photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
After nearly a week of talk regarding which players did and did not make it onto the 23-man squad headed to Brazil, the U.S. Men’s National Team can now shift its focus towards games that matter.
The U.S. gets back to action when it hosts Azerbaijan in its first send-off series friendly at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on Tuesday night, but there is much to play for for the Americans even if the game’s final result means little. There are places in the starting lineup that are seemingly still up for grabs after their two-week preparation camp and also plenty of questions that need answering as the U.S. tries to get things clicking ahead of its departure for the World Cup in Brazil in two weeks.
One of those questions is how Jozy Altidore will fare after enduring a rough first season at Sunderland in which he only scored one goal. U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is hoping that Altidore can notch his first international goal since October 2013 against Azerbaijan’s defense, as that will help the veteran forward rid himself of some of the heavy scrutiny he is currently receiving while also giving him some confidence ahead of the tough Group G World Cup matches that await the Americans.
“I think we got already a couple of good answers from Jozy the last two weeks here,” said Klinsmann. “He’s sharp, he’s hungry and he’s scoring. Every day of work he puts himself into a better position and he puts himself in more confidence. We want to build on that. We want to do every day more work in order to work and give him that confidence. Then, strikers got to solve it himself as well. Go out there and be hungry and once you get an opportunity you’ve got to put that ball in the net.
“I think he’s in a very good path from what we see. Yes, obviously, psychologically he has to leave behind an entire season at Sunderland. It’s a season that ended thankfully positive for the club being not relegated and getting out of the danger zone there but for him personally it wasn’t what he expected. The good thing about sports in general is you’re always looking forward to the next one, the next game, the next challenge. I think he already forgot what happened during the whole last year.”
“He’s always very confident with this team,” Tim Howard said of Altidore. “He’s a big player for us. We’ve always said we have to ride him to get us to goals. He’s been good and he’s been sharp in training.
“You guys keep writing (Altidore is struggling) but last summer he was fantastic and he hadn’t scored in like four years or something. He’ll be fine.”
How the back line will continue to take shape is also something that will hold plenty of intrigue. Geoff Cameron appears likely to earn a start as a centerback given Omar Gonzalez’s recent struggles with the U.S., and the versatile Cameron will likely need to deliver a solid outing against some light opposition in order for Klinsmann to continue the experiment of having him back in central defense.
Other positions that still seem up for grabs are the wide midfield and outside back spots. Fabian Johnson, DaMarcus Beasley, Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya appear to be the favorites for those spots, but Timmy Chandler and DeAndre Yedlin could also help their causes with strong showings. Klinsmann anticipates giving the majority of his players a chance to prove their worth on Tuesday night, so there should be ample opportunity for cases to be made.
“Hopefully, once we’re in Brazil and we have the first game kind of we have that back line doing well and being consistent and not changing too many things around because you don’t want to do that with a back four line,” said Klinsmann. “… There’s races for those spots, and we want to give them exposure, want to give them time. We’ll definitely make some changes to give them a chance, to prove a point, but actually with all of them being in here at the training sessions and also the scrimmages we’ve done, we are actually very positive on this whole process. It looks good. Hopefully we can confirm that [Tuesday] night.”
“I feel like we’ll be ready,” Howard said of the U.S. defense. “Last World Cup, I remember we were talking about the same things at Princeton with (Oguchi Onyewu) not being fit, but we came together and played pretty well. At the end of it, it’ll be a month, month-and-a-half. We’ll be fine.”
While Azerbaijan doesn’t pose the type of threat that Portugal, Germany or Ghana will next month, it will provide a unique opportunity in that it will pit Klinsmann against Berti Vogts. The 67-year-old German was recently hired by Klinsmann as a special advisor to the U.S., but Vogts is also the head coach of Azerbaijan, meaning that he will have an interest in both teams as they lock horns in California.
“For me, he’s been, and I’ve mentioned that before, a big mentor throughout my life,” said Klinsmann. “He just has an outstanding soccer brain, an outstanding knowledge. The way he reads the game, the way he analyzes things, with his tremendous experience that he has, it’s unquestionable a huge benefit for us.
“[Tuesday] night he wants his team to do well. He’s under contract with Azerbaijan until 2016 at least. He built the entire structure there since a couple of years, and they love him there, but he obviously is very excited to become part of our process now the next two months. He’s constantly already analyzing Ghana, Portugal, and obviously Germany we both know pretty well. It’s a great plus to have him there and become part of our team going into Brazil.”
Ultimately, the Azerbaijan friendly will not mean much when the games of real importance get underway in a couple of weeks. It will, however, provide the U.S. players with a chance to get their legs under them and develop more chemistry.
That is sorely needed right now, as the Americans begin to really hone in on the World Cup.
“Definitely we want to see there’s a progress happening where they fine-tune each other, they have a better understanding with every training session, every scrimmage,” said Klinsmann. “We’ve played three scrimmages, one with Stanford, one with the (LA) Galaxy II, one with the San JoseEarthquakes II, closed-door training sessions basically, but they went well because we run the guys.
“We want to see even more kind of in action, we want to see that they have a better understanding of each other on the field and also offensively, obviously. We want to just see kind of step-by-step things improving which will give us more confidence. There’s a lot of work right now going on on the training field, and it’s great to go out on the field and measure yourself with a team, an international team and trying to implement that stuff.”