Three Things: Diamond midfield returns to mixed reviews as USMNT struggle to put away Azerbaijan
When your captain’s groin feels a bit wonky before a World Cup warm-up match – against Azerbaijan, no less – you reserve him a comfortable seat at the trainers table.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s ideal XI went right out the window when some garden-variety soreness was too much for Clint Dempsey to risk it at Candlestick Park on Tuesday. He's only supposed to sit 2-3 days, but it cerainly threw a wrench in the works for the US national team's first match ahead of Brazil.
But even with Deuce busy getting treatment and the US chances few and far between, there was still plenty to learn from a cagey 2-0 victory that means there are just two official matches left – Turkey on June 1 at Red Bull Arena and Nigeria in Jacksonville, Fla., on June 7 – as the days count down to June 16 and a third straight World Cup meeting with Ghana.
It was also, I needn’t remind you, the USMNT’s first game since Landon Donovan saw his Brazil dreams unceremoniously dashed, a state of affairs ESPN play-by-play man John Champion described seconds after the first roll of the ball.
“Life after Landon starts here.”
1. Diamond midfield returns to mixed reviews
— U.S. Soccer (@ussoccer) May 28, 2014
This was just about the best XI Klinsmann could have trotted out, minus Dempsey's late scratch, which made sense considering his vague comments – an apt way to describe much of what the German says publicly these days – about Tuesday's lineup hinting at what we may see against the Black Stars.
The bigger question, though, is whether the tactics might carry over as well. After a brilliant first half but shaky second 45 minutes against Mexico in April, the diamond was back. Only this time Jermaine Jones, who’s never seemed content to defer to Michael Bradley’s attacking nous, found himself shielding the backline.
For the first 45 minutes, the much-anticipated return of the diamond didn’t really work. At least, not the way it did in Phoenix against El Tri, partly because Berti Vogts put 11 players behind the ball and partly because the American's final ball was so lacking. The US' only two legitimate chances before lineup changes came at halftime arrived via set-piece headers from Chris Wondolowski, who was left completely unmarked by the spacey Azerbaijani set-piece defense.
By and large, Jones accepted his fate against the Azerbaijanis and Bradley drifted higher up the field, but he often wasn’t the only (or forward) midfielder occupying that space. Both Alejando Bedoya and Graham Zusi rotated into the middle as they swapped flanks and looked to tuck in centrally with the fullbacks providing north-south width.
Instead of the swashbuckling force he was against El Tri, both orchestrating the attack and providing the final barb, Bradley frequently dropped to pick up the ball during the first 45, using that position to pick out balls upfield and combine with Jones to shuttle the ball across the midfield. That shouldn't be all that surprising. As ESPN's Alexi Lalas pointed out during the pregame, a true diamond suits neither player.
— Alexi Lalas (@AlexiLalas) May 28, 2014
To that point, Jones may have been more disciplined than expected, but selfless anchor in the mold of Kyle Beckerman he is not. Likewise, Bradley's not at his best directing traffic against a team encamped in their own end. Compromise, or personnel changes, on both sides will be necessary should Klinsmann stick with the diamond.
It wasn't all bad, though, no matter what Twitter told you after what was certainly a frustratingly barren first half for USMNT fans.
Bradley showed off his keen ability to burst forward when the counterattack beckoned, the best example of which came in the 40th minute when Jozy Altidore – still shaking off rust in the final third – corralled a clearance long enough to spring the Toronto FC man up the gut.
With two willing runners in Zusi and Bedoya, both of whom were measured on the ball and tireless off it, plus Altidore's improved hold-up play and Dempsey crashing the area, the US have the makings of what could be a deadly counterattack in a group where the US may often struggle to hold extended possession.
Perhaps too familiar, as only dastardly set-piece defending and some scrappy play fueled the two second-half goals that disposed of the wilting Azerbaijanis, ranked 85th in the world. Think that will be enough to get the US out of the Group of Death? Me either.
The consolation? The US should have more of those transitional moments as they seek an upset or two in Group G, moments that won't be so rare with Ghana, Portugal and Germany more than willing (and much more able than Azerbaijan) to attack with numbers. They'd still be well served to develop a counter punch or two, however.
2. Will Geoff Cameron finally get his chance?
For years, Klinsmann's been saying Geoff Cameron's best position is center back. Finally, it seems Cameron will get a legitimate shot at winning the job.
With Omar Gonzalez still working his way back from injury and relegated to a substitute appearance, Cameron partnered Matt Besler for just the second time ever on a night in which most of the work was simply recirculating the ball back into play and running down aimless long balls.
So was there much to be learned about the defensive partnership that may be the most important decision the Klinsmann makes before June 16?
Not really, but Cameron didn't put a foot wrong – admittedly, he was rarely under pressure – and is the kind of athlete that the German seems to be building his squad around. Does that mean his spot is secure? Not a chance, as Gonzalez came on for the second 45 minutes without a major misstep as well, but strong performances against Turkey and Nigeria would go a long way toward either man's place in the XI in Natal.
Perhaps it’s a managerial stroke of genius from Klinsmann, the chip on Cameron’s shoulder swelling in size as he eyes a long-awaited opportunity in his preferred position. Or perhaps Gonzalez's knock simply forced the German's hand. Either way, the 28-year-old has an opportunity in front of him, one that's been a long time coming.
3. Mix Diskerud takes the 10 shirt
Maybe I’m not nostalgic. Or maybe it’s because one of the “23 not named Landon” was going to have to take the No. 10 as soon as Donovan headed back to Los Angeles. Either way, I can't help but feel it should be a non-story on a team with plenty of other issues to mull over.
(SI.com’s Grant Wahl has everything you ever wanted to know about American No. 10s here.)
Fortunately, nobody on this squad is better suited to wear Donovan's old number than the always-entertaining and sometimes-quirky Diskerud, both when it comes to on-field skill and personality.
And wouldn't you know it, Mix got the game-winning goal to help spare the US some serious blushes. Only it was from gumption, rather than class. Guess there are still goals in No. 10 after all.
And while he's shown a willingness to mix it up before, Diskerud's real value on this team comes as a game changer off the bench. Once again – Dos a Cero, never forget – Diskerud delivered.
More importantly, he kept the question that'll be on everyone's tongue throughout the next month – "What would Landon do?" – bottled up, at least temporarily.