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Young U.S. National Team Doesn't Look Close to World Cup-Ready

Azerbaijan v United States

The United States National Team dispatched Azerbaijan 2-0 Tuesday night in windy San Francisco. Beyond the parents of goalscorers Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson, it’s a game everyone involved with will forget quickly. Even so, the game is one of three tune-ups before Jurgen Klinsmann’s side heads off to Brazil and the Group of Death, meaning there are a few things worth thinking about from those dull 90 minutes at Candlestick Park.

Style Points: Ask yourself, 19 days before the U.S. play longtime nemesis Ghana in the World Cup opener: where or what is this team’s strength? Is there an area of soccer it’s particularly strong? Against Azerbaijan, which packed most of its players behind the ball, the U.S. didn’t exactly soar in possession or creativity. That said, its World Cup opponents aren’t going to play a style remotely similar save for perhaps Portugal in the second game, which will probably aim its gameplan toward springing Cristiano Ronaldo on the counter-attack. Reading too deeply one way or the other into U.S.’s lackluster play on a windy night in San Francisco probably isn’t a wise decision. (By the same token, had the U.S. won 6-0, would it have changed anyone’s opinion about the team’s World Cup prospects?)

[RELATED: The Best Goals, From Free Kicks to Own Goals, in United States World Cup History]

In the past we knew the U.S.’s strength were things like toughness and athleticism, mixed with the ability to score on the counter or set pieces. That tried-and-true(ish) method still looks like the best way to get results in Brazil, regardless of the remaining Sendoff Series games with Turkey and Nigeria. On a micro level, whatever works for the given 90 minutes to get a result in the three games in Brazil is the best style or system. Klinsmann’s sweeping reforms to U.S. Soccer will have to wait until 2018 — if ever — to be implemented.

Tag Team: Klinsmann appears committed to some variant of a 4-4-2 formation, likely with a diamond midfield for the World Cup centered around Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in the middle. If not for a minor groin issue, Clint Dempsey would have started up top next to Jozy Altidore. So much has been written and discussed about Altidore’s dreadful season for Sunderland there’s no sense re-hashing it here. Against Azerbaijan, Altidore was involved in the game and received over 50 touches. His best plays were attempted one-two combinations to link up with teammates, rather than direct attempts on goal. He didn’t score, however, meaning his one goal in over 1,000 EPL minutes logged for Sunderland will remain a (tired) talking point.

Honduras v United States - FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier

Meanwhile Chris Wondolowski — starting in place of Dempsey — could have scored twice on headers, while Johannsson did that later in the match, albeit from a totally unmarked position on a Brad Davis corner. The pair improved their stock, but the starting spots still appear in the hands of Dempsey and Altidore given their all-around games, status and track record. Rating forwards is always tricky. Goals don’t always tell the whole story, but in the end they are what win games.

Of course, if Altidore and Dempsey struggle in the final two tune-up matches and Wondolowski and Johannsson keep scoring, Klinsmann will have to consider the hot hands. The German coach mentioned Landon Donovan’s “sacred cow” status in the American soccer media. Well, he better be fair inside his own locker room with the forwards when the real games roll around.

Azerbaijan v United States

Debate embraced: Right or wrong, Klinsmann made his decision with Donovan and pulled off the proverbial band aid last week. The initial shock and pain for U.S. fans has worn off. Ultimately the U.S. fate at the World Cup in a loaded group will go beyond the absence of one player, even if its all-time leading scorer and revered veteran.

The real reasons behind Klinsmann’s decision probably haven’t been revealed, regardless of the conspiracy theories swirling over an ill-timed tweet from his teenage son. Whatever the reasons are, Klinsmann made one major mistake: failing to realize American sports culture in 2014 allows zero room for nuance since everything MUST be either a black or white argument.

[RELATED: Landon Donovan: The Pros & Cons of Leaving the American Star Off the World Cup Roster]

Chopping Donovan three weeks ahead of the World Cup opened himself up to the Hot Take brigade. Klinsmann put himself in the crosshairs of the people in the media or positions of power who only pay attention to soccer for one month every four years. The U.S. issues in 2014 run much deeper than whether or not Donovan might have been able to contribute off the bench, but that’s not going to matter. The story has already been written.

Good thing Klinsmann signed an extension through 2018 already.

CONCACAF Championship - United States v Mexico

Duals: Both U.S. goals Tuesday came from dual-nationals, Diskerud (Norwegian-American) and Johannsson (Icelandic-American). German-Americans Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler all played in the match. Call it a throwback to the days when the U.S. called upon the likes of Thomas Dooley, Earnie Stewart, Roy Wegerle and others in the 1990s fill out the roster, albeit without the glorious acid-washed denim kits.

Ideally, yes, in the year 2014 the domestic U.S. Soccer system should be producing more National Team-worthy talent, but there’s no sense fretting over where Klinsmann is pulling players for this World Cup. Dual-nationals are something just about every country save for perhaps Brazil is going to deal with in the future.

Random observations: The U.S. defense still makes a lot of bad passes out from the back. Tuesday they were lucky Azerbaijan is, well, Azerbaijan. … Jermaine Jones does a lot of good things on the field, but he’s also the same guy who nearly picked up a yellow card in a friendly for arguing with the linesman over a throw-in. His discipline, or lack thereof, is a ticking time bomb at the World Cup. … It’s hard to believe U.S. fans, on Twitter anyways, were worried about who’d receive the No. 10 shirt vacated by Donovan. Diskerud ended up with it. There are much worthier things to worry about, even in the consistently neurotic world of American soccer fandom. … Prediction: Alejandro Bedoya, the man replacing Donovan’s presumed spot in the lineup, will be one of the better American performers in the World Cup itself. … Another lineup competition to watch is Brad Davis vs. Graham Zusi. Davis’s delivery on set pieces is an asset and if the U.S. is going to steal some goals it might come from dead ball situations. In this scenario Bedoya, would play on the right and Davis on the left. … The U.S. ‘bomb pop’ jerseys haven’t grown on me, meaning my wallet will be $90-100 richer by the end of the summer. … As a longtime EPL and U.S. Soccer viewer it was surreal, if nothing else, to hear Jon Champion calling a USMNT match. … Klinsmann made six subs, and Julian Green wasn’t one of them. The air of mystery hanging over the 18-year-old only continues to grow.

RELATED: Landon Donovan: The Pros & Cons of Leaving the American Star Off the World Cup Roster

[Photos via Getty]

 

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