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Five points ahead of USMNT's post-Landon Donovan bow against Azerbaijan

The road to the World Cup starts in earnest tonight when the U.S. national team plays Azerbaijan in San Francisco tonight. Prepare for the encounter by assessing a few of the potential talking points ahead of the friendly at Candlestick Park.

Five points ahead of the U.S. national team's post-Landon Donovan bow against Azerbaijan

The road to the World Cup starts in earnest tonight when the U.S. national team plays Azerbaijan in San Francisco tonight. Prepare for the encounter by assessing a few of the potential talking points ahead of the friendly at Candlestick Park.

Life after Landon starts for the U.S. national team in San Francisco tonight. The dissent surrounding the exclusion of the reigning goal king will continue, but Jürgen Klinsmann and his players cannot afford to allow the chatter to distract them from the task at hand.

This affair against Azerbaijan offers a welcoming start along the final stretch to Brazil. It is a match the Americans must use to build their confidence and identify the structure of the side ahead of the World Cup.

Donovan’s omission instigates some questions and raises the stakes a bit, but the process must continue nevertheless. Expect Klinsmann and his players to hit a few key points along the way as they finally enter the competitive realm after a fortnight of training sessions.

1. What sort of shape will Klinsmann deploy first?

Reliable intelligence out of U.S. camp – including the open training session held at Candlestick Park on Monday – suggests Klinsmann will start with a 4-2-3-1 shape against the Azeris. The flexibility of that particular structure allows Clint Dempsey to drop into midfield at points, push alongside Jozy Altidore when suitable and roam in search of the ball if necessary. It also places considerable emphasis on the central midfield balance between Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, though, again, the exact positioning isn’t much of an issue against such a poor outfit.

2. How will the defense come together?

This question holds more weight against stronger opposition – Turkey at Red Bull Arena on Sunday, for instance – yet it still looms as the most pressing concern at the moment. Klinsmann enters this match with one certain starter (Matt Besler) and a host of questions at the other three spots.

The most important charge in this match: developing the necessary chemistry in the heart of defense. The chosen duo – likely Besler and Geoff Cameron with Omar Gonzalez (knee) still on the mend – needs game time to cultivate the cohesiveness required to function adequately against stronger opposition. Klinsmann could also split the match with Besler partnering two different players over the course of the 90 minutes to survey all potential options.

In addition to the concerns in the middle, the issues at fullback require some clarity. Klinsmann wants a more aggressive deportment from that portion of the field – the inclusion of Timothy Chandler and DeAndre Yedlin at the expense of Brad Evans showed it – to provide support and width to his midfielders. The exact deployment merits further inspection, though. Fabian Johnson’s potential engagement at right back reflects his station with Hoffenheim during the second half of the German season, but Klinsmann must assess the viability of an inverted fullback carefully as these matches progress. Look for Chandler to get a run on the right at some point to clarify his place in the reckoning.

3. How will the wide players open those supply lines?

If Klinsmann indeed plumps for Bedoya and Zusi, then the emphasis turns to darting runs into the middle and the occasional foray to deliver service wide when the fullbacks hold their ground. Bedoya and Zusi present the greatest threat when they offer diversity in their approach play. Their endeavor encompasses combination play, crosses from the corner and – particularly in Zusi’s case – diagonals from time to time.

In this sort of affair, the wide duo can expect plenty of help on the overlap. It could provide the necessary encouragement to foster the familiarity required when more complicated matches encourage both players to tuck in a bit and work in more constrained areas.

4. Can Jozy Altidore find his footing against inferior opposition?

Altidore desperately requires some sort of positive reinforcement in front of goal after enduring a horrid season at Sunderland. His industry isn’t generally a concern and he links the play well enough in this setting, but he must display more sharpness in front of goal to lead the line properly. This match hands him the perfect chance to pounce in the final third and reinforce his confidence heading into the more arduous challenges ahead.

5. Is the pecking order off the bench established yet?

Klinsmann signaled his disdain for the status quo by axing Donovan on Thursday. His contempt for standing still encourages the players at his disposal to press their claims earnestly. The competition up front (can Aron Jóhannsson hold off Chris Wondolowski as the preferred alternative?) and in the wide areas (where does Julian Green fit into Klinsmann’s grand plan?) matters a great deal with starting spots at a premium. Continued production in friendlies could mean the difference between a place in the reckoning and a spot deep down the bench.