SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. men's national team took its next step to Brazil Tuesday night at Candlestick Park, getting goals from substitutes Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson in the final 15 minutes to secure a 2-0 win over Azerbaijan. The Americans had a hard time breaking through and didn't play an opponent resembling any of their World Cup group foes, but they secured the result in the end.
Here are three thoughts on the match:
• The U.S. got the win, but it’s hard to take much from this game
Granted, it was only the first pre-World Cup friendly, and granted, it was only Azerbaijan, the world’s 85th-ranked team, but for much of this game you found yourself wondering why the U.S. wasn’t showing better with just 20 days left before its World Cup opener against Ghana.
The night began inauspiciously when captain Clint Dempsey was a late scratch with groin soreness (a precautionary measure, U.S. Soccer said), and against a packed-in Azeri defense the U.S. missed the creativity of Dempsey and, let’s be honest, the surprisingly-cut Landon Donovan.
But the U.S.’s production off set plays was one bright spot the whole evening, and the Americans capitalized on two in the second half, leading to goals by the Scandinavian sensations, Norwegian-American Mix Diskerud and Icelandic-American Aron Jóhannsson.
To be frank, though, it’s hard to learn much of anything from this game that will be useful for the World Cup. None of the U.S.’s group foes (Ghana, Portugal and Germany) will play in a defensive shell like Azerbaijan did, so hopefully we’ll pick up more about this U.S. team in upcoming friendlies against Turkey and Nigeria.
• There were a few U.S. tidbits to learn, though
Let’s say it again: It was only Azerbaijan. But there were some things to see on the U.S. end. Given an unexpected start when Dempsey scratched, Chris Wondolowski had two wide-open first-half chances in front of the goal but failed to convert, heading one right at goalkeeper Kamran Aghayev and seeing the other saved beautifully.
Fabian Johnson is clearly the right back of choice moving forward, and he had some good moments going upfield. Geoff Cameron got the start at center back instead of Omar González, and he was solid against admittedly uninspiring opposition. Meanwhile, coach Jurgen Klinsmann opted for a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield for the second straight game, suggesting that he really may take the formation seriously at the World Cup, at least in the opener against Ghana where the U.S. needs to get three points.
• The Donovan discussion won’t be disappearing
If the U.S. had come out and blown the doors off Azerbaijan 6-0, then the talk around Donovan’s exclusion from the World Cup team might have died down a bit. But that’s unlikely now as the U.S. heads to New York City and a blitz of mainstream media coverage over the next week. There’s time for this U.S. World Cup team to develop its own identity over the next three weeks until the opener in Brazil, but it’s going to take some time to get used to Donovan’s absence.