USA vs Azerbaijan
Send Off Series Friendly
San Francisco, CA
|WHEN||10 PM Eastern|
|LINE||I don't know man|
FINALLY, THE TIME HAS COME TO GET REVENGE ON—uh…
well my one Armenian friend is totally pumped?
THE THEM: LAND OF FIRE
The "door to hell" is actually in Turkmenistan, but call yourself Land Of Fire and this is what you get
When not getting way more mileage out of their Atletico Madrid shirt sponsorship than they expected, Azerbaijan specializes in being on fire. This generates tourism? I am unclear on the way marketing works.
The Azeris finished fourth in their World Cup group with a 1-3-6 record (note: using standard American win-loss-tie notation here) and a –4 goal differential. They weren't good, finishing only ahead of Northern Ireland and Luxemborg, but they weren't terrible either, scoring a 1-1 tie and 1-0 road loss against group winner Russia. Their only multi-goal defeats came against USA group stage foe Portugal, which won 2-0 and 3-0.
This represents a high water mark for the country in their short history as an independent entity. Their current FIFA ranking of 85th is an all time high; ESPN's less dumb SPI metric has them 97th, one spot below Canada. Other nearby CONCACAF teams include Trinidad and Tobago and El Salvador.
As to the players themselves, I have no idea. The goalies and entire defensive corps plays in the Azeri league; the forwards who play abroad generally do so on the lower levels of the Turkish and German ladder. Judging solely by club stats, midfielder Ruslan Abishov, who plays for midtable Russian Premiere League outfit Rubin Kazan, is the best player available. He's a CB/DM hybrid like Cameron.
If you would like to know more about the Azeris I guarantee you that The Shin Guardian's preview is the only informative commentary on them on the entire internet.
So why is the US playing a game against a team far below the caliber of opposition they'll face at the World Cup? Their head coach, Berti Vogts. Klinsmann knows him and is about to steal him for two months:
Berti Vogts is literally working both sides.
As soon as he's done coaching Azerbaijan against the Americans in an international friendly Tuesday night, Vogts will start his temporary job as a special adviser to U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Vogts of course played Portugal twice in European qualifiers; he is also a former Germany coach. After this friendly Vogts is going to flit around the world taking in the USA's opponents in their WC friendlies, and thus deliver the US a Decided Schematic Advantage™.
Projecting a lineup, which is mostly a guess but there is this tweet:
If training is an indication #USMNT starting XI : Howard; Johnson, Cameron, Besler, Beasley; Bradley, Jones, Zusi, Dempsey, Bedoya; Altidore
— Ives Galarcep (@SoccerByIves) May 27, 2014
Zusi plus Bedoya is bizarre; Bedoya did play well for Nantes in the French top division this year, but mostly as the right winger he's always been (at least when he's scored).
And this shot of the locker room featuring something that looks like a 4-4-2 diamond on one chalkboard; the other one is not distinguishable but is probably the 4-2-3-1 Klinsmann has used most frequently.
DEFENSE: Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson.
I've seen many people knocking Beasley off the team sheet, but I just don't see how it happens. Johnson's been playing right back for "all of the scrimmages," and if he's not there the Donovan-shaped hole at left mid veritably looms. Johnson is very capable with both feet, FWIW, which is one of the reasons he's so attractive on the left—gentlemen who have the option of crossing or cutting in are rare. But the hole at right back is just too big to not look at him there.
Besler's no surprise; Cameron has played very well for the US when deployed at CB and has more ball skills than any other defender in the pool. With Gonzalez shaky of late it won't take much of an excuse to yoink him for a guy who facilitates keeping the ball.
#1 thing you want from these three friendlies: Tim Chandler looking great.
Substitutes are likely to include Chandler and Brooks as Klinsmann tries to get a handle on two guys who reputedly played very well over the last couple months of the Bundesliga season but have not played much for the US in the past six months—and not well. For reasons the next section will make clear, you really want Chandler to impress over these three games.
MIDFIELD: Jones, Bradley, Zusi, Donovan-shaped-hole-at-left-mid.
Bradley and Zusi are obvious.
Assuming 4-4-2 diamond is the preferred formation, the question is: what happens when Jermaine Jones is tasked with being a single midfield destroyer? He certainly has more range and bite than Beckerman, but his penchant for silly, card-drawing tackles will only be exacerbated when he is put under more pressure to shut things down himself.
Discipline may be an issue; I say "may" because Jones has never been explicitly cast in a holding role for the US. It's hard to imagine he'd just abandon it. Guy may be a bit of a loose cannon but he is a professional and the DM in a diamond is a know-your-role kind of player. This is the kind of game to give it a shot.
And then left mid, which Galarcep implies is Bedoya's spot. The Shin Guardian agrees. I guess I have to as well, because your other options are a cardboard cutout of Landon Donovan Klinsy is trolling everyone with, Brad Davis, the starting right back, the starting left back, Julian Green, Mix Diskerud, or I guess maybe Johannson. (I know I posited Johannson as a left mid but that was in a different formation where he is pretty striker-y.)
Subs should include Beckerman and then one of a parade of guys they throw out at the Landon-Donovan-shaped-hole to see what happens: Green, Diskerud, Davis.
FORWARD: Altidore, Dempsey
Questionable form brothers, unite! Dempsey's recent form is anything but… in MLS. I mean you guys:
He's been less impactful for the Nats after a torrid two-year run that saw him named captain and end up in this picture.
Altidore is much the same except he was in the EPL this year, and when Altidore is in the EPL he suffers through a miserable season where he barely gets a chance, is asked to be the hold-up guy he looks like but isn't and never will be, and gets disinterested, whereupon his place at the club is threatened. If he was still pounding them in for the Nats you could blame Sunderland and be done with it, but his impact streak stopped a while back as well.
Putting two guys at the top takes some of the pressure of Altidore to hold and gets Dempsey at the front, where he can do the evil things he does. For both, it's "please please please look good, please."
Substitutes should include Aron Johansson, who replaced Altidore at AZ down to the pile of goals, and Chris Wondolowski. Wondo's role is pretty obvious at this World Cup: come on at 70' and find the pockets of space tiring defenders will leave him. Johansson could be the previously-mentioned Winger In Name Only in a single-striker formation or he could push Altidore to the bench at some point.
WHAT YOU'RE LOOKING FOR, OTHER THAN EVERYTHING
Is the diamond the new thing? I assumed as much above; the 4-2-3-1 is available and will be deployed based on matchups. With the US looking to win the opener they will likely go with the aggressive diamond, but it'll depend on whether it performs. I'm expecting they switch between the two, either on the fly or based on substitutions. Bradley's versatility allows them to change on the go.
Will Klinsmann see the same thing eveyone else sees in re: Bradley? I'm far from the only US soccer commentator pleading for Bradley to be released upfield, but it's been seemingly obvious that is the best version of the USA for a long time without Klinsmann seeing it. We are all assuming this is the goal, but we all thought Donovan was going to the World Cup.
Left mid: who? I guess Bedoya is getting the first shot. Color me unimpressed. Bedoya's USA career has been minimally impactful. He's like Kljestan for the outside.
Right back: who? Fabian Johnson is a fine choice, but he's pretty obviously the best choice at left mid, so if someone can free him up to play there I'm in favor. Timmy Chandler, come on down.
How does the chemistry between Besler and Cameron look? Individually, Besler and Cameron have been the best central defenders of this cycle. They have not played together much, though, and communication issues are a possibility. If they look good together Klinsmann will be doing a secret jig, as that hypothetical pairing is about 1000x better able to keep possession than the 2010 cycle's hoofers. (No offense to said hoofers, but yeah man.)
Are we secretly hoping for a mild but disqualifying injury amongst the attacking players? Maybe.
SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES