With US qualification to the World Cup secure, the USSF has scheduled two interesting friendlies for the international break in November. The US was relatively impressive in CONCACAF qualifying, recording improbable wins at Port of Spain against Trinidad & Tobago as well as in San Pedro Sula versus Honduras, and also knocking Costa Rica out of the World Cup with a great come from behind result at RFK Stadium earlier this month.
But that was against CONCACAF opposition. While friendlies aren’t always the best judge of who performs well in World Cups, they are often times more accurate judges than even qualifying itself. When you consider that the US has achieved just two results (one win and one draw) in its eleven meetings versus European nations since returning to the World Cup in 1990, these two matches could be very important.
On paper, Slovakia is the easier match. But having qualified for its first ever World Cup since splitting from the Czech Republic in 1993, (Slovakia was technically independent as a Nazi puppet state during World War II, but it was never recognized as such by the US, or UK) the Slovaks are riding a wave of national pride in its football accomplishments.
Nonetheless, Slovakia lost earlier this month to Slovenia, but was still able to hold off the former Yugoslav Republic for the top spot and automatic qualification in UEFA Group 3. While Slovakia has some quality, this will be a chance for the European based players in the US pool who are sure to get the call for this match to make a statement.
No doubt, however the tougher game will be against Denmark. I’ve often stated that when the Danes have a good side, they are really good and when they struggle, they are eminently beatable (as they were when rebuilding during the 2006 and 2008 qualifying cycles). Right now, the Danes fit into the former category.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Denmark was among the most entertaining and competitive sides on the planet, winning both the European Championships and the Confederations Cup. These sides included Brian Laudrup, who in my mind was the most skilled attacking midfielder on the planet not named Zidane, in the 1990s. His older brother Michael was more successful at the club level and equally skilled but from my vantage point did not have the flair of Brian. (Both were great players, I just preferred the younger Laudrup to the older one) But following a quarterfinal run in the 1998 World Cup, the Danes started to struggle and despite qualifying for Euro 2000, they made little impact.
Enter Morton Olsen, former great player from Denmark’s outstanding teams of the 1980s. Olsen was able to hold together an aging side which advanced to the knock out stages of the 2002 World Cup and 2004 European Championships, and then rebuild to qualify atop Europe’s Group of Death for the 2010 World Cup.
The Danes, in my opinion are a very dangerous team that could advance deep at next summer’s World Cup. This aggressive scheduling by Sunil Gulati and Bob Bradley must be commended. Ultimately, the match in Denmark will tell us a great deal about where the US must improve heading into a World Cup year.