Soccer / Sports

World Cup preparation about to get serious

SAN FRANCISCO -- Azerbaijan, a little Eastern European nation tucked away on the Caspian Sea, has never been confused as a soccer power.

It is ranked 85th in the world and since independence in 1992 has never qualified for a World Cup or European championship.

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann could not imagine a better opponent to begin the nitty-gritty of a World Cup campaign.

The 14th-ranked Americans will play host to Azerbaijan on Tuesday night at Candlestick Park in the first of three exhibitions before the team travels to Brazil.

"We don't want to hit a top-10 team right away after a strong preparation" of training camp at Stanford, Klinsmann said Monday.

His 23-player team also plays host to Turkey on Sunday in Harrison, N.J., and Nigeria on June7 in Jacksonville, Fla. Then it becomes real with the World Cup opener June16 against Ghana.

"We have three opportunities to get it right," goalkeeper Tim Howard said Monday.

The Americans held their first public practice Monday evening since arriving in the Bay Area two weeks ago. A crowd of about 1,000 watched, and a few let their feelings known about Klinsmann's controversial snub of American star Landon Donovan. When the coach ran onto the field, one man shouted, "Where's Landon?"

With the World Cup just three weeks away, the Americans have plenty of other questions heading into the Azerbaijan game.

Klinsmann plans to use all six substitutions against Azerbaijan as he puts the finishing touches on a lineup that he hopes shocks the soccer world by advancing through tough GroupG that also includes Germany and Portugal.

"We'll definitely experiment here and there," Klinsmann said of the lineup. "We also want to see a flow in our game with a lineup in our eyes that looks strong."

In other words, U.S. fans will get their first peek at Klinsmann's thinking with the starting unit against Azerbaijan, which finished fourth in its European qualifying pool that included World Cup participants Portugal and Russia.

But the oil-rich nation didn't embarrass itself in going 1-3-6 behind German coach Berti Vogts, who will become a U.S. scout after Tuesday's game. The game also will be of prime interest to the soccer-loving nation of 8 million people that borders Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran.

"It's at 7 a.m." Vogts said of the 12-hour time difference. "Maybe 4 million will be waiting for the match against the big USA."

For Klinsmann, "It is just great to go out on a real field and measure yourself with a real team."

The Americans held three scrimmages at Stanford, including playing the Cardinal men's team and an under-23 Earthquakes squad. But the international friendly provides a palpable sense of reality.

Some of the team's spots are cemented: Forward Clint Dempsey, midfielder Michael Bradley and Howard are the Americans' most familiar faces. But a new back line leaves questions about the Americans' ability to stop the creative players they will face in all three GroupG opponents.

"I'm hoping we can figure out this back four," former U.S. star Brian McBride said Monday.

They've been focused on it. Omar Gonzalez said he and fellow center back Matt Besler have been working for the past three weeks to create cohesion.

But good defense is much more than two muscular central defenders. Although the players haven't had much time together, they've had enough, according to Bradley.

"This group has been together for three, four years," he said. "When you talk about chemistry and mentality, we're lucky those things come easy for us."

Klinsmann agreed.

"It's an automatic thing that happens there," he said.

--Chris Wondolowski scored two goals during a team scrimmage Monday.

(c)2014 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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