Preview: Nats vs Azerbaijan

Submitted by Brian on May 27th, 2014 at 4:00 PM



WHAT USA vs Azerbaijan
Send Off Series Friendly
WHERE Candlestick Park
San Francisco, CA
WHEN 10 PM Eastern
LINE I don't know man



well my one Armenian friend is totally pumped?



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:

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.

GOALIE: Whoever.

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.


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.





May 27th, 2014 at 4:10 PM ^

Regardless of what personnel/formation they come out in, I'd be surprised if it wasn't switched up frequently. No better time than Azerbaijan 2 weeks before the Cup to try all sorts of crazy stuff and see what works.

Space Coyote

May 27th, 2014 at 4:23 PM ^

How are we running the 4-4-2? Are we zone in the back? Man? Man on the outside? We attacking with one center defender while holding one back or are we attacking from the outside similar to Brazil? What about closer on offense? We have a check back player with the outside mids attacking the wings? I know you said the left mid may attack inside, but how does that play into the runs that people around him are making?

In my opinion, I'm cool with wanting to do soccer things on here during world cup, but take the opportunity to edgumacate the folk so that they can appriciate it at a similar level as well. And then you may also not get the people that bitch about the preview stuff because, hey, you know what, they may actually learn something about the sport and start to enjoy some of the free-flowing nature of it. And they may then start to see some of the similarities between it and football, basketball, and hockey (not so much baseball).

But I dunno, that's just how I tend to approach sports and all things really, maybe it won't be affective here for the majority (or too much work possibly).

Space Coyote

May 27th, 2014 at 4:35 PM ^

I played travel growing up, so I know about as much as you learn playing high-level soccer as a youth and not much more. I've watched on and off over the years (always watched World Cup) as long as I can remember, but still, I only know enough to know that I don't really know that much. And so I read through these previews and can't visualize much, can't really grasp a lot beyond some of the basic this or basic that. I'm sure there are many others in a similar state or even to a lesser extent.

In conclusion: I'm all for writing about the USMNT around this time. But I know I, along with probably many others, would be able to enjoy these previews, and in turn, enjoy the games more, if we could translate what's being said into something tangible and visual. Something like picture pages would certainly help me read these over the summer, and make me enjoy the USMNT more when I do watch.

Space Coyote

May 27th, 2014 at 4:53 PM ^

I understand the initial set up, but perhaps more than any other sport, that formation is fairly free flowing in-play. It changes on offense and defense and with different runs and filling empty space and rotations and how they play defense and support one another or follow, etc, etc.

Just having a formation doesn't really explain much about soccer, and therefore, isn't overly informative about how soccer actually works.


May 27th, 2014 at 4:21 PM ^

Thing that I just learned: 

Azerbaijan is apparently where Europe ends. Iran, immediately to its south, qualifies through Asia


*and shouldn't they be seriously po'ed? Wouldn't they rather try to qualify out of Asia rather than being in a group with Russia and Portugal?


May 27th, 2014 at 4:24 PM ^

I guess its Negative Nancy Day for me today so I've got to say it: 

It boggles my mind that, with all the athletic talent (and sheer size of population) in the US, this country can't produce even one footballer with all-World level skills.  Its painful to read about Dempsey and Altidore as being the best players on the squad but barely being able to hack it in Europe.

Is it simply the fact that football, basketball, and baseball are so popular here that some great would-be soccer players choose one of those sports instead?  Whatever the reason, its really depressing.


May 27th, 2014 at 4:46 PM ^

Here's a page with the per player salary breakdown for most of the teams in the Premiership.…


At the top end, you see guys like Kun Aguero for Man City, who's making 220,000 pounds per week, roughly $20 million a year. But you also see the pretty stark disparity from club to club, with Man City paying out 242 million pounds in salary last season and Southampton paying out 52 million.


May 27th, 2014 at 4:34 PM ^

It's because we don't have the development leagues and programs that exist elsewhere. The sport has only attained marginal popularity here relatively recently. We just don't have the organizational infrastructure to develop an entire generation of players at a world level yet. 


May 27th, 2014 at 4:38 PM ^

Not American but my father moved there years ago and I was discussing this with him a few years ago. His theory on the problem with soccer in the US was hilarious.

In his opinion, there's 3 reasons why the US hasn't embraced soccer fully or why they aren't great at it.

1) Americans want sports with at least a sense of a fair playing field. I kinda disagreed (don't need to explain; it's a college football blog) but I see the point. When you have players diving at the slightest contact, widespread allegations of match-fixing, and a governing body whose corruption is MAYBE only topped by the IOC, it's not exactly a clean sport.

2) Americans want sports where violence is a central aspect of the game. Football/Hockey? Violence. Basketball? You're kidding yourself if you're not a warrior playing that. Baseball? Not so much but we all can't wait for a guy to run headlong in to the wall after a catch or for a home-plate collision. I love soccer and will be first to admit it's far more physical then people give it credit but it doesn't come across that way.

3) Americans like sports they're good at. I disagreed at first, but then couldn't explain necessarily why rugby isn't huge in the US. Of the big 4 sports, the US has reasonable-to-great shots at winning in 3 of them and the 4th sport is only really played in the US.

Again, I don't agree fully with all of that but I think it's a good starting point.


May 27th, 2014 at 8:43 PM ^

I blame the US Soccer "Grow the Game" mindset. They've got this belief that you have to be a "soccer supporter" and get behind whatever the highest level of soccer is in your community, as well as support whatever barnstorming friendlies might show up.

What they're not doing is growing clubs, which are the core of the sport everywhere else in the world. The cities where there's been organic growth of soccer in the US tend to be the places where an ownership group has decided to grow a club rather than The Game, and the fans/supporters have built a community around that club to the point where it's moved up the tiers of the pyramid (a.k.a "faux-motion.")

Here in Detroit, we've got 3,100 people showing up for Detroit City FC's fourth-tier NPSL matches played on Cass Tech's football field because the owners decided to grow a club and a culture and the people showed up in droves, while "better" soccer across town draws 100 people to a match at best.

(For the Michigan connection, UM incoming transfer William Mellors-Blair is playing for Detroit City FC and he's an absolute stud. Chaka's got a great one there.)

snarling wolverine

May 27th, 2014 at 9:55 PM ^

People try too hard to find explanations for things.  Soccer just hasn't been a big part of our culture historically, just as sports like football and baseball aren't a big part of European culture.  

Soccer, in the form we know it, isn't all that old.  Its rules were only codified around 1865 or so.  By that time, baseball had already caught on and American football was about to get going.  Soccer spread essentially via the British, who brought it wherever they had trading contacts (which was most of the world).  In most of these countries, soccer was the first organized sport to be played, so it caught on like wildfire.  But in the U.S. (and also, ironically, British colonies like Australia, New Zealand and Canada), there were already other sports being played by the time the Brits brought soccer over.  Consequently, soccer has struggled to find its place in our sports calendar, which is pretty crowded.  But it's slowly establishing a foothold.



May 28th, 2014 at 10:09 AM ^

It's not very complicated why despite having arguably the best athletes in the world that the USA hasn't put together a world power team yet. 

Our best athletes go to football/basketball then baseball, then just track usually, then hockey, then you start getting to soccer I'd say. Not always in that order obviously, but while soccer is primary sport #1, 2 and 3 for many of these nations, it's 4th or 5th at best for us in what kids want to play.


May 27th, 2014 at 4:40 PM ^

Some of it is that, but a lot of it has been that US youth teams have been really bad at teaching kids the skills they need to succeed on the highest levels, most notably close control and a deft first touch.

Kids in other countries were either playing a lot of street soccer (ie, poor parts of the world), where kids are encouraged to just try stuff out the way you would in a pickup basketball game, or they're playing in academies in Holland, France, Belgium, and Germany where they play a ton of small sided games in tight spaces, encouraging the development of quick thinking and ball skills (and that also pretty ruthlessly weed out player that aren't developing). For a long time, American youth soccer focused much more on winning (mainly through the type of kick and run route 1 style soccer that you used to see in the lower divisions of England and that works when the skill level is low) and has been managed more by parents who want exercise and comradery for their kids rather than the professional development of skills (the academy model has a social downside). But when I was playing U-6 and U-8 twenty plus years ago, the teams were playing on large fields with 11 a side. The result was pack-ball where goals usually only came where someone kicked the ball a long way and a fast kid ran onto it, and few opportunities to actually carry the ball, try passes, etc.

That's started to change. In my kids' u-6 league, they never played with more than 4 a side, resulting in a lot more touches for every player. They also do a ton more individual ball drills than I ever remember doing. Someone who's been involved in youth soccer in between my playing and my parenting (which is when the change occurred) can probably pinpoint when this transition happened, but you're just starting to see the effects.


May 27th, 2014 at 4:41 PM ^

Soccer is really just like 5000th fiddle in the US, Its barely on tv (though that is changing now) but most of the time you have to go out of your way to catch good matches since they are on at like 7 in the morning or 2 in the afternoon. Most people dont have local teams that everybody pays attention to, so it isnt something you can really talk about with people unless you know they are soccer fans. most people have a passing knowledge of the big 3 sports (football/baseball/basketball) and can talk about it, I can barely name more 1 MLS player and a handful of european players. 

Since its so unpopular, elite athletes gravitate to other sports which attract bigger revenues, better training, and better coaching. Europeans identify kids when they are like 10 and start them on training regiments to play soccer. By then in the states you'd be playing travel soccer with practice once a week in the spring or fall, maybe you'd play indoor soccer in the winter and it'd be coached by your dad who volunteered to do it with maybe some experience playing soccer in high school back in the day.


May 27th, 2014 at 6:56 PM ^

Soccer is definitely slowly but steadily increasing in popularity, but I've always thought things would take off more if we had a real bona-fide international star. Beckham has to be the most well-known player in America now. If a bunch of kids have their "I wanna be like Mike" moment, that'll help accelerate things.


May 27th, 2014 at 4:58 PM ^

It comes down to the Youth Development programs. The US just got serious about this within the last 10-15 years. They now have Youth Programs and have thrown a ton of money at development. 

Kids today playing soccer have a ton more serious options to play competitive youth soccer in the United States. There are lots of Americans in European Youth Systems (Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Southampton, Fulham, Borussia Dortmund, etc) but lots more at the IMG Academy in Florida or the MLS Youth Development Programs like CSA Wolves (where several Michigan freshmen including Selemani play).

Growing the game here is at the forefront of the USSF's mission. Sunil Gulati talks about it all the time. It'll continue to improve.


May 27th, 2014 at 9:30 PM ^

Not sure exactly what you mean by all-World level skills, but Dempsey was one of the top goal scorers in all matches in the Premiereship a couple of years ago with Tottenham. And Altidore being one of the best players on the squad? Don't know where you heard that, but no, he's not. Bradley is pretty much universally acknolwedged as the best player on the team this year. Bradley did well in Serie A - far more than "barely being able to hack it in Europe."



May 27th, 2014 at 4:33 PM ^

I really hope Cameron and Besler blend well. I was kind of peeved to see Clarence Goodson get left off the roster, he just seems like a steady hand of the bench if they had needed it. 

ESPN Classic has been running some US games the last few days and I've noticed that Cameron is pretty incredible at covering up for other people's mistakes. I feel like if the CDM in front of him can work in a triangle with he and Besler, the D goes from shaky to maybe ok. 


May 27th, 2014 at 4:43 PM ^

Geoff Cameron is our best defender by far. Stoke uses him as Right Back and he does well there. However, Klinsmann needs him at CB because of the issues guys like Brooks, Gonzalez and Goodson (cut at 30 man roster) have had.

Brooks is a big talent but hasn't looked ready yet. He was horrendous in that 2-0 loss to The Ukraine back in March. Then again, he was paired with Onyewu.


May 27th, 2014 at 4:56 PM ^

So far in his career with the national team, he has played a lot like Onyewu, at least in my opinion. Both are TE sized, slow footed and good in the air, but both have wafer thin margins for error, because of their lack of speed and ball skills. I think Cameron is good enough in the air to be a solid pair for Besler, and he also very good speed for a center back. 


May 27th, 2014 at 5:03 PM ^

Look, maybe I was hard on Brooks but he's only 21 years old. He had an up and down season in Germany but ended the season well at Hertha.

Brooks will continue to improve. He's got a ton of potential, which is why the US has recruited him so hard the past few years (Tab Ramos, Andy Herzog and JK).

Onyewu's USMNT days are behind him. He's had terrible luck with injuries and bad situations at the club level (Sporting, Malaga, QPR).


May 27th, 2014 at 5:44 PM ^

I think there is plenty of hope for Brooks, and there's reason to be optimistic abou what he might do. All I'm saying is that as of right now I think he offers similar things to what Onyewu did in 2006 or 2010. 


May 27th, 2014 at 4:43 PM ^

I will freely admit I know very little about soccer (other than I really enjoy watching the World Cup) but I'm going to go way out on a limb and predict that any result short of winning the whole damn thing will result in people saying "if Landon Donovan was on the team this wouldnt have happened".

Judging from the media coverage it sure seems like Michael Jordan was left off the Dream Team #1.


May 27th, 2014 at 4:52 PM ^

I think the media reaction is the reason Klinnsman made the cuts when he did. If he had waited until June 2, when rosters were due, he knew there would be a huge firestorm and a ton of questions as they went to Brasil. This way, he'll get those questions somewhat out of the way and allow other storylines to develop.

I also suspect that there are a number of US players who aren't brokenhearted over Donovan not making it. Until this point (though it's changing a bit) US soccer players have basically one opportunity every four years to get their names out in the public for marketing opportunities, etc. With Donovan not on the team, there is space opened up for a player who has a good WC to be the new "face" of American soccer.

snarling wolverine

May 27th, 2014 at 10:01 PM ^

Well, we're not going to win the whole thing (we'll be hard-pressed to make it out of the group stage), but it's not that big of a deal that Donovan isn't going, other than for sentimental reasons.  This isn't like leaving Jordan off the Dream Team; it's like leaving Larry Bird or one of the other older guys off.  Donovan's not the player he once was.  The main reason this is a "controversy" is just that he's one of the first star players we've had.  We're not used to a changing of the guard like other countries are.



May 27th, 2014 at 5:26 PM ^

I suspect Dempsey to be just in behind Altidore (or Johannsson) and able to make overlapping runs.

Jones will stay back and essentially (hopefully) act as a fifth defender when necessary allowing Bradley to move further up the field.



May 27th, 2014 at 6:17 PM ^

When is the last time you have seen Jones "stay back." This is the reason I like Beckermann is his spot because he likes to stay back which allows Bradley to have more freedom to get forward.


May 28th, 2014 at 10:15 AM ^

Beckerman plays the position better, but Jones gives you more speed and potential going forward if nothing else. Though I personally think Beckerman is better with ball and at least knows how to advance it forward; half the time Jones gets it in the middle he seems to try dripping upfield and losing possession from behind. But you need someone to be able to play back because Michael Bradley is probably the single most important piece of the team having any chance to win some matches. 

Kilgore Trout

May 27th, 2014 at 5:30 PM ^

"Are we secretly hoping for a mild but disqualifying injury amongst the attacking players? Maybe."

I admit this had crossed my mind. Do we think he's even the guy who would get the call?


May 27th, 2014 at 5:59 PM ^

I think that if the interior of our d-line can take a step forward and Pip can return from that knee, our backers should be free to roam sideline to sideline and we could be a dominant defense against the run.


May 27th, 2014 at 6:19 PM ^

I think we will see a ton of experimenting. I really want to see both brooks and green get playing time. I don't think they will get it in the real games, but if they can earn it, it would sure free up our roster options

Also, I think it is super important to get Jozy a goal so he can get his mojo going