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US-Slovakia Preview: Things to Watch For

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The US will take on Slovakia in Bratislava on Saturday in its first exhibition match since it qualified for the World Cup (10 am on Fox Soccer Channel). These are two very evenly matched teams with Slovakia featuring Liverpool's intimidating central defender Martin Skrtel and Serie A midfielder Marek Hamsik.

In the past the US has often struggled playing in Europe and were over matched by the technical ability and physicality of the play. But those days should be over. With many US players playing in Europe and with the recent performances demonstrating the quality of the US side, the US should go toe to toe with the Slovaks. Slovakia is also exactly the type of team that the US will likely have to beat to advance out of the group stages of the World Cup, so this should be a very good yardstick for which to judge the prospects of the USMNT.

However, this friendly has also taken on added importance for the yanks. A month ago this game, as well as the one against Denmark next Wednesday -- was about fine-tuning what was a settled squad. Now the situation looks very different.

The tragic accident involving Charlie Davies ensures that he will miss the World Cup and a freakish knee injury to starting central defender Oguchi Onyewu in the final 10 minutes of the final World Cup qualifier leaves his status for the tournament in doubt. These are absolutely huge losses for the US. Onyewu has been a stalwart for the American defense and his play at the confederations cup prompted AC Milan to sign him in the summer. The loss of Davies for the team is almost as severe. His pace, power, and emerging knack for goal gave the U.S. a lethal combination of speed and strength up front with Davies and Jozy Altidore. Additionally, with Davies upfront and Donovan on the left the US had two players with explosive speed that could launch dangerous counterattacks (remember the second goal against Brazil in June).

The U.S. is therefore approaching this game hoping for some new players to emerge and fill the wholes in the US squad. But to make matters more complicated for US coach Bob Bradley many of those potential impact players are unavailable, since both MLS and the Mexican league are still playing despite the international break. This further reduces Bradley's options. National team regulars like Landon Donovan, Stuart Holden, Jose Francisco Torres, and Ricardo Clark will all miss out. Additionally emerging players like Real Salt Lake's Robbie Findley -- who is 23 and scoring goals- and left back Edgar Castillo of Mexico's Tigres, who recently declared his desire to play for the US instead of Mexico and has national team fans excited, will both miss the first match. On the bright side this gives some additional players a chance to emerge on Saturday.

Here are some things to watch for:

1. Who does Bob Bradley chose in the midfield to replace Donovan? With Donovan, Feilhaber, and Torres out -- the three players that would be automatic selections -- Bob Bradley has a tough choice between going with left winger Robbie Rogers or central midfielder Sacha Kljestan. With the loss of Davies, the US team is looking for players with speed and Rogers could be a potential answer on the left, pushing Donovan up top. Kljestan at the beginning of the year was on the verge of a contract with Celtic in Scotland and scored a hat trick against Sweden. But he has simply not played well this year and frankly the central midfield position is one that is crowded with talented players. Even if Kljestan is playing well again, it is much more important for the US to see if Robbie Rogers can cut it at this level. I would go with Rogers.

2. Who pares with Altidore up front? The large figure of Conor Casey was chosen for the final two World Cup qualifiers, but despite his two goals in Honduras there are still questions about his ability. Jeff Cunningham, the moody 33 year old striker has been scoring a boatload of goals and has the pace and experience that has often been lacking on this squad. But questions about his attitude remain. There is also Eddie Johnson who was kept by Fulham this season to give them some additional depth, but has rarely seen the field. It seems odd that EJ made the team while Kenny Cooper did not. My choice would be Cunningham, but expect Casey to start, with EJ and Cunningham coming on the second half.

3. Who plays along the back line?
With no Gooch and no Jay Demerit (eye injury), a centerback spot on the roster is up for grabs between Chad Marshall and Clarence Goodson. At right back, West Ham's Jonathan Spector and veteran Bundesliga player Steve Cherundolo are both vying for the spot. At left back Jonathan Bornstein has played better the last couple US games, but he still gives me a heart attack and is mistake prone (ie clearing the ball back into the penalty box against El Salvador). He will likely get this game, with Edgar Castillo being called in for the Denmark game. If it were up to me I would go with Cherundolo at right back and play Spector at centerback with Bocanegra. Spector can play centrally -- he has the size and strength -- and I think is better than Marshall or Goodson. But expect Spector to start on the right and Marshall in the middle.

4. Can the US keep possession against a solid robust European side? As soccer has developed in the US the one area where the US has frequently been lacking is its ability to hold on to the ball. Maintaining possession is critical for any team's success, since you need the ball to score, but it also tires out the opposing players who are forced to chase and defend. Additionally, the US has been prone to careless turnovers in the midfield, which enable teams to launch dangerous counterattacks. These must be minimized.

5. Will Dempsey show? His last few games for the national team have been very poor. Against Trinidad he showed little effort and failed to track back defensively. The US will need him to step up come June.

6. The matchup to watch out for: Altidore vs. Skrtel. After Freddy Adu's fall from stardom, American fans are very cautious in saying it, but there is a widespread belief that Altidore will be the first American soccer superstar. He will have quite a test going up against Liverpool's Martin Skrtel.

7. Will Benny Feilhaber grab hold of the central midfield spot?
Feilhaber is the best passer on the US team and is very calm on the ball, giving the US a player in the central midfield that can help control possession and unlock opposing defenses. His weakness has been defensively, but if he can dictate the pace of the game and serve as the point guard/quarterback of the U.S. attack he may give Bradley some really tough choices down the road.

Max Bergmann is an editor of Association Football, an American soccer blog (www.assoc-football.com)