SAN FRANCISCO — After 13 days of practices, scrimmages, fitness tests and controversial roster cuts, the United States men’s national team finally gets back to the serious business of playing soccer games on Tuesday, when they take on Azerbaijan.
This is when World Cup preparations begin in earnest. The Azeris, managed by USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s “special advisor” Berti Vogts, shouldn’t pose much of a challenge though. They are presently ranked 85th in the world – their highest spot ever – and even lived through ignominy of tying Luxembourg at home a year ago. They have never qualified for a major tournament. And they probably won’t for a long while.
But this is a soft open to the American World Cup campaign, which will be followed by friendlies with Turkey in New Jersey on June 1 and Nigeria in Florida on June 7, before the team finally heads down to Brazil on June 8 ahead of their opener with Ghana eight days later. There’s a reason the Americans are picking on a weaker team to start off their summer.
“There’s a purpose behind choosing Azerbaijan,” head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in his pre-game press conference on Monday. “It’s a team that’s not in the top category of opponents. We wanted to kind of not hit a top-10 team right away in the first match after a very strong preparation where we did a lot of physical work so the legs might be here and there a bit heavier. It’s important to start the send-off series with a win and build confidence and see where the guys are right now after that intense two weeks.”
The thinking is that the Yanks will grow into the summer by playing increasingly stronger opponents before they travel down to Brazil, rather than test themselves against the best possible teams straight away. There may have been opportunities to do that, as several elite teams have also set up their World Cup training camps in the US, including England and the Ivory Coast. But an early undressing could shatter confidence and send the team into a downward spiral. Or so the thinking seems to go.
There remains much to do. Klinsmann cut his squad down by seven men to his final 23 on Thursday, infamously omitting the program’s long-time face Landon Donovan from the team, and had mostly been working on fitness and assessing players until then. Tactical work has only just begun, and that’s where many questions remain.
The back line is being cobbled together from familiar pieces who haven’t played together much and will need some serious testing. The shape and personnel in midfield haven’t been pinned down yet. Forwards Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey are coming off difficult years, even if the latter has hit a rich vein of form with the Seattle Sounders of late.
“We will definitely experiment here and there,” said Klinsmann, adding that he plans on using all six of his substitutions. “Obviously we want to give the guys as much playing time as we can. But we also already want to see a flow in our game with a lineup that looks in our eyes very strong and maybe very close to the one that we see three weeks down the road [against Ghana].”
Following three scrimmages against Stanford University and the Los Angeles Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes’ reserve teams and an onslaught of three-a-day training sessions, Klinsmann hopes to see tangible strides from his side. “We want to see that there’s a progress happening, where they fine-tune,” he said. “We want to see that they have a better understanding for each other on the field. We want to see step by step things improving.”
The game comes as a relief following all that toil on the training field. “For the players, we’re excited to go out and play after all this hard work we’ve put in,” said captain Clint Dempsey.
“It’ll be good,” added goalkeeper Tim Howard. “Training camps are always tough because there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Now the fun begins.”
But it’ll only be fun if the USA can start building some forward motion, for the clock ticks fast. “We’ve only got three opportunities to get it right,” said Howard. “So hopefully we’ll pick up some momentum in the games and put in some good performances so that we when we get down there we feel like the work has been worth it and we’re ready.”
This is only the first game of at least six the Americans will play this summer, and as such, the least important. But the foundation laid here on the soft, closely-cropped grass of Candlestick Park could well help to decide how many beyond that sixth game they get to contest down in Brazil in July – when the World Cup’s knockout stages begin.