A win is a win, but sometimes it doesn’t feel that way. When considering the circumstances – a defensive-minded 85th-ranked Azerbaijan side whose coach essentially works for US Soccer (Bergi Vogts is a “special advisor” to Klinsmann) – this was a disappointing performance. Now, it’s always foolish to ever read too much into international friendlies, but with the World Cup just two weeks out, soccer fans can’t help it. So starting now, prepare for the overreaction that will follow each of the next three friendlies. Yes, I’m including myself in that.
Playing through ridiculously windy conditions at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, a largely uneventful first half was only interrupted by a couple of Chris Wondolowski headers that couldn’t find the back of the net. With Clint Dempsey taking himself out of the Starting XI with groin issues (we’re not supposed to be worried by this, but honestly, it’s hard not to be), Wondo was given a golden opportunity to continue to show his nose for the goal. He could have done better on the first one, a Zusi set piece that found Wondo all alone in front of the Azerbaijan keeper, but the second forced a wonder save.
While those were the only two real scoring chances, there were still bright spots. Alejandro Bedoya looked sharp on the left wing and Jozy Altidore used his physicality well with his holdup play. Geoff Cameron was rock solid at center back, but is that where he is going to play even when Omar Gonzalez is healthy? Right now, I would say yes.
Halftime saw Timmy Chandler get the nod at left back and while he wasn’t really tested, I still felt his performance was lacking. His touch was off and there was nothing inspiring about his play. In contrast, Brad Davis came on at the 45 minute mark as well, and he shined. It was his set piece that led to Mix Diskerud’s 75th minute rebound finish. It was his corner that found Aron Johannsson’s head just six minutes later for the second goal. I have questions about Davis’ limited athleticism keeping up with World Cup teams, but you can’t deny his left foot does damage. Especially against an Azerbaijan team that sits back, Davis’ set pieces were the key to unlocking their defense. However, no team in Group G will even sort of resemble the defensive-minded football we saw last night.
In the end, it was the Norwegian-American Diskerud and Icelandic-American Johannsson that got the attention, though. Both of these guys are highly creative attacking players that the USMNT will desperately need (especially without Donovan) when group play begins. Sure, Johannsson was as unmarked as you can possibly get in the box when he whipped in his header, but he finished with aplomb. In the same way, Diskerud called his own goal “easy”, but his intricate touch on the ball going forward was important for the United States threatening in the second half.
Three Big Winners
1) Brad Davis – I already went through it above, but Davis’ work here could see him earning a substitution late in matches where we need a late goal. Unfortunately for him, that’s probably his ceiling. He’s a valuable specialist, but a specialist nonetheless.
2) Mix Diskerud – Another guy who should gain entry into matches that need instant offense. It’s amazing how much of an impact he has when he steps on the pitch. He could be the first midfielder off the bench when we need a goal.
3) Fabian Johnson – I haven’t mentioned him yet, but Johnson was excellent in this match. The issue? I want to see more of him. At right back, he’s a solid presence, but we don’t have his skills going forward as much. He can also play left back and possibly left mid, but his right back play at Bundesliga club Hoffenheim has shown Klinsmann his value there.
Will Klinsmann stick with the midfield diamond?
The last couple matches have seen Klinsmann go with a 4-4-2 diamond midfield. The Mexico friendly featured Michael Bradley with the naturally defensive Kyle Beckerman behind him, and it worked wonderfully. With the more talented, yet often erratic Jermaine Jones replacing Beckerman, the big question was how Jones would perform sitting behind Bradley. Their work together didn’t exactly move mountains, and Jones actually outplayed Bradley, who clearly had an off night. Jermaine stayed disciplined defensively and avoided drifting up field, even if he was prone to a few ill-advised long balls. If Bradley, whose masterful touch and normally prescient passing seemed mostly absent, plays like his usual self, this could be the formation for the first match versus Ghana.
Does the striker pairing have to be Altidore +1?
Another day, another match without an Altidore goal. Jozy’s horrid EPL scoring drought has clearly done harm to his confidence in front of the net. While used his physicality to great effect (albeit against a small Azerbaijan team), his touch just does not look right. This begs the question: Could the top two be Dempsey and Johannsson/Wondo, or is Jozy guaranteed a starting spot? I think he still has the skills and athleticism we will need, but strikers need to score and he isn’t doing that. While this whole conversation could change if he nets a couple in the next match, Jozy coming off the bench could be a legitimate possibility right now.