In the first of three sporting events scheduled as part of the closing of the famed Candlestick Park. In a way, it was fitting that the new look United States Men's National Team should take part.
The era of Landon Donovan came firmly to an end last night, as the era of youth took firm control of the United States' World Cup destiny.
The United States initially came out with the lines led by Clint Dempsey. The captain, who has eight goals and two assists to his name in MLS play, was pulled from the team moments before kickoff due to an unhealed groin strain.
In his place: Chris Wondolowski. Because there was no Landon Donovan, we saw Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya deployed on the wings as part of a diamond 4-4-2. At the tip of the diamond was Michael Bradley, with Jermaine Jones at its base. Jones, who has played well for Hoffenheim, entered the game with serious questions about his ability play in a holding midfield role. Known for roaming forward, tonight's question was whether he would be able to maintain his defensive discipline, shield the back line, and disrupt Azerbaijani play.
The other remaining question for the starting XI was whether this backline would be capable of playing as a unit. This is something that has repeatedly plagued the Americans. With former midfielders DaMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson playing as wingbacks, and a central pairing of Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron, the backline had the potential for success. And of course, there was the rock solid Tim Howard in goal.
From the off, the Americans controlled possession. By the end of the game, the Americans had the ball 70% of the time. Still, against a highly defensive 4-4-1-1 that packed 10 men behind the ball, the United States should have done better with the opportunities they had. Jones did play with composure and discipline for the better part of the match, breaking up several Azerbaijani moves and covering well for his center backs. However, Michael Bradley still had too much to do on the defensive end. This meant that rather than taking on the role of playmaker and provider to Wondolowski and Altidore, Bradley was often dropping back to collect balls and provide a second defensive presence. It could be argued that the natural tendency here shows that this is an argument for deploying Bradley and either Beckerman or Jones at the base of a 4-2-3-1 formation.
As for Altidore, he performed admirably for a man who had just one goal in the prior eleven hundred minutes of game time. His hold up play of excellent, and he allowed plenty of time for his teammates to catch up to the run of play. He was able to make smart decisions on the ball, and got himself into dangerous positions throughout the match. His strike partner, Wondolowski, put constant pressure on the Azerbaijani defense, and had several close chances that he should have taken.
There were several points where passes from Jones, Bradley, Zusi, and Altidore (among others) were perfectly picked out. The only thing lacking was the right amount of pace. Some may put this down to a lack of cohesion and timing, or perhaps the two-a-day trainings the squad has put in. Whatever the cause, the ideas were there but the execution was not.
It took until the 75th minute for the Americans to score, with Mix Diskerud coming off the bench for Graham Zusi. Perhaps it was fitting that the new number 10 scored to put the Americans on the front foot, when that is precisely what the old number 10 would have been called on to do. The goal came as a result of the inevitable breakdown of the Azerbaijani squad's positional discipline. They had been pulled in multiple directions by a probing American team, which worked the ball into the box. Michael Bradley pulled the trigger, the shot was saved, and Diskerud popped up to push the ball over the line and into the back of the net.
It was six minutes before Aron Johansson, another sub, sealed the match for the Americans. Much like Atletico Madrid's recent failure to defend Sergio Ramos at the post, so too was Azerbaijan punished for a critical error. A crisp free kick came into the near post, and the unmarked Johansson smartly dispatched it into the net.
After this, the game seemed to devolve into simply waiting for the time to run out. The Americans constantly pushed, but one could see that they were taking their foot off the gas. Though they got a bit more possession and made a few critical entries into the American final third, the Azerbaijani were fortunate not to have given up five or more goals on the night.
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