SAN FRANCISCO – With Jurgen Klinsmann’s final 23-man squad for next summer’s World Cup set, how many more questions can there really be left to ask before the team’s first tuneup against Azerbaijan on Tuesday night (10 pm ET, ESPN2)?
Plenty, it turns out, and most of them are focused on the US team’s mysterious defensive lineup that at this point could go any way imaginable.
The back four is easily the biggest question mark ahead of a first peek at windy Candlestick Park, and Klinsmann waffled on questions Monday whether or not he would experiment or stick with a lineup that might resemble the group that will take the field on June 16 against Ghana.
While the first domestic sendoff game for Bob Bradley’s 2010 team was used as a litmus test for which players eventually would be cut – Klinsmann chopped his roster down weeks before Bradley did – this game and the two that follow are less about cutting room floor chaos and more about chemistry, especially on the back line.
“The defense seems good,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said during press availability here in advance of the Azerbaijan friendly. “Guys are excited. He’s used a lot of different lineups and everyone seems comfortable with each other, so it’s just a matter of who Jurgen picks."
“You never play with a starting lineup in training,” he added, “so you never know.”
Word emerged from the team’s camp at Stanford University over the weekend that Klinsmann has experimented with his defensive group perhaps even more than expected when camp opened earlier this month, pairing three different center backs (Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez and John Brooks) with de facto starter Matt Besler and looking at handyman Fabian Johnson at right back instead of left.
“Hopefully once we’re in Brazil and we have that first game, we’ll have the back line doing well and being consistent,” Klinsmann said at Monday's press conference. “In those three sendoff games, [we will experiment] because they are very, very tight for those spots and we want to give them exposure and time. So we will definitely make some changes to give them a chance to prove a point.
“With all of them in here, we are actually very positive on this whole process. It looks good, and hopefully we can confirm it.”
“Geoff’s a smooth player, and he’s comfortable playing center back,” Howard said. “He’s always wanted to play center back, and so if that’ the case, hopefully he gets a chance."
Gonzalez, meanwhile, said again on Monday that he has recovered from the knee injury that hounded him earlier this month, and that was back in the picture for the spot opposite Besler on the back line.
"We took the first few days to get my body right, and then as days kept coming the workload started getting harder and harder,” he said. “And now I’m involved in everything."
One thing is for sure for Klinsmann’s group on Tuesday: There’s room to mix and match. Teams are allowed six substitutions in this match, meaning curious onlookers might catch only a glimpse of the team’s real starting lineup before it’s gone in the wind.
“It’s not easy, you know?” Klinsmann said. “We want to see the guys approach it from the first second on the field with a lot of enthusiasm and joy to be closer in getting closer to Brazil.”