The U.S. closed out its series of World Cup warm up matches in the best possible fashion: undefeated, and with Jozy Altidore, who had not scored since 2013, scoring a brace. Nigeria pulled back one via another late penalty, but the U.S. left Jacksonville happy.
The U.S. trotted out a starting lineup that coach Jurgen Klinsmann hadn’t been explicit in saying was not his starting lineup for the opening game against Ghana. However, it was a very familiar set of names. Tim Howard in goal, making his 100th appearance for the U.S.; Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, and DaMarcus Beasley across the back; Beckerman partnered with Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley in a return to a three in midfield, but with Bradley at the attacking point; and Clint Dempsey and Alejandro Bedoya supporting Altidore from wide.
After giving up too many chances against Turkey, the return to the 4-3-3 was meant to solidify the U.S. while still allowing for speed on the counterattack. It worked to a tee. Nigeria had most of the ball in the early stages, but with Beckerman sitting deep in front of the U.S. defense, there were no holes to exploit, and the U.S. broke at pace after turnovers. The final ball never quite materialized, however. Nigeria managed a single shot on target in the first 20 minutes, but from well outside the box, and Howard held it easily.
In the 23rd minute, the U.S. nearly put it all together, with a good break leading to a Bradley shot that was tipped around the bar by the keeper. Dempsey was disappointed not to receive the ball in space in front of goal, but it was a good opportunity. It was only the warm-up, however, as in the 31st minute, Altidore’s long scoreless streak would be broken and the U.S. would pull ahead. Building from the back, Jones found himself high and right, and fed Bedoya in the corner. Bedoya cut back and passed to Johnson on the overlap into the box. His centering pass beat the defense and the keeper, and gave Altidore the simplest of tap-ins. Just what the doctor ordered.
The U.S. was vitalized by the goal, and started looking more consistently dangerous, getting into better positions and playing better balls on the break. Nigeria, too, found a higher gear late in the half, troubling Howard with a shot and a header off a corner, but the U.S. centurion was up to the challenge.
Klinsmann made no changes at the half. And the U.S. came out with a similar attacking verve, looking dangerous on every break-out attempt. Howard, in particular, did an excellent job of starting the U.S. counterattack every time he collected a ball. By the time the parade of substitutions began, around the hour mark, the game had settled. The U.S. held the ball more comfortably, and Nigeria seemed a bit out of ideas against the organized U.S. defense.
In the 65th minute, Dempsey nearly doubled the U.S. advantage. Taking a deft pass from Bradley up the gut from the right, Dempsey cut onto his left foot in the Nigeria box. With Altidore open for another tap-in, Dempsey chose instead to shoot. It was a reasonable choice, but his shot was well saved.
In the 68th minute, the Altidore comeback would be complete and the U.S. would get their second goal. Michael Bradley found himself on the ball in the very center of the center circle, and immediately pinged a ball high left to Altidore. Altidore took the ball down easily, then cut past his defender into the box and laced a near-post rocket past the helpless keeper. For those that have watched Altidore struggle for months, it was a reminder of how prodigious a talent he is when on form.
In the final ten minutes, with the game decided, Nigeria had a handful of chances. In the 83rd minute, a non-call on a foul and miscommunication between Besler and the recently introduced Omar Gonzalez led to Nigeria having a free shot from just inside the 18, which Howard did well to get down and save. Then, in the 85th minute, following a good U.S. attack that saw a Mix Diskerud shot saved, Nigeria broke the other way. Victor Moses found himself on the ball in the box with Besler trailing behind. Besler, trying to make the saving tackle, got man before ball and gave up the penalty, which Moses duly put away, ruining Howard’s clean sheet.
The goal enlivened Nigeria for a time, but the U.S. settled down and finished the game looking more like extending their lead rather than giving up another.
A complete performance: The U.S. picked the right time to put together it’s best performance in a long time. From front to back to front again, the entire team performed well. The defense was assured, and the attack could have scored more than it did. In fact, if there’s one reservation about the game, it’s that the U.S. only scored twice.
Looked like the starting 11 from here: While Klinsmann has emphasized that this will not be the starting 11 against Ghana on June 16, it sure looked like close to the best the U.S. can put out. Perhaps Zusi for Bedoya? It’s not clear where the U.S. could improve.
KB + JJ + MB = Success: Were Landon Donovan still with the team, it’s hard to imagine seeing Beckerman, Jones, and Bradley in midfield together. But putting Beckerman at the base allowed Jones and especially Bradley the freedom to push forward and get involved in the offense. Bradley was a menace in that role all game long.
Fitness freaks: The game was played in heat and humidity that approximates the worst of what the U.S. may face in Brazil, but the U.S. team looked fit and fresh for the whole game. Bradley was making 50-yard recovery runs as late as the 80th minute. That fitness level will stand the U.S. in good stead during the tournament.
The U.S. is peaking at the right time. There are still questions about the second string defense, with Gonzalez and and Chandler looking decidedly substitute level behind Cameron and Beasley, whose performance was perhaps the best he’s ever had at left back, both defensively and going forward. But if the first 11 performs to this level against Ghana, Portugal, and Germany, it stands a good chance of making it out of its group.
U.S. Men’s National Team vs. Nigeria
Date: June 7, 2014
Competition: International Friendly
Venue: EverBank Field; Jacksonville, Florida
Kickoff: 6 p.m. ET
Weather: 83 degrees, overcast
Scoring Summary (1 2 F)
USA: 1 1 2
NGA: 0 1 1
USA – Jozy Altidore (Fabian Johnson) 31st minute
USA – Jozy Altidore (Michael Bradley) 68′
NGA – Victor Moses (penalty kick) 86′
1-Tim Howard; 23-Fabian Johnson, 5-Matt Besler, 20-Geoff Cameron, 7-DaMarcus Beasley (21-Timmy Chandler, 75); 11-Alejandro Bedoya (19-Graham Zusi, 60), 15-Kyle Beckerman (10-Mix Diskerud, 72), 13-Jermaine Jones, 4-Michael Bradley; 8-Clint Dempsey (capt.) (18-Chris Wondolowski, 87), 17-Jozy Altidore (3-Omar Gonzalez, 80)
Subs Not Used: 2-DeAndre Yedlin, 6-John Brooks, 9-Aron Johannsson, 12-Brad Guzan, 14-Brad Davis, 16-Julian Green, 22-Nick Rimando
Head coach: Jurgen Klinsmann
1-Vincent Enyeama; 2-Joseph Yobo (capt.), 5-Eric Efe Ambrose, 13-Juwon Oshaniwa, 14-Godfrey Oboabona; 10-John Obi Mikel (4-Ruben Gabriel, 46), 15-Ramon Azeez (25-Michael Uchebo, 74), 17- Ogenyi Onazi; 8-Peter Osaze Odemwingie (18-Michael Babatunde, 46), 11-Victor Moses, 23-Shola Ameobi (9-Emmanuel Emenike, 64)
Subs Not Used: 3-Elderson Echiejile, 6-Azubuike Emmanuel Egweukwe, 7-Musa Ahmed, 12-Kunle Odunlami, 16-Austine Ejide, 19-Uche Nwofor, 21-Agbim Chigozie, 22-Kenneth Omeruo
Head Coach: Stephen Keshi
Stats Summary: USA / NGA
Shots: 11 / 7
Shots on Goal: 6 / 5
Saves: 4 / 4
Corner Kicks: 6 / 10
Fouls: 12 / 9
Offside: 0 / 4
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (ENG)
Assistant Referee 1: Simon Beck (ENG)
Assistant Referee 2: Simon Bennett (ENG)
4th Official: Andre Mariner (ENG)