The United States Men's National Team officially kicked off its road to Brazil with a comfortable 2-0 win over Azerbaijan Tuesday night in San Francisco, the first of three friendlies on American soil before the World Cup begins next month.
Substitutes Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson scored in the 75th and 80th minutes, respectively, to save the Americans the embarrassment of not picking up a result against an Azeri side that is ranked 85th in the FIFA world rankings.
Here are four takeaways from the match, and what Tuesday's happenings could mean for the Americans going forward:
Clint Dempsey injury shows Landon Donovan will loom over World Cup
Perhaps the biggest thing to come out of Tuesday's match occurred during warmups, when captain Clint Dempsey felt discomfort in his groin and was pulled out of the starting lineup. Chris Wondolowski, whose goal-scoring record with the USMNT has been impressive of late, replaced Dempsey to start the match.
But every American fan immediately thought of another ready-made replacement for Dempsey in the No. 10 role, Landon Donovan. Donovan, the United States' all-time leading scorer, didn't make the squad, and there's no indication Dempsey's injury will prove serious enough to remove him from the squad.
All it really shows is that the specter of Donovan will loom large all through the World Cup run, which is not the best news for manager Jurgen Klinsmann.
Central midfielders in focus, but wing play could provide offense for US
Donovan would have more likely been relegated to a wing in the current composition of the US team, but the players who started out wide for the United States — Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya — more than held their own in the first half.
Against an Azeri side that packed the penalty area with defenders, each player had room to move and pick out passes from the flank and took their chances well. Zusi and his halftime replacement, Brad Davis, excelled with set pieces as well.
Kids off the bench could be poised for more
The consensus on the ESPN broadcast seemed to be that the Starting XI Tuesday represented the first-choice lineup once the World Cup begins, but I'm not sure I agree. And to further compound that, goals from substitutes Diskerud and Johannsson are sure to only complicate the team.
Diskerud has found a niche recently for the US coming off the bench to create goals, while Johannsson's goal-scoring form with AZ Alkmaar has been otherworldly. If that's the role those two play in Brazil, then the US should be confident that they have a chance to steal a goal late against any opponent. But especially in Johannsson's case, and with preferred first-choice striker Jozy Altidore having faltered at Sunderland and appearing to lack confidence, it may be hard to keep the Icelandic striker out of the starting XI.
Beckerman vs. Jones debate could rage on
When Kyle Beckerman slotted in behind Michael Bradley in the Mexico friendly last month, the United States played a breathtaking first half of football with Bradley going forward and creating and Beckerman protecting the back four. Jones took Beckerman's holding role against Azerbaijan, and the consistent creativity and flair just wasn't there.
Jones is seen as undisciplined in both his tactics and his card discipline, so it's likely Beckerman will see plenty of action if Jones is the first choice. But based on our small sample size, Bradley looked much more comfortable marauding forward with Beckerman covering for him than Jones.
US vs Azerbaijan, May. 27: Tim Howard (C); Fabian Johnson (DeAndre Yedlin, 62), Geoff Cameron (Omar Gonzalez, 46), Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley (Timmy Chandler, 46); Graham Zusi (Brad Davis, 46), Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya (Mix Diskerud, 71); Jozy Altidore, Chris Wondolowski (Aron Johannsson, 62)
Subs Not Used: John Brooks, Clint Dempsey, Brad Guzan, Kyle Beckerman, Julian Green, Nick Rimando