Five points after the USMNT's labored victory over Azerbaijan
It took far longer than expected for the U.S. national team to dispatch Azerbaijan in San Francisco. Jürgen Klinsmann’s side huffed and puffed for 75 minutes before finally devising a way through the Azeri defense. Mix Diskerud and Aron Jóhannsson eventually procured the necessary goals to cinch the desired result and start this three-game tour off with a victory at Candlestick Park.
Klinsmann will spend the next few days trying to build from this triumph ahead of the date with Turkey at Red Bull Arena on Sunday. Expect him to bear a few of these points in mind as he contemplates the first 90 minutes from his World Cup roster.
1. The opposition did not offer enough to make this a useful exercise.
Klinsmann scheduled this friendly to provide his side with a chance to secure a victory to start its World Cup preparations. It satisfied that bare requirement and supplied little else to take forward. Azerbaijan kept the ball too poorly (65 percent passing accuracy, per Opta statistics) and pushed out of its end too infrequently (30 percent of the possession) to replicate the sort of tasks ahead against Germany, Ghana and Portugal.
2. Azerbaijan’s limitations ensured minimal stress on the back four and the overall shape.
The back and forth of this game produced little meaningful information to solve the questions in defense and central midfield. Azerbaijan hardly posed enough of a threat to meaningfully test Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron (first half) or Omar Gonzalez (second half) for a prolonged spell. Similar issues allowed fullbacks DaMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson (on the right, as expected) to assume just about any position they pleased. Klinsmann started Jermaine Jones as a deep-lying midfielder with Michael Bradley pushed further forward in a diamond midfield, but the Azeris did not test the balance enough to see how it might hold up under strain.
3. The dearth of sharpness from the run of play led to a laborious night in the final third.
Azerbaijan lacks talent, but it musters enough organization to make life difficult on the opposition. Berti Vogts encourages his side to sit deeply and wait for an opportunity to break up the cadence of the opposition. The dynamic places a premium on incisive, quick combinations in front of the line to create space.
One sequence in particular – Bradley’s clever diagonal to allow Jozy Altidore to spin quickly and thrash an effort well over the bar – reflected the sort of approach play required more frequently. The deft sequence proved an outlier on a night when the Americans simply didn’t combine well enough in those two-versus-one and three-versus-two opportunities to create much from the run of play. The dearth of quality in tight spaces condemned the Americans to a frustrating night despite the territorial superiority and spurned a glorious opportunity to give Altidore – active again, though not particularly sharp or threatening – a chance to get a much-needed goal or two under his belt.
4. Precise set pieces provide a potential outlet when the combination play falters and the counter sputters.
Most of the danger on this night came from dead ball situations. Graham Zusi delivered a ball Chris Wondolowski (a late insertion into the starting XI after Clint Dempsey missed out with a groin injury) should have turned home inside the first five minutes. Brad Davis finally ended the deadlock when his free kick created enough chaos to allow Diskerud to smash home from close range. Davis then prompted the second with a curling corner kick for Jóhannsson to snap home unmarked at the near post.
Davis (if he sees the field) and Zusi (the most likely set piece taker) must continue their menacing service as the World Cup approaches. The execution in these sorts of situations could prove vital in a group where the margin for error is very, very slim. And these dead ball situations could construct a potential route to goal for a team in need of alternatives in that department.
5. This team must and will improve before taking the field against Ghana.
Consider this entire night as a rickety first step along the way to Brazil. The performance in the first half simply did not meet the necessary standard, while the second half substitutes produced enough of an uptick in the late stages to secure the expected victory. There isn’t a whole lot to relish from the offering or from the result, in truth.
On the bright side, there is plenty of time to build upon the foundation laid during training camp. The next two tests against Turkey and Nigeria present a chance to compete against more capable opposition. The more even exchanges should boost the opportunities to hone the sharpness in and around the penalty area and work on the counter require to succeed at the World Cup.
Klinsmann will demand a better showing against Turkey at Red Bull Arena on Sunday. The potential return of Dempsey (Klinsmann said he expects a swift recovery) will help matters, but this group on the whole must raise its performance level in order to ensure this match represents just an early, tentative performance en route to more complete displays by the time the tournament starts.