One of these two teams will face the USMNT on May 27 in San Francisco. We provide some clarification.
by Roderick MacNeil
Azerbaijan, Land of Fire.
I’ve got to admit, that sounds pretty darned exciting. The slogan is emblazoned across the chests of players at Atletico Madrid, the new reigning champions of La Liga in Spain. The phrase stirs intrigue, mystery, maybe a touch of fear of the unknown. It evokes fantastical images of a place brimming with active volcanoes, their eruptions dotting the visible landscape. Is there fire in the sky, perhaps danger in the air?
A tourist encounters a dangerous mud volcano somewhere in Azerbaijan.
Alas, the terrain of the real Azerbaijan is a bit more tame. Oh, there are plenty of volcanoes, but it’s more commonly known for its “mud volcanoes” than the ones that spew fiery molten lava. Mud volcanoes still seem like a cool thing, but perhaps a letdown if you’re envisioning towers of fire.
I don’t know much about the nation of Azerbaijan. I can locate it on a map. I can tell you its capital (Baku), identify its flag, and even offer a snippet or two on its semi-recent political history as a former Soviet Republic. Maybe that’s more than the average American can do.
When it comes to the Azerbaijan national soccer team, I know even less. (Well, at least that was the case before I prepared to write this article.) Even amongst the most educated fans of the game in this part of the world, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who has ever seen the team play, let alone anyone who could name a single player on its roster.
More confusingly, as alluded to above, the most recognizable soccer team in the world that bears jerseys reading “AZERBAIJAN” across the front is not, in fact, Azerbaijan. That would be the aforementioned Spanish professional club Atletico Madrid, which has a multi-year sponsorship agreement that promotes tourism to Azerbaijan. The club’s recent run to the UEFA Champions League final has done its part to bring greater notoriety to the small Caspian Sea nation.
On Tuesday night at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, the USMNT begins its pre-World Cup “Send Off Series” with an International Friendly against the actual national team of Azerbaijan. The match features perhaps the unlikeliest pair of opponents you can find on the schedule. Perhaps it’s perversely fitting that this oddball matchup is being held at venue set for demolition in a matter of months.
Berti Vogts and Jurgen Klinsmann in a 1997 German training session. (RTR Photo)
Why Azerbaijan? The connection begins and ends with Berti Vogts, the team’s head coach since 2008. Vogts and USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann have a long history together. Vogts coached the German national team from 1990-98, a period coinciding with the last 8 years of Klinsmann’s international career, most notably winning the 1996 European Championship together.
Less than two months ago, Klinsmann named Vogts as special assistant to the U.S. national team. Interestingly, Vogts brings very specific recent coaching experience against each of the USMNT’s upcoming Group G opponents. During his tenure with Azerbaijan, his team faced Portugal twice during 2014 World Cup Qualification, and faced Germany twice during Euro 2012 Qualification. Additionally, prior to taking the Azarbaijan job, Vogts served a short stint as Nigeria’s head coach, during which time he managed against Ghana in the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations.
Klinsmann’s hope is that Vogts’ firsthand knowledge will be useful in preparing his own team for Brazil. So an arrangement was worked out with the Azerbaijan federation; Vogts will advise Klinsmann and serve as a key scout for the U.S. ahead of this summer’s World Cup, but will remain as head coach of Azerbaijan, including coaching the team against the USMNT Tuesday night. The scheduling of the match was a bargaining chip in the agreement between the two national sides.
From a U.S. perspective, Azerbaijan is a blip on the upcoming schedule; a relative minnow in the soccer world, a mere warm-up before moving on to face the more accomplished national squads of Turkey and Nigeria. For the Azerbaijanis, on the other hand, this match is a massive opportunity against a highly ranked opponent.
Azerbaijan has never qualified for a major championship in its brief 23-year history as an independent nation. It has never reached a World Cup nor a European Championship, so its infrequent clashes with teams as strong as the United States are big events across this small Caucacus nation.
Things are looking up for the “Milli” (translation: “The National Team”), as they’re affectionately called by their home supporters. Under the direction of Berti Vogts, Azerbaijan has achieved its highest FIFA ranking ever, up to 85th in the May 2014 edition. Occupying a spot in the top half of the (currently) 209-member list is only a very recently achieved milestone.
Azerbaijan collected respectable results during 2014 World Cup Qualifying. Drawn into a group with Russia, Portugal, Israel, Northern Ireland and Luxembourg, the team finished fourth, earning 9 points in 10 matches with a 1-6-3 record. More impressive was the defensive prowess displayed in only surrendering a total of 11 goals. Perhaps unsurprising for a team coached by Vogts, who first made his name as a standout defender, helping lead West Germany to the 1974 World Cup title, as well as winning 5 Bundesliga titles with Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Vagif Javadov can beat you if you let him. Just ask Russia.
The signature WCQ result for Azerbaijan came in the group stage finale against eventual group winner Russia. Despite falling behind early 1:0 and playing with ten men after a 73rd minute red card, the Milli weathered the storm from its neighboring powerhouse and stayed within a goal. The Russian defense was caught ball-watching on a 90th minute free kick, when forward Vagif Javadov connected a header off a looping cross into the box, finding the back of the net, tying the match and sending the home crowd into delirium.
A frustrated Ronaldo couldn’t score against Azerbaijan.
Also of note: in the two matches against Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo did not score. In fairness, he missed one match due to suspension. But in the return match, Azerbaijan held Portugal scoreless for 65 minutes before the deadlock was broken. Two late goals stretched the final margin to 3:0, but the 2013 Ballon D’Or winner never broke through. If Vogts helped find a way for Azerbaijan to contain Ronaldo, surely there’s hope for a successful American game plan.
Azerbaijan’s defensive success hasn’t come without a fair dose of aggression. Too often, that aggression has gone too far and crossed the line into violent play. During the 2014 WCQ group stage, Azerbaijan was punished with 3 red cards in 10 games. Something for the USMNT to beware of; the Azerbaijanis will be ramped up for this game, and there’s a track record of being unable to keep those emotions under proper control. Escaping this match injury-free will be one of the most desirable outcomes for Klinsmann’s team.
Azerbaijan’s roster is primarily one drawn from its top domestic league, the Azerbaijan Premier League. UEFA’s coefficient currently ranks it 32nd out of 54 European leagues. It’s obviously quite far behind the level of the top leagues, but slowly and steadily creeping up the pecking order.
Team captain Rashad Sadygov is Azerbaijan’s most capped player in the team’s history. Still in his prime at age 31, he’s the backbone in central defense. Sadygov has had two ill-fated stints with clubs in the more prestigious Turkish Super Lig, one of which was due to injury. One strange note to his career: He spent the 2006 season playing for a local pro basketball club in order to stay fit, after somehow missing a registration deadline to be remain eligible for soccer.
Forward Vagif Javadov isn’t an internationally recognized player by any means, but he did once sign a long-term contract with FC Twente of the Dutch Eredivisie. Unfortunately, injuries ended that dream before he made a single appearance in Holland. He later signed with Volga of the Russian Premier League, only to return to Azerbaijan after a half-season with zero goals. Still just 25 years old, Javadov is a bit of a cult hero at home in Azerbaijan. Not only did he score the dramatic tying goal against Russia last year, but he managed the exact same feat in a 1:1 draw against Russia during 2010 World Cup Qualification. With 9 international goals, he is Azerbaijan’s active career leader.
Bursting on the scene more recently is young forward Rufat Dadashov. At 22, Dadashov is one of the few Azerbaijani players playing professionally in a foreign league. He’s currently with 1. FC Kaiserslautern II, the reserve side for a parent club that has spent most of its history in the German Bundesliga. Dadashov has scored four international goals over the past year with just 11 caps to his name. Azerbaijan has only scored 12 total goals as a team during that time.
Another playing generating much excitement locally is Elvin Yunuszade. The 21-year-old center back made his senior team debut just two months ago in a friendly vs. the Philippines. He celebrated that occasion by scoring the winning goal. That performance was rewarded with a second call-up and a trip to California to face the United States.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s midfielder Ruslan Abishov, who almost by default is considered Azerbaijan’s best player. Abishov lines up primarily as a defender for Rubin Kazan of the Russian Premier League, and is the only Azerbaijani player at a high profile club outside of Azerbaijan. Playing for a club that regularly appears in UEFA Champions League pretty strongly trumps all other claims. Vogts has typically deployed Abishov as defensive midfielder, where his creative ability proves more useful in jumpstarting Azerbaijan’s limited attacking prowess.
Meanwhile, the Azerbaijanis are also busy preparing for their next challenge: Euro 2016 Qualification. The expanded 24-team format raises new hope for a smaller footballing nation like Azerbaijan. Its Group H qualifying mates are Italy, Croatia, Norway, Bulgaria and Malta. The top two will qualify directly, with the third place finisher entering a playoff round. Attaining that third spot will be Azerbaijan’s big 2016 dream.
It’s a daunting task, but the 2014 WCQ campaign leaves reason for optimism. Surely Italy and Croatia live in a different stratosphere. The others? Well, perhaps now more reachable than ever. Malta is an eternal minnow. Once-proud Bulgaria has been on the decline, last week even drawing 1:1 with lowly Canada, a team that only scored 1 goal in all of 2013. Norway is another team headed in the wrong direction, falling as low as 60th in recent FIFA rankings, barely edging out Albania for 4th place in its 2014 WCQ group. All things considered, Azerbaijan has good reason to be bullish on its soccer future.
So what does this all mean for the USMNT heading into Tuesday night? In truth, not a whole lot. It’s a game the Americans are expected to win, and win handily. Azerbaijan struggles to create quality scoring chances, but like any club that packs numbers defensively, is dangerous on the counterattack. It’ll be a good test of the USMNT’s back line organization, since we’re all but certain to see a foursome that hasn’t played together as a unit. As a team, disciplined marking on set pieces must be consistent. Even against a team with the limited attacking capabilities of Azerbaijan, a momentary lapse can lead to disaster.
Remain calm and patient against that tightly packed Azerbaijan defense, guys. The goals will come.
On the offensive side of the ball, patience will be tested. If the game goes to halftime scoreless, it’s important that Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore don’t get frustrated and take unnecessary yellow cards. The chances will continue to come, but it might take a while to find the breakthrough.
The end result for the USMNT matters much less in this game than the overall quality of play. There will be players in the starting XI who haven’t played competitive matches together before. This game represents a perfect opportunity to gain that familiarity, and for coaches to recognize quickly if certain combinations aren’t working. For example, if Timothy Chandler starts at right back, how quickly does he develop an understanding playing behind Graham Zusi or Alejandro Bedoya?
At minimum, it would be a disappointment if the U.S. fails to keep a clean sheet. This team also has the attacking talent to find the holes in the Azerbaijan defense. If the patience is there to find the first goal, the second and third ones should quickly follow.
Jurgen Klinsmann has proven himself unpredictable with his choices for the 23-man roster. Projecting a starting lineup in this match might be futile, but I’ll give it a whirl nonetheless. The goalkeeper and forwards are easy calls. The rest is anyone’s guess. Here’s mine:
GK: Tim Howard
D: Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley
M: Graham Zusi, Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Alejandro Bedoya
F: Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore
Johnson has been playing exclusively on defense during camp so far, mostly on the right side. That’s exactly where he played the latter portion of the Bundesliga season with Hoffenheim, so I see Klinsmann giving him a run out there. Omar Gonzalez may not have quite lost the starting CB job, but he’s also still not 100% recovered from a recent knee injury. Cameron’s been playing CB in camp and that’s where Klinsmann prefers him. I could easily see Bedoya on the right wing over Zusi; it’s close, but Bedoya’s greater versatility allows him to switch to the left. Kyle Beckerman has been impressive and looked great partnering with Bradley against Mexico, but remember that Jermaine Jones is part of Klinsmann’s so-called “spine.” I think Jones still gets the starting nod.
There may not be any broad conclusions to be drawn from the lineup choices to start this game. We’ll be able to tell a lot more when we see how those choices change next Sunday against Turkey.
The United States kicks off against Azerbaijan on Tuesday night, May 27, 10:00 ET, ESPN2, UniMas, WatchESPN.