Ukraine violence puts U.S. soccer team’s visit in question


Anti-government protesters clash with riot police in Kiev’s Independence Square, the epicenter of the country’s current unrest (By Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press)

The world has again turned its attention to Ukraine, where a government crackdown on protesters in Kiev led to escalating violence and several deaths Tuesday.

The U.S. Soccer Federation is paying close attention: The national team is scheduled to play a friendly in Kharkiv on March 5, the only official FIFA match date before World Cup training camp opens in mid-May.

USSF officials are in regular communication with the State Department and monitoring the situation themselves, spokesman Neil Buethe said. At the moment, there are no plans to cancel the match.

The USSF will have to address two issues in the coming weeks: safety and morality.

The safety aspect is straightforward. If the State Deptartment says the environment is too volatile for a group of high-profile Americans to visit, the USSF will withdraw. The largest anti-government protests, however, are centered in Kiev, not Kharkiv, which is 250 miles east of the capital. Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, is a government stronghold near the Russian border.

The U.S. visit will be brief. Even before the latest crisis, Coach Juergen Klinsmann had planned to operate a two-day training camp in Frankfurt — a hub for players traveling from overseas and throughout Europe — before the delegation chartered to Kharkiv a day before the match.

If this were not a World Cup year, the USSF might conclude the Ukraine trip is just not worth the hassle and cancel now.

But it is a World Cup year, and Klinsmann cannot afford to miss an opportunity to gather most of his first-choice players. Although the Americans will play four other friendlies before jetting to Brazil for the World Cup — April 2 against Mexico in Glendale, Ariz., and three games between late May and early June at U.S. venues — Klinsmann has not had his European-based World Cup candidates together since November. He won’t have them against Mexico; it’s not a FIFA date, and thus pro teams are not required to release their players for national team duty.

Ukraine was not the USSF’s first choice. But single, in-season matches are never easy to arrange and, when other undisclosed options fell through, the federation had to settle for Ukraine, which offers quality opposition but requires more extensive travel than most other European destinations.

This match will not make or break World Cup preparations but will help Klinsmann finalize the World Cup roster and continue building toward Brazil.

Then there is the moral issue. Should the U.S. team visit a country in a time of turmoil? It’s a tricky proposition. The Americans are not gearing up for a game in Syria or Central African Republic, site of human atrocities. Ukrainians are protesting President Viktor Yanukovych‘s powers and his building stronger ties with Russia rather than aligning with the European Union. Both the U.S. government and EU have sided with the opposition while calling for a peaceful solution.

If diplomacy wins out and violence subsides, Ukraine’s internal problems should not prevent the USSF from honoring its commitment to play. However, if blood continues to flow and the crisis escalates over the next week, the federation will have to take a hard look at its priorities.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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Steven Goff | February 18