The United States Men's National Team will kickoff it's series on Tuesday night with first its sendoff matches against UEFA minnows Azerbaijan. Currently ranked 85th according to FIFA, The Milli have never qualified for either the World Cup or the European Championships since it joined FIFA and UEFA in 1994. On the surface, the match seemed like the oddball amongst the trio of pre-World Cup send off games. Lo and Behold, Berti Vogts (Azerbaijan's national team manager and long-time Klinsmann) was added to the staff and Martin Vazquez was 're-assigned', and the choice of this opponent started to make some sense. In exchange for a fairly cream puff opponent, Azerbaijan could cash in on a lucrative pay day and experience as their eyes look to qualification for Euro 2016. Azerbaijan's team is constituted chiefly of domestic players, and will feature the 2nd leading scorer and the fiercly eye-browed, Vagif Sadygov. That's about all I have to say about the 'Milli'. I guess they might give a little extra effort in the hopes of scoring a work visa and a contract with MLS.
Wildly speculative XI prediction:
Fabian Johnson- Geoff Cameron - Matt Besler - Timmy Chandler
On the backline, we may flip the Germans, but I think those are your starting wing backs. I also think, barring bad form or injuries, we'll see them starting on the wings against Ghana. As for the center, Besler's locked down a spot, and I think Cameron gets the first go as partner with Omar Gonzalez coming back from an injury. I think they roll with the diamond in midfield with the speedy wingback options, and they give Jones an opportunity to show that he can be disciplined enough to play the pivot. If they line up in a 4-2-3-1, I think the lineup stays the same, and Bradley stays a little deeper, but my guess is they go diamond here given the stakes and this being a newer wrinkle.
As for what I want to see, first and foremost it's total domination. Given Altidore's lost season at Sunderland, this would be a good opportunity for him to warm up. Anything shy of 10 shots on goal with 2 bagged should be viewed as a disappointing 1st half given the disparity in talent, the preparation of the last 2 weeks, and the home field advantage. Aside from that, I want to see something from the attacking subs. Given the shocking news of last week, I have to think that the bubble guys in attack (Mikkel Diskerud, Brad Davis, Julian Green, and Chris Wondolowski) all will want to put their stamp on this game to show the public that they were indeed worthy of a spot on the plane at the expense of Landon Donovan.
Speaking of Donovan, he was lights out last night. He started the night with a masterful piece of service to Leonardo for the opener, bagged his record breaking goal with an easy finish after starting the attack in the final third with a slick pass to Keane, and scored a 2nd in a similar fashion with a cool finish from the left foot. I can't help but hearken back to Dempsey's run of cold at Fulham and the start of the season. It wasn't until the Mexico game where you started to see the ideas come back for Dempsey. In his next 4 MLS games, he scored 7 goals and 3 assists and forced an own goal from Stephen Keel. I have an eerie feeling this is the beginning of a similar run of form for Donovan.
I've heard a lot of theories about why Donovan was omitted from the final roster, none of which suggest that he was not worthy or one of the best attacking options. Here are a couple of my own to throw into the soup.
1- The Tinfoil Hat theory. Donovan has alluded to the fact that he can't train at the same level he once did. Did this annoy Klinsmann? I'm sure he didn't care for it much. After all, Der Klinsy was still tearing it up for Bayern Munich and Die Mannschaft at a similar point in his career. He also doesn't hear Brad Davis and Chris Wondolowski complaining about the wear and tear at roughly the same age (albeit, there are a lot fewer road miles on those two than Donovan or Klinnsman).
So Donovan needs a little motivation, and a snub has already worked wonders apparently. Despite playing midfield all year, Arena put Donovan up top with Robbie Keane, and Donovan excelled in the position that Klinsmann reportedly thinks is his best fit. Does anyone think that Arena was just trying to help Donovan get the record last night? Could Klinsmann possibly have anticipated this?
If truly calculated, Klinsmann wins either way. If Donovan's form had continued to lag, he would have looked astute for not including him on the roster. If Donovan catches fire, well there's at least a decent chance someone picks up a knock between know and June 15th, and Donovan hypothetically offers an improvement to the roster despite being a last minute addition. If someone picks up a mysterious injury toward the date of the Ghana match, then this won't seem the least bit crazy.
2- The much more well-reasoned changing of the guard theory. In September of 2006, Raul Gonzalez Blaco was a mere 29, and, at the time, was the top scorer in Spanish National Team History. After a defeat against Northern Ireland in Belfast, Raul unknowingly had completed his career with 'La Furia Roja'. After being the focus of Spain's attack for 3 World Cups and 2 European Championships, he was left in the rubbish bin. He went on to enjoy two more 18 goal seasons for Real Madrid, both of which saw Real win the La Liga championship. Spain has since bracketed their first World Cup championship with a pair of European championships. Perhaps in Raul, Klinsmann saw a parallel to Donovan, and the time was now to move on despite previous accomplishments.
Regardless of crackpot speculation, Donovan's exclusion still holds more controversy (at least from outside the club) than Steve Sampson's selection for France 98'. A one goal victory will not quiet the masses. It's possible that a 2 goal victory won't do much either. I dread thinking about how bad the backlash will be if we were to lose or to draw against Azerbaijan. I think the US will press like mad in this one and will manage to demonstrate their quality with a big win.
Prediction US 5, Azerbaijan 0