Anybody who has watched World Cup warm-ups at any time in the last 30 years will know that the USA’s lukewarm performance against Azerbaijan is par for the course.
Jurgen Klinsmann and his team were in a no-win situation. Had they smacked the Azeris 8-0, then the cry of ‘pointless opponents’ will have been screamed. A lackluster 2-0 win, courtesy of late goals from substitutes Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson had some posing the inevitable question: “Would we have done any better with Landon in the team?”
Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
Klinsmann, as he should be at this stage, is tinkering with formations. The USA appeared a stronger unit in the second half, but some of that was also due to the opposition running out of steam. These matches are the equivalent of preseason friendlies, and should be treated as such.
No coach wants his players to peak against the team positioned 85th in the FIFA rankings, and then fall away when it comes to facing Ghana, Portugal and Germany at the World Cup itself. It is all about building, whether that be an understanding between players, match sharpness, or intensity levels.
Conditions at Candlestick Park were a far cry from what the players can expect in Brazil, where hot and humid will replace the warm and windy. England’s players have been preparing for their match in Manaus by wearing three layers of clothing during training in Portugal.
Defensively, the USA were rarely tested and so the match with Azerbaijan was less about how they fared against the opposition and more about how Geoff Cameron, and then Omar Gonzalez, played alongside Matt Besler.
It was up top where most eyes were fixed as this was the first opportunity to see a Donovan-less USA side on the eve of a major tournament. Intrigue was heightened when, in the minutes leading to kick-off, Clint Dempsey was withdrawn as a precaution with a minor groin injury.
Chris Wondolowski was offered a starting role, and got himself into great positions, peeling away from his man as he does so well. His finishing, sadly, was not as slick as his movement.
The TV commentators were trying to play down the USA’s inability to break the deadlock in the first half, insisting that they would not face such a defensive-minded team at the World Cup. Well, that may be true, but they will unfortunately face much better teams at the World Cup, who may not play defensively, but they will be tighter and more highly disciplined in that department.
Also, it’s not uncommon for teams to be over-cautious in their opening group games. Teams want to win, but they do not want to lose that opener and leave themselves a hill to climb. In the USA’s case, they face arguably the weaker of the three group opponents in Ghana, who will also be mindful of tougher days to follow in Brazil. In other words, the USA may just find that the very nature of the group stage could keep teams in their shell, particularly the first match. The fact that they struggled to break down a wall of Azerbaijanis will give Klinsmann something to think about as the team now heads to New Jersey.
And so, the games to follow will offer greater insight into what fans can expect when that first group game is played in Natal on June 16. A game against Turkey, at Red Bull Arena on Sunday, will be a much tougher test. It should also allow the USA to face a side whose approach will be comparable to that of Germany and Portugal, minus the individual game-changers.
The USA then tackles Nigeria - the only one of the three in the ‘Send-Off Series’ to have actually qualified for the World Cup - in Jacksonville, Florida on June 7. Nigeria should be the perfect opposition as the USA marches into battle against Ghana nine days later. As a near-neighbor of Ghana, the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations winners will be very similar in stature and style.
Did the diamond midfield shine? No. Will it be trotted out again in the coming days, with a view to springing it on Ghana? That’s one for Jurgen to answer, who will be asking himself the very same questions in the next few weeks. At this point, there are more questions than answers. Only when that first ball is kicked in anger against Ghana will most of the questions be answered, one way or another.
USA: Tim Howard; Fabian Johnson (DeAndre Yedlin, 62), Geoff Cameron (Omar Gonzalez, 46), Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley (Timmy Chandler, 46); Graham Zusi (Brad Davis, 46), Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya (Mix Diskerud, 71); Jozy Altidore, Chris Wondolowski (Aron Johannsson, 62).