Final USA 2, Nigeria 1:
"We -- want -- Ghana," the U.S. fans chanted in Jacksonville on Saturday, and as well they should after the U.S. finally put together a complete performance, downing Nigeria 2-1 behind two confidence-inspiring goals from striker Jozy Altidore.
"It felt fine," Altidore said, choosing team over individual accolades. "The biggest thing was for us to work out some things that we weren't sure about, trying some different things today." Altidore wouldn't take the bait when ESPN asked whether he felt any relief by scoring twice, instead opting to credit his teammates and the work they've collectively put in.
"I felt fine before, I feel fine now," he added, despite notching his first two national team goals since last October. Maybe he was being honest, or maybe he wasn't tipping his hand, but it's a moot point since Altidore finally looked like the striker of two years ago.
His first goal was set up from a precise one-two-three from Alejandro Bedoya to Fabian Johnson to Altidore, who buried the tap-in late in the first half. Whether he'd admit it or not, the tally seemed to boost his confidence as his subsequent runs and touches were far more aggressive than what we saw in the first two exhibition matches, both wins for the U.S.
The second half goal took much more effort, even if it was Michael Bradley's vision that ultimately set the play up. Altidore controlled a deep, lofted ball along the left side, cut back hard to his right, and drilled it past the Nigerian keeper. It proved to be the winning goal after the U.S. conceded a late penalty for the second-straight week late in the match.
Jurgen Klinsmann opted to start a different formation, a 4-2-3-1, with more of an emphasis on defense and on counter attacks. It figured that with Clint Dempsey in an attacking midfielder role, and Nigeria possessing the ball much like Ghana is expected to, Dempsey was more valuable on the transition attack instead of waiting up top for a pass. Indeed, that's exactly what happend as Bradley and Dempsey connected on about five combinations that each gave the U.S. a great chance to score. In reality, the U.S. probably should've won with a couple more goals, but with no more formal exhibitions, this is what the U.S. is taking to Brazil. A closed-door scrimmage is scheduled against Belgium once the team gets to Sao Paulo, but what comes of that match won't likely be known.
As for the defense, it looked significantly more reassured than in past exhibitions. Save for Besler's penalty, the defensive approach largely worked. The team seemed to tire towards the end as Nigeria continued to pepper Tim Howard, but overall, the defensive line of Beasley, Besler, Cameron and Johnson proved strong. If midfielders Bradley and Jermaine Jones play with the defensive effort we saw today, it should lessen the tension on the World Cup newcomers.
Overall, this was easily the best the U.S. has looked, and it came against the most talented of the three "send-off" teams, even if Nigeria didn't play well. Saturday's match was scheduled specifically to mimic what's expected from Ghana on June 16th. Klinsmann has called that game a must-win, and with the effort we saw today, the team should be optimistic it can do just that.
88' -- Wondolowski in for Dempsey, and it's just a matter of whether the U.S. can hang on, although it doesn't much matter in the grand scheme of things. The U.S. squad, in its current form, is headed to Brazil. And it can definitely be proud of the showing today.
86' -- GOAL! Nigeria takes advantage of a late recovery from the defense as Matt Besler gets called for a penalty in the box. 2-1, USA. Definitely the correct call, and just like last week, a late penalty to spoil (a bit) the result.
84' -- Howard hasn't been tested much, but he's stepped up when needed. He stuffed a close-range shot from Nigeria to maintain the clean sheet. The last thing the team needs is another late-goal like last Sunday.
79' -- Out comes your player of the day, Jozy Altidore, and in comes Omar Gonzalez. ESPN astutely notes that Klinsmann wanted the 45K crowd to give Altidore an ovation. Good move, Klinsi.
Is Jozy back? It looks like Jozy is back.
75' -- Fine, fine. I was wrong. DaMarcus Beasley (and his veteran legs) are out for Timmy Chandler. The U.S. is in firm control, but are still attacking like they want a third goal.
72' -- Mix Diskerud in, Beckerman out. That could be the last sub we see, although Klinsmann might opt to take some regulars out in an effort to save them from any freak injuries.
That's the sort of goal that has eluded Altidore. Nothing fluky about that one. He absolutely blasted that in rhythm -- a shot he might not have taken last week. Furthermore, his chest trap off Bradley's lob was flawless. Great, great sequence.
68' -- GOAL!! Altidore again. (I believe I called that). Bradley lofted a perfect pass to Altidore along the left flank, played a perfect touch, cut back and buried it with his right foot. That's a much, much more impressive goal than his first one. Did I mention I called it? 2-0 USA.
67' -- A bad corner kick from Graham Zusi spoiled another second half chance, but you get the sense that another goal is coming soon. The U.S. look fit, while Nigeria seems to be tiring.
65' -- Stop me if you've heard this today. Bradley with a perfect through-ball to Dempsey in space, who cut back, beat a defender and was one outstanding save away from a gorgeous goal. Tough break, but extremely encouraging.
59' -- Clint Dempsey was down after a tough knee-to-knee challenge, but he appears OK. Crisis averted. Graham Zusi on for Alejandro Bedoya, as we predicted. Zusi's precise crosses are probably the best on the entire team.
Exactly what I've been getting at.
If the U.S. plays three matches this uneventful in Brazil, we'll be in the knockout stages.— Andy Glockner (@AndyGlockner) June 7, 2014
55' -- Another wonderful combination from Dempsey and Bradley led to a dangerous shot from the 18 for Bradley. There's no denying that Dempsey has been more involved from an attacking midfield position than he has when he starts up top, and the whole offense seems to have benefitted. If Bradley plays more defensive, it's on Dempsey to carry the ball up the field -- something he's done extremely well today.
50' -- Matt Besler with a bad giveaway in the box, but the defense manages to clear it. This is your starting backline, for better or for worse.
Klinsmann pleased with first-half effort:
"We like it, we like it a lot. I think we didn't let them create anything, besides maybe a corner kick. It looks really good," he told Jeremy Schaap.
"I think the last 20 minutes were excellent. We speeded it up and we found the outside positions going forward, and that can create some chances."
Klinsmann opted not to sub anyone, although he wouldn't say if today's starting XI would be the same starting XI against Ghana. (For the record, I'd hazard a guess that they will).
Altidore's goal: We've mentioned it, but haven't shown it yet. Apologies.
Half time notes: It wasn't the prettiest or most exciting half of soccer for the U.S., but exciting isn't what Klinsmann needs to see from his squad nine days ahead of the World Cup. He needs consistency, which is what the U.S. gave him in the first half against Nigeria.
With a more defensive approach (see Michael Bradley dropping back and the inclusion of Kyle Beckerman in the starting lineup), the U.S. took what it was given from Nigeria. They were content to let Nigeria build from the back, working its way up the field, before a misstep could give the Americans a chance to counter. The three or four opportunities for the U.S. came off transition, where Bradley thrived as the play-maker and Clint Dempsey was involved as a distributor.
Altidore finally capitalized on what amounted to an easy goal after Jermaine Jones played the ball to Dempsey in the corner, who found a sprinting Fabian Johnson towards the near post. Johnson tapped the ball across the goal face where Altidore scored an easy, albeit very necessary goal. He missed a couple one-on-one opportunities last Sunday against Turkey, but that's the kind of goal that can get a striker feeling confident.
The defense has given up a number of corner kicks, which nearly cost the U.S. a late goal. Set pieces, specifically corner kicks, can expose lack of chemistry and communication. As long as the U.S. continues to follow Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler's instructions from the back, the backline will continue to gel. This cominbation -- Johnson, Cameron, Besler and Beasley -- looks like the team's best option going into the World Cup.
44' -- The U.S. avoids a Nigerian goal after some bad defensive marking on a late corner kick. Tim Howard swallowed up the header, which came from Clint Dempsey's man.
42' -- This first half, sluggish as it seemed at times, was the best the U.S. has looked in qualifying. The Super Eagles are a quality opponent, and the less fireworks the better. For the most part, the first forty-odd minutes have been clean, even if Nigeria has owned possession. The U.S., for its part, has won the transition game.
33' -- It must be said that Dempsey earned a hockey assist on that Altidore goal after feeding Johnson along the goal line. Dempsey's been involved in nearly every offensive sequence today, and Klinsmann would be wise to keep him there when the team heads to Brazil.
31' -- GOAL!! Altidore! His goal-less drought is over after a beautiful pass from Fabian Johnson covered the goal face before Altidore knocked it in. His last goal for the USMNT came in October. Monkey. Off. Back.
24' -- Finally, Bradley rips a low-driving shot from outside the 18, apparently tired of seeing his offensive efforts going to waste. It earned a corner that yielded little. Still, easily the best chance the U.S. has had today.
22' -- Another successful transition opportunity is thwarted after a bad giveaway from Altidore. Thus far, Nigeria is owning the vast majority of the possession, and the U.S. has been pressed defensively. Michael Bradley has far-and-away been the team's best player (not really a surprise).
17' -- Nigeria earns back-to-back corners after and errant clearance from Matt Besler. Howard bails his defense out again, deflecting a bouncing header out of bounds but Nigeria is called for an offsides. U.S. bending (slightly) but not breaking. A few promising offensive chances have been spoiled, including one from a bad pass from Beckerman.
12' -- Nigeria's keeping good possession of the ball, and both teams are continuing to feel each other out. Not many chances either way, but given how hot it is, play was expected to be a bit slower. The U.S. formation appears very defensive oriented.
6' -- Klinsmann's employing a 4-2-3-1 formation with Altidore up top and Dempsey playing as an attacking midfielder. We'd previously seen a 4-4-2 diamond approach from the U.S., but Klinsmann's new formation is geared toward owning possession in the midfield. Thus far, Nigeria has twice penetrated deep into their attacking third but the backline has bailed out Howard.
6:04 p.m. ET: Tim Howard will earn his 100 CAP for the U.S. this evening. He drew some pre-game applause from both his teammates and the fans. ... And, we're off against Nigeria, under 82 degree heat in Jacksonville.
5:50 p.m. ET: Good point, here. Klinsmann not left with a ton of wiggle room at center mid.
Crazy thing about this lineup: 4 guys (Bckerman, Bradley, Jones, Cameron) best position is deep-central midfield. No subs left for that role— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) June 7, 2014
5:40 p.m. ET: Here's your starting XI --
Of note is that Kyle Beckerman is starting in the midfield instead of Graham Zusi. This could be what we see in Brazil, or it could be Klinsmann not wanting to tip his hand either way. The latter should come on as a sub in today's affair. Also, Alejandro Bedoya appears to have the edge over Brad Davis at left midfielder, a position that's clearly not cemented yet.
Match preview: Jurgen Klinsmann scheduled Saturday's friendly against Nigeria with one eye towards the U.S.'s first match in Brazil – Ghana on June 16th. Both play fast and incorporate a strong attacking midfield, exactly the type of offense the U.S.'s backline needs to see just 10 days away from their opener.
The U.S. showed significant progress, especially on offense, from their first match against Azerbaijan to their second against Turkey last Sunday. With improvement in mind, the two keys to Saturday's game – regardless of result – are that the team needs to maintain its offensive fluidity as it did en route to two goals and numerous chances against Turkey, but more importantly, its need to see cohesion in the back.
Part of that inconsistency has to do with Klinsmann's lineup tinkering (DeMarcus Beasley, the likely starting left back in Brazil, didn't play vs. Turkey), but also, the two center backs Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron simply aren't familiar with one another. Fabian Johnson at right back is the other variable in this equation, while Klinsmann still needs to settle on a left midfielder. It doesn't help the defense that the team's 4-4-2-diamond approach mandates that Michael Bradley facilitate offensive sets, more so than contribute on defense. Either way, Saturday is about marking in transition, marking on set pieces and showing Tim Howard that he has a reliable defense in front of him.
U.S. fans have also been up in arms over Jozy Altidore's lack of goals (he hasn't scored for the national team since last October), but recognize that his holdup play is on an elite level. He's strong enough to maintain possession, and then dump it off to a cutting midfielder or chip to another forward like Clint Dempsey. Maybe Altidore's biggest contribution will be as a decoy, but he wasn't useless by any stretch despite missing a few chances vs. Turkey.
Keep in mind that this is also Nigeria's final tune-up before battling Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iran in Group F. They want this game as badly as the U.S. does, meaning that Saturday's exhibition from Jacksonville should be extremely revealing. We'll be with you throughout. Enjoy.