caps and only Taras Mykhalyk, Oleksandr Kucher, and Vitaliy Mandzyuk have more than ten. While Canada's not exactly going to be attacking with a great deal of experience either, there is at least an opportunity there.

Where we lose out most glaringly is in midfield. I've already discussed Canada's weaknesses in this area, but the Ukrainian lineup includes veteran Anatoliy Tymoshchuk out of Bayern Munich and a battery of other experienced midfielders in the prime of their careers, headlined by 27-year-old Oleh Husyev. The likes of Pacheco and Bernier will certainly be in trouble against Ukraine there, and with Andrey Shevchenko set to win his 100th cap against us he'll certainly be motivated to score for the home fans. Even if Shevchenko is shut down, Andriy Voronin is a dangerous secondary threat.

Ukraine may be leaving a few players at home, most notably defender Andriy Rusol and midfielder Serhiy Nazarenko, but in both experience and skill they're more than a match for this Canadian team. It should be a good game to watch, and there's just enough weakness in the Ukrainian lineup to give me a glimmer of hope. But I don't dare expect anything.

News and Notes

  • If you haven't already, head over to the Voyageurs forum and look at Max Bell's interviews with some of the Canadian players direct from Kiev. That is the kind of reporting many of us bloggers flatter ourselves by thinking we could do and never actually do - Max was at the Gold Cup last year, and while he was getting interviews I was sitting in a mediocre college bar drinking and flirting with the bartender.
  • The weather forecast for Kiev is clear with a chance of rain and about ten degrees Celcius at kickoff time. Good training for those World Cup qualifiers at Commonwealth Stadium in November.
  • There are no absolutely iron-clad web feeds for the game yet. myp2p.eu is advertising that they will have one closer to kickoff time, and Inter TV does have a live broadcast stream. I've had enough problems with such streams in the past, though, that I wouldn't count on it. As a worst case, the CSA will be live-tweeting the game.