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May 27, 2014

Klinsmann hopes to find U.S. lineup answers in Azerbaijan friendly

As the first of three official World Cup tuneup matches scheduled for the Brazil-bound U.S. squad, Tuesday's friendly against Azerbaijan (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN) at San Francisco's venerable Candlestick Park was expected to be perhaps the last audition for bubble players hoping to convince coach Jurgen Klinsmann of their worthiness for the final 23-man roster.

That was then.

Klinsmann surprised everybody -- including his players -- by naming the team last week, five days before the send-off series opener. In the process, he also made what was a relatively low profile match significantly more interesting.

With the roster now set, the focus turns to the lineup.

During Monday's prematch news conference, the coach indicated that Tuesday's XI could closely resemble the one that starts the Yanks' group of death opener June 16 against Ghana.

In typical Klinsmann fashion, though, he also said that, with six subs available, the match provides a chance to tinker. "We'll definitely experiment here. We want to give the guys as much playing time as we can," Klinsmann said. "We also want to already see a flow in our game with the lineup that is in our eyes very strong and kind of very close to the one we'll see in three weeks down the road.

"We try to kind of fit both. But it's not easy."

The back line, in particular, remains in flux.

Klinsmann said the stateside friendlies -- which include games against Turkey (June 2 in Harrison, New Jersey) and Nigeria (June 7 in Jacksonville, Florida) -- will provide the opportunity to see different combinations before settling on a preferred four for the main event.

"Hopefully once we're in Brazil," Klinsmann said, "we'll have that back line doing well and being consistent and not changing too many things."

For now, though, a few spots are still at stake.

What will we see Tuesday? What will the coach be looking for? Here are three things to watch:

Who will play, and where?

If Monday's open practice was any indication, Klinsmann will field close to his strongest team, at least in the first half. According to ESPN FC's Jeff Carlisle, the group that trained together at Candlestick included Tim Howard, DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya, Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi and Jozy Altidore.

Of particular interest is where some of the wide players lined up. Bedoya, who split time with Zusi on the right side of the midfield during qualifying, was opposite the Sporting Kansas City man on the left, according to Carlisle.

Johnson, who has played predominantly on the left side for the U.S., was at right back, the position he trained at during camp and the spot he manned most of last season for Bundesliga club Hoffenheim.

Look for Klinsmann to use his full allotment of subs in the second half, with midfielders Brad Davis and perhaps Julian Green getting time on the flanks. Timmy Chandler also figures to see action after the break, perhaps for left back Beasley.

What formation will Klinsmann use?

The Yanks preferred a 4-2-3-1 through most of qualifying, but the coach went with a 4-4-2 in last month's 2-2 tie against Mexico. The U.S. wilted in the second half against El Tri, but expect them to stick with the same look versus Azerbaijan. The more aggressive setup, which features Michael Bradley at the top of a midfield diamond, could be part of the Americans' strategy to go all-out in the Cup opener against Ghana -- a match Klinsmann has identified as a must-win ever since December's draw. Look for a more tactical approach if the Yanks are leading in the second half, especially if fitness becomes an issue late. Which leads us to ask ...

Will the hosts have legs?

Rarely is the first game following a fitness-heavy training camp pretty. Four years ago, the Americans dropped the corresponding match 4-2 to the Czech Republic. In 2006, they were held scoreless in a loss to Morocco. The Yanks did manage a tie in 2002 -- against the minor league Richmond Kickers.

So don't count on a polished performance, part of the reason U.S. Soccer wanted to play Azerbaijan -- 85th in the FIFA's latest world ranking -- first.

Reporting from ESPN FC senior writer Jeff Carlisle contributed to this story.

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