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How USA Will Line Up Against Azerbaijan in International Friendly

PALO ALTO, CA - MAY 23:  U.S. Men's National Soccer Team Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann speaks during a press conference at Stanford University on May 23, 2014 in Palo Alto, California. Klinsmann held the press conference to answer questions about his World Cup roster selections, including the omission of Landon Donovan. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
Jason O. Watson/Getty Images
Phil KeidelContributor IIOctober 14, 2016

It is hard to shake the feeling that United States men's national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann omitted Landon Donovan from the 23-man roster for the coming World Cup to misdirect your attention.

The move is a close cousin of the time-honored tradition of corporations and sports franchises choosing Friday afternoon to announce unsettling or unpopular news.

The thinking behind such a move is that by releasing the information as the weekend approaches, the usual media sandstorm will be avoided because most news consumers are offline on Saturday and Sunday. And by Monday, well, it's old news.

Klinsmann's unceremonious dumping of Donovan ultimately served two purposes. First, it not-so-subtly signaled that the most recent era of American soccer is all but over. Tim Howard is 35. Clint Dempsey is 31. Both are showing the wear of so many seasons of trying to carry U.S. soccer.

Compared to Donovan, though, Howard and Dempsey look fresh as dawn. Donovan might be the oldest 32-year-old professional athlete in recorded history. At a time when many players are squeezing two or three more seasons out of their primes through muscle memory and guile, Donovan seems finished.

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 02:  Michael Bradley #4 of USA controls the ball during the International Friendly against Mexico at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 2, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona. Mexico and USA played to a 2-2 tie.  (Photo by Christian Peterse
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The second purpose Klinsmann's splashy choice to decommission Donovan served is to steer your eyes away from the fact that this World Cup campaign is already in deep trouble.

In fairness, the 2014 USMNT is one of the strongest American sides ever fielded. Currently ranked 14th in the world, the Americans play a dogged and determined style that makes them the sort of opponent few sides really want to deal with.

Unfortunately, their World Cup Group G draw includes both Germany and Portugal, second and third in the world rankings. For Klinsmann, it must feel like drawing an ace and a king in a hand of Texas Hold'em only to find out that he's up against one pair of aces and one pair of kings.

With that reality in mind, it makes perfect sense not to try to wring one more performance out of a spent player like Donovan, who has about as much chance of being on the USMNT roster in 2018 as you do.

The time is right to put young players like Julian Green and John Brooks under the hot lights to see how they handle themselves.

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 02:  Julian Green #9 of USA during the International Friendly against Mexico at University of Phoenix Stadium on April 2, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona. Mexico and USA played to a 2-2 tie.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

For that matter, it is also a fine time to call on "established" players like Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Graham Zusi and Dempsey to prove how good they are—or aren't.

In terms of the coming friendly against Azerbaijan on Tuesday, the only real certainty is that Donovan will not play. After that, the task of predicting an XI for the USMNT in this friendly is a complete crapshoot.

If asked to select an XI for their first World Cup match, you could rely to a degree on the sides chosen in the qualifying matches to establish who Klinsmann trusts. But the friendlies are another matter entirely, with their additional permitted substitutions and, let's face it, exhibition status.

All of which goes to say that some of these guys will probably start against Azerbaijan, but almost certainly some of them won't. Anyone who could correctly predict the XI for this friendly should promptly buy a lotto ticket.

USMNT's predicted XI against Azerbaijan: Howard; Fabian Johnson, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Geoff Cameron; Brad Davis, Dempsey, Bradley, Kyle Beckerman, Zusi; Altidore.

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