Michael Bradley is the United States' best and most creative player. He's great on the ball, he's an excellent passer, he's exceptionally fit and he works hard defensively. Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to move him up the pitch and build a team around him makes sense.
But the 4-4-2 diamond with Bradley at the tip of midfield didn't work nearly as well against Azerbaijan as it did against Mexico in an April friendly. The team never clicked, and they struggled to create clear scoring chances against a team that they probably should have defeated comfortably.
The biggest difference between the side that drew Mexico in April and the team that played Tuesday night was the absence of Clint Dempsey. When played as a forward alongside a more traditional striker, Dempsey sits higher than he will in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but still likes to drop deep to find the ball and can pick out a pass to someone making a run into the box. Dempsey was scheduled to start this match, but was pulled as a precaution due to a minor groin problem and was replaced by Chris Wondolowski, a completely different kind of player.
With Wondolowski and Jozy Altidore up top, the USMNT attack lacked creativity and balance. With a poacher and a target forward, all of the creative and dirty work was left to Bradley, while no questions were asked of the Azerbaijan defenders as they defended against two extremely similar players. Wondolowski couldn't finish the chances he got and Altidore looked a lot more like the player who couldn't get a game at Sunderland than the one who dominated in a USMNT shirt in 2013.
There was also a big difference between Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman at the base of the diamond, but that move was understandable. Beckerman is the much better passer of the two and is excellent at keeping the ball, but his lack of pace would probably be a serious problem against the United States' World Cup opponents, Ghana, Germany and Portugal. The diamond midfield is also functionally narrower than the midfield in a regular 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 formation, so the fullbacks have to get forward to provide width. If the U.S. gets caught on the counter with a fullback up the pitch, they'd rather have Jones back to attempt to cover for him than Beckerman.
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Still, Jones is no passer and the absence of passers in the team showed. Building a team around Bradley and his skills is a good idea, but putting him in a position where he's the only creator on the pitch is a bad idea. The U.S. had almost no good chances from open play before they started making substitutions.
It's worth noting, however, that the teams the United States will face in the World Cup will play nothing like Azerbaijan, who played with 10 or 11 men behind the ball for most of the match. Against better opponents who win the possession battle and leave space to counter into, this setup might look a lot better.
Tuesday's game was scheduled because Klinsmann is friends with Azerbaijan manager Berti Vogts and wanted an easier opponent to kick off the USMNT's slate of warm-up friendlies. The upside of that decision is a possible confidence-building win, but the downside is that it did nothing to prepare them for what they're going to see in the World Cup.
Because Azerbaijan's style of play and quality don't resemble any of the United States' World Cup opponents, Klinsmann's new tactics get a grade of incomplete. But there's cause for concern, and we should know a lot more after Sunday's match against Turkey.