USA vs. Azerbaijan
Tuesday, May 27, 2014, 10 pm ET
Candlestick Park, San Francisco
Watch on ESPN2, WatchESPN, UniMas
The United States now knows which 23 men will represent the nation at the 2014 World Cup, and on Tuesday, Jurgen Klinsmann's final group kicks off the first of three warmup matches intended to ramp the squad up to that fateful meeting with Ghana in Natal on June 16.
This year's “Send-Off Series” opens with a visit from Azerbaijan, ranked 85th in the latest FIFA World Rankings, at Candlestick Park, an iconic venue soon to meet its demise as longtime NFL denizens the San Francisco 49ers move to Levi's Stadium, their new home to the south. Duels with Turkey (in New Jersey on June 1) and Nigeria (Jacksonville, Fla., on June 7) also await.
Even Klinsmann says Azerbaijan are expected to offer only token resistance, and it appears that their manager Berti Vogts' short-term consulting gig as a US scout is the main reason for their presence in the Bay Area. But that only slightly decreases the pressure on the Yanks, who must pivot from the speculation and surprise of the past week to the specifics of the daunting task awaiting them in Brazil.
This is the first meeting between the two nations at the senior international level.
The furor over Klinsmann's sudden announcement of his roster cuts has bubbled for several days now and the specifics are fairly familiar to all: There's no room for veterans Landon Donovan, Clarence Goodson or Brad Evans, but seats on the plane have been reserved for relatively unproven youngsters Julian Green, DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks.
No one can truly evaluate these unexpected decisions until the USMNT have played their three Group G matches next month. But the performance against Azerbaijan will influence the ways in which Klinsmann's more controversial selections will be viewed as the countdown to Brazil ticks away.
The German-American coach was typically cagey in his remarks to the media this week, suggesting that he'd experiment with his unsettled backline, but also that he'd field a lineup similar to the one he expects to start against Ghana. Clearly he's not keen to share the full contents of his mind just yet, so USMNT observers will likely have to sift through the tea leaves for at least another week or two.
With a program less than 20 years old and a domestic population of under 10 million, the Milli (“national team”) are a young minnow in UEFA, arguably the world's most vicious shark tank, and their absence from major international tournaments reflects it. They finished a distant fourth behind Russia, Portugal and Israel in UEFA Group F in the most recent round of World Cup qualifying.
A German legend who won a World Cup trophy as a player and earned a Euro championship – with Klinsmann in a leading role – as a coach, Vogts has led the Azerbaijani program since 2008. His efforts at wider structural development alongside the short-term hunt for wins have earned him a new contract.
But after Tuesday's friendly, he will swap Milli colors for the red, white and blue for two months as he assists the USMNT with preparation for Ghana, Portugal and Germany. His Azerbaijani charges will nonetheless want to make a good impression against a high-profile opponent ahead of this fall's Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, which kicks off against Bulgaria on Sept. 9.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
USA – Geoff Cameron
It seems fairly clear that Klinsmann wants to feature the former Houston Dynamo star in his starting 11. But will he break up the previously well-established Matt Besler-Omar Gonzalez center back pairing to do so? Or will Cameron return to the right back role he manned during much of the past two years at Stoke City? Those are just two of many questions floating around the USMNT lineup in the countdown to Brazil.
Azerbaijan – Rufat Dadashov
The 22-year-old striker's finishing abilities have earned him an opportunity with German second-division club FC Kaiserslautern – though he has yet to carve out a steady role with the first team. Azerbaijan's likely preference for a counterattacking approach could present him with chances at goal and he has the quality to exploit any errors in the US backline.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS (8): DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Timmy Chandler (Nürnberg), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders FC)
MIDFIELDERS (8): Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Jermaine Jones (Besiktas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
FORWARDS (4): Jozy Altidore (Sunderland), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
GOALKEEPERS (3): Kamran Agayev, Salahat Agayev, Emil Balayev
DEFENDERS (9): Badavi Huseynov, Rashad F. Sadiqov, Elvin Yunuszadeh, İlkin Qırtımov, Ufuk Budak, Shariyar Aliyev, Maksim Medvedev, Rasim Ramaldanov, Mahir Sukurov
MIDFIELDERS (3): Ruslan Abıshov, Qara Qarayev, Abdullah Abasiyev
FORWARDS (6): Rufat Dadashov, Dmitriy Nazarov, Rauf Aliyev, Cihan Özkara, Vagif Cavadov, Pardis Fardjad-Azad