U.S. In The Mix
In the first of three friendly matches for the United States Men's National Team prior to heading to Brazil, supporters got a glimpse of life in the post-Donovan era. More importantly, USMNT head coach Jürgen Klinsmann got a better idea of how his final 23-man roster shaped up in gameplay, albeit against a sub-par Azerbaijan squad (ranked 85th in the FIFA World Rankings).
There was minor reason to worry prior to kickoff when forward Clint Dempsey was taken off the starting lineup and replaced by Chris Wondolowski. The USMNT coaching staff claimed that Dempsey was experiencing "groin soreness" during warmups and was scratched from the lineup as a precautionary measure.
"We don't want to risk anything," Klinsmann told ESPN sideline reporter Jeremy Schaap. "It takes two, three days, it's out of the way and we move forward."
The man who replaced him took advantage of the start and quickly reminded everyone why he made the cut.
Just four minutes in, Wondolowski was nearly on the scoring end of a Graham Zusi centering cross but just missed. 'Wondo' would have one more header on frame in the 15th minute but was denied a goal after a diving effort from Azerbaijan's Kamran Agayev. The San Jose Earthquakes star was eventually subbed off for Aron Jóhannsson in the 62nd minute.
Mikkel 'Mix' Diskerud had the symbolic task of wearing No. 10, Landon Donovan's former number. It seemed only fitting that it was Diskerud who was first in putting the Americans on the board with a quarter of an hour left in the match.
The first goal for the Stars and Stripes would come off a set piece. In the 75th minute, the ball was put on frame and led to a rebound where Mix buried it into the back of the net. Diskerud's goal was enough to ignite an lackluster offense.
The Americans would strike a second time six minutes later. Brad Davis struck a swift corner from the right side that easily found an open Aron Jóhannsson who headed it in goal.
The game would end 2-0, giving the USMNT a victory on the first leg of their send-off series.
Two questions loomed over Klinsmann's squad entering Tuesday night in San Francisco.
First, in 'Life After Landon' whom does the USMNT squad turn to when they need a late-match goal? Donovan is the all-time leading scorer and delivers on the biggest stage far better than the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and other prolific forwards. Clint Dempsey is having a productive season at Seattle, but his minor injury didn't let him participate on Tuesday. The answer came in two substitutes: Mix Diskerud and Aron Jóhannsson. The two overseas players brought on much needed energy to a struggling offense. Chris Wondolowski has sky-rocketed in Major League Soccer the past few seasons and was arguably the player with the most momentum entering World Cup training camp. Wondo had two headers that were sure goals were it not for the goalkeeper.
But it was Diskerud and Jóhannsson that capitalized on their chances. Mix was at the right place at the right time and Jóhannsson received a brilliant cross from Brad Davis. Their quality was never in question, but concern for their in-game performances was what made them have to earn their roster spots. Tuesday night, however, they provided for their country what they have been providing for their club sides all season.
Americans are breathing a little easier after their performances. One person who isn't breathing easier is forward Jozy Altidore. After a dismal season at Sunderland, Altidore was a major question mark heading into training camp. Klinsmann, however, believes Altidore can still be effective. It is vital that Jozy get a few goals in the final two matches of the send-off series to gain momentum heading into Brazil. Physically, he is a major asset; mentally, however, Altidore must get through his struggles.
The second question seeking an answer Tuesday night was how would Klinsmann set up the much scrutinized defense? Reports out of training camp revealed that Fabian Johnson was practicing exclusively at right back. Sure enough, he started there. Over a year ago, Klinsmann revived DaMarcus Beasley's career and experimented with him at left back and has stuck with him all the way. Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron would fill the other spots and all in all, the defense played strongly throughout the game. There were a few instances were the ball was carelessly lost, but Azerbaijan could not capitalize. DeAndre Yedlin, Omar Gonzalez and Timothy Chandler came on and together secured Tim Howard a clean sheet.
The USMNT's next match is against Turkey on June 1 at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey.