SAN FRANCISCO — The US men’s national team will have an immense task on its hands when it arrives in Brazil this summer, facing three of the top teams in the game as it looks to translate an intense, emotional preparation period into a run at the World Cup.
But first in the process is Azerbaijan.
The team hailing from the oil-rich former Soviet republic is ranked 85th in the latest FIFA World Rankings and has accomplished little of note on the international stage in its short history, but USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann had some very specific plans in mind when it came to the selection of Azerbaijan as an opponent.
“We did not want to hit a top 10 team right away, the first match after a very strong preparation in the last 12 days, we were doing a lot of physical work obviously and so [the US players’] legs might be a little bit heavier.” Klinsmann told reporters on Monday. “I think they will give us a very good game.”
The selection of an opponent of Azerbaijan’s level is not simply a question of fitness, though. The Azeris most recently competed with Portugal in a European qualifying group for the tournament, and also faced Germany in both Euro 2012 and World Cup 2010 qualifiers. Their coach through all that time?
Newly-minted USMNT special consultant Berti Vogts.
The vastly experienced former German international is in the strange position of having a professional interest in the performance of both sides on Tuesday night (10 pm ET, ESPN2).
Furthermore, their coach, the vastly-experienced Berti Vogts, was recently hired as a special consultant to US Soccer in the run-up to the tournament, putting him in the strange position of having a keen interest in the performance of both teams on Tuesday night.
“He’s been a big mentor throughout my life and he just has an outstanding soccer brain, an outstanding knowledge — the way he reads the game, the way he analyzes things,” Klinsmann said of his 67-year-old countryman. “[The] tremendous experience he has is without question a huge benefit for us.”
In addition to his work with Azerbaijan, Vogts coached the German national team for eight years from 1990-1998, where he coached Klinsmann, and has also worked as head coach for the national teams of Kuwait, Scotland and Nigeria.
Though Vogts has coached in a couple of World Cups himself, Klinsmann highlighted his desire to be go “where the big music is played” in Brazil. He also indicated that Vogts was already heavily involved in bringing his decades of soccer experience to the table in the form of scouting the USA’s opponents in the upcoming tournament.
“He’s built an entire infrastructure [in Azerbaijan] in a couple of years and they love him there, but of course he is very excited to become a part of our process for the next two months.” Klinsmann explained. “He’s constantly already analyzing Ghana, Portugal and obviously Germany we both know pretty well, but it’s a great place to have him there and become part of our team going to Brazil.”