SAN FRANCISCO – For 75 minutes on Tuesday night, the US men’s national team found itself befuddled in front of goal by an unexpected lineup change, a defensive-minded Azerbaijan team and, of course, those infamous Candlestick Park winds.
The team did eventually break through against its resolute opponents thanks to goals from Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson on a pair of late set pieces, but the stuttering offensive performance over the course of a 2-0 win over the 85th-ranked team in the world left questions about how the team would fare against tougher opposition.
“Even though on paper we should have ran over the top of them, it’s never that easy,” US goalkeeper Tim Howard remarked after the game. “We grinded them down, got the result, 2-0 feels good.”
US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann played down questions about his team’s performance in his postgame press conference.
“We’re not concerned at all,” the former German international said. “We knew it was going to be tricky with the conditions out there. You need to keep the ball on the ground, even then if you hit a high ball, that ball is gone, it goes all over the place.
“You want to play through their lines, they work with 10 guys behind the ball, so the only way to get through there is through fast combination play or maybe a 1-v-1, which is really difficult.”
The US were also thrown for a loop even before the game started, as Clint Dempsey was announced as a late scratch due to groin soreness, with Chris Wondolowski taking his place in the starting lineup only after being informed of his new role at the conclusion of warmups.
Wondolowski ended up with the two best US chances of the first half, but was denied in both the fourth and 15th minutes by Azerbaijani goalkeeper Kamran Aghayev.
“For Chris, it was a little bit hectic, obviously, coming on in the beginning, but I think he did fine,” Klinsmann explained. “With a little bit of luck, he scores that header right away, and that is not an easy header to take because the wind, it just takes that ball in sorts of directions…and it’s not that you can place the ball the way you want to, you just have to hit it.”
The wind didn’t just make it difficult to read crosses, though, it altered the entire complexion of the US attack, effectively taking away the possibility of the long ball and making routine tasks like switching flanks and two-touch play more of an adventure than anyone would have liked.
“I have to excuse certain elements because of the conditions,” Klinsmann explained. “You can’t play that one-, two-touch game easily and play through it because the ball takes a different pace. It gets very difficult. If you don’t get a clean first touch, it makes the next one very messed up, and boom, the ball is gone.”
Added US defender Omar Gonzalez: “There was a lot of good movement – the wind made it pretty hard to complete a lot of good passes, but I thought there was a lot of good thought process there.”
The USMNT’s grueling two-week training camp at nearby Stanford University also carried through to Tuesday night’s game, with Klinsmann saying before the game that he did not want his charges facing a “top-10” side immediately after such a strenuous period, a factor he admitted did play into his team’s performance.
“I think the energy was there, the drive was there, the willingness to keep the tempo high, even with two weeks of heavy work in their legs,” he explained. “It’s not looking as fresh as it looks hopefully a couple of weeks down the road because of the work we’re doing.”
The US will now face considerably tougher opponents in the form of Turkey (June 1) and Nigeria (June 6), before heading off to Brazil to take on an unfavorable slate of teams in Ghana, Portugal and Germany.
And even though the team did not look at its most dangerous in one of the first steps of the process leading up to the World Cup, that’s not the point.
“We’re not supposed to be peaking right now, we’re supposed to be peaking down in Brazil,” Wondolowski said after the game. “That’s been the coach’s game plan from the start, and I think we’re starting to execute it.”