Road To Brazil: United States vs. Azerbaijan Match Preview

United States Men's National Team

Photo Courtesy of U.S. Soccer Twitter / @ussoccer

The wait is almost over for fans of the United States Men’s National Team as the final 23-man squad will make their first appearance as a unit on Tuesday night as Jurgen Klinsmann’s men with face off with Azerbaijan in an international friendly at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California. This match will include a couple of firsts for the USMNT; it will be the first time that the senior squad has faced off against Azerbaijan and the first time that the USMNT has played at Candlestick Park.

It will be just under three weeks left until the first match for the United States at the 2014 World Cup when the friendly kicks off on Tuesday; while fans should be starting to get excited for the tournament, there are still more questions than answers for the USMNT, especially on the back line.

I am not going to lie, the defensive unit really scares me as a fan of US Soccer. Matt Besler is the only projected starter that gives me a sense of relief while every other spot is scary.

Let’s take a look at the right back position to start. Seattle Sounders FC midfielder Brad Evans had been holding down the starting spot at right back since the Germany friendly on June 2, 2013. His health had been called into question after suffering a calf injury in March against Toronto FC. Evans was called into camp as part of the 30-man provisional squad where it was assumed that he would compete for the right back spot. He was not included on the final squad which was not surprising; the surprising part though was the news that Klinsmann was using Evans at center-back during the team’s training sessions.

Brad Evans is a very versatile player but center-back is not one of his strongest positions. It was a waste of Evans and Klinsmann’s time to call in Brad if he had no intention of looking at him in the right back spot. As of now, it looks like Fabian Johnson will be your starting right back. He is a very skilled player who had been playing the position constantly for his club in Germany over the course of the last three months while Evans was mostly playing at his normal spot in the midfield for the Sounders.

The back-up to Johnson will be 20-year-old speedster DeAndre Yedlin. Yedlin had a breakout rookie season in 2013 where he was an MLS All-Star along with getting the opportunity to play at an international level with the Under-20s at the U-20 World Cup in Turkey last June. He still has some improvements to make in his one-on-one defending but that speed helps him make up for potential mistakes made. The speed could come in very handy in the second match-up against Portugal with Cristiano Ronaldo likely lining up on the left wing.

Taking a look now at the center-back positions, it is pretty much a given that Matt Besler will be one of the starters for Jurgen Klinsmann but the question is currently who will be pairing with the Sporting Kansas City man?

Omar Gonzalez of the Los Angeles Galaxy has been the first choice partner for Besler during the past year and a half. The pairing started seven matches together during 2013 along with both friendlies that featured players from Major League Soccer in 2014. Gonzalez looked to be a lock as the other starting center-back before picking up a slight knee injury in early May.

The injury caused him to miss the last few matches for his club before going off to USMNT camp; he was forced to sit out of the first few training sessions. That opened the door for players like Geoff Cameron or even youngster John Brooks to get a look at how well they worked with Besler.

Reports indicate that Gonzalez has returned to training but there has been no word from Klinsmann as to which way he is looking. My thought process is that the best pick would be a fully-fit Gonzalez due to his rapport with Besler already with Geoff Cameron serving as the primary reserve. Things start to look a little fuzzy if somehow Gonzalez is not able to go as that would elevate John Brooks into the primary reserve role.

Brooks is 21-years-old with only three caps to his name. On top of that, he struggled to earn playing time with his club Hertha Berlin after mistakes both on and off the field caused him to be dropped to the bench at certain times during the season.

We then reach the very interesting battle at left-back. The incumbent brings with him 114 caps and is only the third player in American soccer history to be included on four World Cup squads; Kasey Keller and Claudio Reyna are the other two. He is a converted left-back who plays for Puebla in Liga MX and has been a fixture in the United States lineup since being called back in for the World Cup Qualifiers in March 2013.  His name is DaMarcus Beasley.

The challenger has only 10 caps to his name but is a natural defender although he plays right-back for his club in Germany. He has been on the outs with national team as of late because he would often cite “injuries” as a reason to not join the squad for World Cup qualifiers. Due to this, he had not featured for the United States since February 2013. This man is Timothy Chandler.

I think I can speak for most American soccer fans who are pretty thankful that the final roster has been selected already so that we are not worried about players making or not making the team during these friendlies; they can now be used exclusively for building chemistry especially on the back-line. Communication is the key for any defense to have and it will be amped up tenfold with opponents like Ghana, Portugal and Germany.

There really is not many questions in the attack for the United States. Klinsmann will more than likely be lining up in the 4-2-3-1 which has been very successful for him in recent memory. Michael Bradley of Toronto FC and Jermaine Jones of Besiktas are the heavy favorites to start in the holding midfielder spots with Kyle Beckerman of Real Salt Lake and Mix Diskerud of Rosenborg as the primary reserves for these spots.

One thing to watch for during the Azerbaijan match on Tuesday will be how often Michael Bradley jumps into the attack. Bradley was lined up in more of an attacking role when the United States played against Mexico in April; specifically he was lined up at the top of the midfield diamond with Beckerman playing as the holding mid. The American attack was extremely dangerous during the first half of this match with Bradley contributing a goal and an assist.

In this 4-2-3-1, it will likely be Clint Dempsey lined up in the “withdrawn forward/attacking midfield” role. The key to the United States attack will be combination play between Bradley and Dempsey when the attack is coming through the middle. Opponents know that these two players are most dangerous outfield players for the National Team so they will likely try to shut these two down. One and two-touch combinations between these two and Jozy Altidore should open up space for an attacking run from Bradley or Dempsey and be the best scoring opportunity for the Americans.

The opponents Azerbaijan will not be pushover by any means. They did only earn one win out of their World Cup Qualifying group in UEFA but they also held Russia to a draw in Baku in the last round of Qualifying. They are a very stout defensive team under head coach Berti Vogts who has only allowed two or more goals in only two matches since September of 2012.

It will be a very interesting lineup for Azerbaijan who will only have four natural midfielders in their squad of 21 after Rahid Amirguliyev and Araz Abdullayev dropped out of the squad. I was not able to find reasons for the two being left off of the squad, injury would be a pretty good assumption. I will post an update if I indeed get the information.

One of the most interesting storylines coming into this match will be the dual-role of Berti Vogts. Vogts was just recently hired by Klinsmann as a scout for the United States National Team in addition to his duties with Azerbaijan. That may be something to keep an eye on as you are watching the match especially if the match is close late in the game.

Each nation will be allowed six substitutions during the match.

You can catch the game live on ESPN2 as part of a doubleheader which will be led off by an 8:30 pm EDT MLS match between Sporting Kansas City and the New York Red Bulls. The National Team match is scheduled to kick off at 10:30 pm EDT.

Check back in with Stoppage Time Soccer before, during and after the match as we have wall-to-wall coverage planned including a live game running commentary. Make sure you join me for that starting at around 9:00 pm EDT with some pre-match information including lineups as well as updates on the SKC-NYRB game.

Projected Starting XI:

Tim Howard

Fabian Johnson — Geoff Cameron — Matt Besler — Tim Chandler

Michael Bradley — Jermaine Jones

Graham Zusi — Clint Dempsey — Alejandro Bedoya

Jozy Altidore

Matthew Evans is a soccer writer for Stoppage Time Soccer. “Like” him on Facebook, Follow him on Twitter, or add him to your network on Google

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