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U.S. vs. Azerbaijan: Three things that could matter, come Brazil

May 28, 2014, 12:44 AM EDT

FBL - WC2014 - QUALIFIER - USA - HON

The big lesson from Tuesday night? The U.S. has a lot of work to do. There’s no way a performance like tonight’s against Azerbaijan carries water in Brazil; then again, it doesn’t have to. The U.S. has three weeks to improve before meeting Ghana on June 16. Tonight established a baseline, but it’s not the level the team will take into Natal.

That doesn’t mean tonight’s performance was irrelevant. In addition to that baseline, there were some small, subtle indicators of what the U.S. might look like when they finally face the Black Stars. Between the play of its new right back, the positioning of its wide midfielders, and the ease of its center backs, Jurgen Klinsmann’s men provided some hints of what the team might look like 20 days from now.

[MORE: Diskerud, Johannsson come through | Player ratings | Subs shine]

Here’s three things we learned on Tuesday night that may matter in Brazil:

1. The new right back can sure cover some ground …

We all knew Brad Evans was a midfielder doing his best in an improvised role, but it’s still amazing to be reminded how much ground an athlete like Fabian Johnson can cover at right back.

For those who watched Hoffenheim this season, this is no revelation, and fans who’ve called for Johnson to get the call on the left did so remembering his ability to get up the field on that flank. At right back, however, it’s been a while since the U.S. has used somebody that can so effortlessly get from penalty area-to-byline. Johnson, mostly a left-sided player before tonight for the U.S., looked like a solution.

2. … which is good, because the “wingers” are going to have to be very strong in the middle.

U.S. Soccer advertised tonight’s formation as a diamond midfield, but given the depth at which Michael Bradley was playing, this was closer to a setup we’d see on Bob Bradley than something from Jason Kreis’s whiteboard (even if it wasn’t that, either). Regardless, the widest midfielders — Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi, in the starting XI — were often staying as narrow as the defense’s channels, setting up in a formation that will rely almost on its fullbacks for width.

Given the pair Klinsmann’s starting there, it’s not the worst idea. Why not use players like Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley to help the team better use that space in front of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones? If the U.S. can rely on its midfielders-cum-fullbacks to man the flanks, Klinsmann can get numbers in the middle.

3. The new center back tandem looked comfortable together, but they were untested.

Given how little Azerbaijan threatened the U.S., there’s almost nothing you can say about the team’s starting center back tandem: Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron. Almost.

If you’re looking for a reason to be encouraged, look at not only duo’s play on the ball (aside from a few Besler miscues) but the times Cameron jumped into midfield to try to keep possession in the Azerbaijani half. The thin, perhaps premature lesson: After two weeks working together in Palo Alto, the Cameron-Besler pair looked like a tandem that’s used to playing with each other; or, at least, a duo that knows what it wants to become.

Big, huge caveat, though: It’s only Azerbaijan.

  1. drewvt6 - May 28, 2014 at 12:48 AM

    Our wing backs are going to be pinned back in each of our group games. We better hope we find some other ways to get width against some of the best wide play in the world.

    • gra42 - May 28, 2014 at 2:04 AM

      “Our wing backs are going to be pinned back..”

      Maybe not. The Brazillians and Italians couldn’t do that to Johnson 2-3 years ago, at all, even when they had to. He really is that good.

      • drewvt6 - May 28, 2014 at 4:20 PM

        I’m hoping that’s the case, but there wasn’t Cristiano Ronaldo to worry about or Reus, Muller. When you’re defending those players the opportunities are far and few between to get forward.

      • gra42 - May 29, 2014 at 1:01 AM

        It only takes once and then the other team has to account for him doing the same for the rest of the match.

      • gra42 - Jun 8, 2014 at 2:07 AM

        Scratch Reus. Muller isn’t as much of a worry in terms of tracking him back. Ronaldo? Name one defender who can shut him down. He’s a double or triple mark for even the best teams. The difference for us now is that Johnson will do the same thing to their squads. But I’m going to share a little secret with you: Ghana will give us the most trouble. They have awesome horsepower and wheels at most positions, more so than the rest of the group and they will simply wear us out and cost a card or three regardless of the score. We WON”T be at anything like 100% for a few days after that match. And if they are anything like the last squad that really should have won past Uruguay into the semis, they have a 50/50 chance of taking the group. This time they’ll be ready to make gimme PKs.

  2. trogdor4 - May 28, 2014 at 1:05 AM

    When a team puts that many players behind the ball, there is no reason to have your midfielders play wide alone … The outside backs came up and played wide because they could, and they were the ones that could play with that width to get crosses into the middle.

    I agree, a higher quality team wont park the bus …

    And as such, our midfielders will move outward into the vacated space.

    • gra42 - May 28, 2014 at 2:07 AM

      Not if our fullbacks keep moving up. With that tactic in effect in the past, even our mids like Jones and Beckerman were able to get active in possession interchanges towards the center and look safe doing it. We’ve seen it before, even if over the past 2-3 years the soccer journalists and commentators pretend not to notice.

  3. gra42 - May 28, 2014 at 2:00 AM

    “Been a while since the U.S. has used somebody that can so effortlessly get from penalty area-to-byline. Johnson,”

    It isn’t so much that he gets there. He knows when to try, he has better close control than most of the actual mids (at speed no less), and has patience with the ball. I can’t say enough about this guy, and I’ll add that he’ll come out of the W.C. with a contract with a soccer giant, given the experience he already has in Europe.

    • skjln - May 28, 2014 at 7:52 PM

      Didn’t he just sign a contract with another Bundesliga team at the end of the season?

      • gra42 - May 29, 2014 at 1:00 AM

        Yes, but a stellar Cup could see him play into a transfer.

      • gra42 - Jun 8, 2014 at 1:59 AM

        Transfers. He’s already looking good enough for serious contenders to shell out for him, and I predict they will. Frankly, he has been showing that type of form for two years now.

  4. omeimontis - May 28, 2014 at 3:37 AM

    If they were going to get rid of the cancer known as Landon Donovan, they should have done it earlier, so they don’t have to make whole sale changes 3 weeks before going to Brazil. If Donovan is not a cancer, then Klinsmann could have found spot for him.

    • skipvanmeter - May 28, 2014 at 4:56 AM

      Don’t think Donovan can be simply portrayed in such black and white terms as you contend as there is no place for sentimentality on a World Cup roster. Where in this game would Donovan have changed this game? As Farley says above the team would still have a Bob Bradley-like bucket formation. The new #10 played as effectively as Donovan could have. Bottom line is that Donovan is simply not necessary for the success of this team.

      Time to turn the page and support the team that is.

      • midtec2005 - May 28, 2014 at 9:35 AM

        “Time to turn the page and support the team that is.”

        100% correct

        But, Farley says the team DID still have the Bradley-like bucket formation, because they did. That has nothing to do with LD, who would have certainly been much more dangerous on the left flank than both Bedoya and Davis.

  5. scottlemenager - May 28, 2014 at 12:17 PM

    Even With Azerbaijan not having much offense, the second half should proove that Gonzalez is about the worst defender on the planet.

  6. braxtonrob - May 28, 2014 at 12:58 PM

    Seems everyone is saying that we won’t see any team play in the WC the way Azerbaijan played, (bunkered in).
    I disagree, that’s EXACTLY what we’re going to see from Ghana. That’s exactly how they play against superior opponents (which is practically everybody), and then they counterattack with lethal speed and some pretty good strikers.

    What I witnessed was a good test for the USMNT, on a windy day, possibly tired legs, and tremendous lack of chemistry. Plus, characteristics like Bradley and Jones playing great halves, but opposite each other; Bradley was terrible in the 2nd (minus that great strike), but excellent work in the 1st, and Jones was fantastic in the 2nd, but consistently played wasted-hopeful long balls in the 1st (and I’ve seen brick walls with softer touches than his, in the same half.

  7. bobinkc - May 28, 2014 at 2:57 PM

    Everyone keeps whining and crying about Donovan being left behind. In a sport where your stamina is down and your legs start going after 30, Donovan has pretty well shot his bolt. Maybe being sent back home woke him up; he did score a new MLS record this weekend past, but soon he will be relegated to a late-second-half substitute who will bring in fresh legs the last 10-20 minutes of a game. Some of the younger lads have accumulated a lot of playing time and experience. It is now time for Donovan to accept his accolades as “an old dog” and let the younger pups do the job.

  8. el timo - May 28, 2014 at 7:37 PM

    Bedoya and Beasley need to be way more aggressive attacking the left side than they showed last night. As good as Zusi and Johnson may be attacking down the right, the first half showed they’ll get nowhere without a left side threat to spread the defense. I’d like to see what happens with Timmy Chandler playing 90 minutes at LB with a variety of left mids, including Dempsey.

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