With a national media firestorm now in the rearview mirror, the United States men's national team looks to put its best foot forward heading into the 2014 World Cup as it opens a pair of send-off friendlies against Azerbaijan.
Landon Donovan being left off the 23-man roster slated to travel to Brazil in June didn't sit well with many of America's local supporters, but head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his team now have a chance to put that talk to rest. The complaints will be few and far between if the U.S. happen to advance out of its group, and that process begins with Tuesday's first of two send-off games—the second coming against Turkey on June 1 at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey.
With so many youngsters on this summer's roster, Klinsmann and his staff certainly have plenty of combinations they are looking to work out in these two games. While the end result may not be crucial, the importance of building momentum entering group play in Brazil is without question.
Why did the U.S. pick Azerbaijan? Klinsmann explained to Leander Schaerlaeckens of FOX Sports:
There’s a purpose behind choosing Azerbaijan. It’s a team that’s not in the top category of opponents. We wanted to kind of not hit a top-10 team right away in the first match after a very strong preparation where we did a lot of physical work so the legs might be here and there a bit heavier. It’s important to start the send-off series with a win and build confidence and see where the guys are right now after that intense two weeks.
Let's break down everything you need to know about the upcoming U.S.-Azerbaijan game.
When: Tuesday, May 27 at 10 p.m. EDT
Where: Candlestick Park; San Francisco, California
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Top Storyline: Can America's Struggling Defense Build Confidence?
Just four years ago, the U.S. back line was the vital backbone of the team that allowed it to grind out low-scoring wins and draws to advance in the 2010 World Cup.
But things have changed drastically in that span of time, and Klinsmann is left with an inexperienced defense that he has to be hoping will play strong against Azerbaijan in order to have some sort of momentum going into a daunting upcoming schedule in Brazil.
The 2010 back line was Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit and Steve Cherundolo for most of the World Cup, and they only let up three goals in three group-stage games to win Group C.
This year, the likely lineup going into Brazil is DaMarcus Beasley, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron—all experienced players in years but virtually none with years of experience as an integral part of the U.S. national team. There are a few other names that could see a starting cap, but that's the likeliest foursome.
After a distasteful performance in a 2-0 loss to Ukraine in March, the Miami Herald's Joseph Goodman wasn't all too impressed:
The players and years change and U.S. Soccer's defense just keeps right on inducing fits of nausea.— Joseph Goodman (@JoeGoodmanJr) March 5, 2014
That's not the only match as of late that they've looked less than stellar in. The U.S. looked poised for a blowout win over Mexico in early April to build up some confidence as it went up 2-0, but the defense soon folded and left the team with a 2-2 draw.
While recent staples like Bocanegra and Cherundolo are being replaced, America does have some solid veterans with leadership experience such as Beasley who have shown the ability to play lockdown defense. During USA's impressive World Cup qualifying run, the team strung together some dominant performances.
Since then, though, there hasn't been much to be infatuated with defensively from Klinsmann's squad, and that's a serious concern when the likes of Germany, Portugal and Ghana are awaiting in the coming weeks.
Azerbaijan is on the forefront of their minds at the moment, but everything is pointing forward toward Brazil in these send-off matches. Klinsmann and his staff have to be hoping that they see some improvement from the back line to give them any sort of confidence when Cristiano Ronaldo and Marco Reus come knocking quite soon.
What's the outcome?
The U.S. national team isn't in the best of forms and hasn't had much time to focus on the pitch with the Donovan saga playing out in recent days, but the Americans will be eager to start their World Cup bid off in style.
Azerbaijan has never played the U.S. in soccer, and a team that only won one of its 10 World Cup qualifying games doesn't stand a chance against an American team with even half of its starters on the pitch.
If Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley connect a few times in the attacking third, it will be over by halftime.
USA 3, Azerbaijan 0