Nine days from now, the United States men’s national team will open the World Cup against Ghana in Brazil. And in their final official warm-up game, on the last day before they travel down, they ticked off a number of boxes on their lengthy to-do list in a 2-1 win over Nigeria.
Striker Jozy Altidore, on whom so much could depend in the coming weeks, finally ended his scoring drought by scoring in the 31st and 68th minutes. He hadn’t scored for his club Sunderland since Dec. 4 in his disastrous first season there, and his last tally for the USA had come on Oct. 11 — a six-game scoreless stretch.
More momentum was built as the Americans took a third win from this three-game tune-up series, having previously vanquished Azerbaijan 2-0 on May 27 and Turkey 2-1 on June 1. The win itself, meanwhile, seems all the more significant since it came over another World Cup-bound opponent that plays much the same way as Ghana does. The Ghanaians, of course, bounced the USA from the last two World Cups. But the Americans will need a win this time around to retain any hope of advancing from a group that also contains world-beaters Germany and Portugal.
And they got through this entire send-off series without suffering any apparent injuries while getting in some valuable conditioning in a game blighted by the same kind of heat and humidity as the USA will face in Brazil.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard earned his 100th international cap and didn’t concede his first goal of the series until an 86th minute penalty (Brad Guzan filled in during the second half against Turkey, when their goal was scored).
“It just feels good that we’re playing good, that our hard work is paying off,” said captain Clint Dempsey. “It’s good in the send-off series to go in [to the World Cup] with that sharpness and feeling good and having that confidence from those three wins.
Before the game, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann had announced that in his futuristic view of the game, there was no room for formations anymore. It was a thing that would go away soon, he predicted. Too much was being about whether he deployed a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond or a 4-5-1; whether his strikers and central midfielders were lined up side-by-side or stacked one behind the other.
Certainly, his formation for the game seemed to adhere to no numerical order, as players moved freely between adjoining zones, defying definition. And with three midfielders in the lineup who are hardwired to defend before they attack – Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones and the more advanced Michael Bradley – the Americans made a tentative start to the game. That was more a function of the hot and humid circumstances, as well as Nigeria’s own reticence, as it was of their intentions, for they had planned on taking a more assertive approach than they did in their first two games in this send-off series. “You have to be patient with how you press, you can’t just go 100 miles an hour every team,” said Dempsey. “You have to do a better job of keeping possession and making the other team work.”
After 23 minutes the Americans broke through. A soft touch from Dempsey fed Michael Bradley the ball on the run. The defenders stood off him and he lashed a shot to the right of Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, who pushed it wide. On the subsequent corner, Alejandro Bedoya got his corner back after it was cleared and curled the ball just over the far top corner.
“It took us a while to get into the game because we couldn’t keep the ball the first 20-25 minutes long enough to play out situations,” Klinsmann explained. “Once we understood to make the field more wide, to stretch it, we looked better. We started then to have a better flow, better combinations.”
The first goal came soon enough. Jones dispatched the busy Bedoya down the right, who hit marauding right back Fabian Johnson in the box. He, in turn, squared it for Altidore who had an empty net in front of him and just a few yards to bridge. It was a slump-buster of a chance, and a welcome gift from the soccer gods after all his toil and all the talk during his scoring drought.
The Americans were effective at diffusing a flaccid Nigerian side but didn’t create another chance until twenty minutes into the second act. Dempsey laid off for Bradley and got the ball back as he loped into the box. Dempsey had Altidore wide open to his left but decided to cut past his man and try to beat Enyeama at his near side. The goalkeeper, however, saw through his trickery and saved.
He was beaten not long thereafter, when Bradley picked out Altidore with a perfectly-placed ball over the top. Altidore got inside of Joseph Yobo and whipped his finish past Enyeama at his near post. A few minutes later, substitute Graham Zusi sent in a teasing cross that nearly connected with Dempsey for a third, but it was cut out by the defense.
In the 86th minute, Nigeria got on the board when Matt Besler clipped Victor Moses in his own box after a series of defensive breakdowns. Moses converted his own penalty. It was the second game in a row that the Americans gave up a very late penalty.
Still, if this was the dress rehearsal for the World Cup — and the Yanks do have an unofficial closed-door scrimmage scheduled against Belgium on June 12 — they could be fairly satisfied with it. Overall, they looked sharper. While they were still a tad sloppy in the back and probably gave away too much on set pieces, their passing, movement and spacing were all a good deal improved.
“We’re getting ready,” Klinsmann said. “We see that the team is making real progress throughout the last 3 ½ weeks. We get more and more connected, there’s a better understanding. Step by step we’re getting there.”
“We’re as prepared as we’re going to be,” added Altidore. “It’s just a matter of now getting there, having the right mentality and leaving everything on the field.”
The growth curve from the first game against Azerbaijan, in which the Americans looked languid, has been steep. They seem to be nearing peak form. But when the World Cup pits them against such towering tasks, will it be enough?